What product managers can learn about Design Systems

What makes a good product? What makes a well designed product? A few years ago, I learned about design principles and how principles such as “not getting in the way (of the user)” and “content first” can drive product design. Imagine my initial confusion and intrigue, as a non-designer, when I first heard about a “design system”. Chris Messina – former designer at Uber – has come up with a useful definition of what a design system is:

 

“Design systems provide a convenient, centralized, and evolving map of a brand’s known product territories with directional pointers to help you explore new regions.”

 

Later, Messina went on to add that “Design never was just how it looks, but now it’s also how it sounds, how it speaks, and where it can go.” Apart from capturing how brand and product communicate, look and feel, a design system is also a critical component when it comes to scale. Just take this statement by Vikram Babu – product designer at Gigster – for example:

 

“The problem facing design today isn’t a shortage of skills or talent but that design doesn’t scale when you move from a few screens of designed components to a platform of developed patterns where adding people only complicates the problem… hence design systems.” 

 

The key thing I learned about the value of design systems is that they intend to go beyond just a collection of design elements. Typically, companies will have a style guide. However, more often than not these style guides contain a bunch of design elements or patterns, but not create a fully comprehensive design language or tone of voice, as Nathan Curtis – owner of the EightShapes design firm – explains:

 

“A style guide is an artefact of the design process. A design system is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving an ecosystem.” 

 

This raises the question how one goes about creating a design system. Some things that I’ve learned in this respect:

Before you get started

  1. What’s your company vision look like? And is mission?
  2. Which problem is your company looking to solve and why? For whom?
  3. What are the company values which underpin your company culture, product and service?
  4. What problem(s) are we trying to solve through the design system? Why?
  5. What’s the desired impact we expect the design system to have on the way we work?

Getting started

  1. What does the current design and design look like? What works and what doesn’t? Identify the gaps.
  2. Define some underlying design principles, which underpin a fluid and developing ‘design ecosystem’ (see Airbnb as a good example; Fig. 1 below).
  3. Create a visual design language, which comprises a number of distinct but ever evolving components (I loved Adobe’s Nate Baldwin breakdown of some of these components; see Fig. 2 below). Common components of a visual design language are: colour, typography, iconography, imagery, illustrations, sizing and spacing.
  4. Create a User Interface and pattern library.
  5. Document what each component is and how to use it.

 

Fig. 1 – Airbnb design principles – Taken from: https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/

  • Unified: Each piece is part of a greater whole and should contribute positively to the system at scale. There should be no isolated features or outliers.
  • Universal: Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
  • Iconic: We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
  • Conversational: Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.

 

Fig. 2 – The foundation of creating a Visual Design Language by Nate Baldwin – Taken from: https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793

  • Clearly defined semantics (and no, “error”, “warning”, “success”, and “info” aren’t nearly enough)
  • Thorough and mature mapping of core elements of design with clear purposes and meanings
  • A solid family of UI components and patterns that effectively support the semantics, and use design elements (based on theirmeanings) to support the meaning of the components
  • Thorough, comprehensive documentation about the visual communication system

 

To make this a bit more concrete, I’ll look at three good examples of design systems, by Google, Bulb and Salesforce.

 

Google Material Design

 

 

Bulb

 

 

Salesforce Lightning Design System

 

 

 

Main learning point: It’s important for product managers to understand what a Design System is and the purposes it serves. Even if you’re not directly involved in creating or applying a Design System, it’s key to understand your company’s design language and how it applies to your product.

 

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://bulb.co.uk/blog/introducing-bulbs-design-system
  2. http://design.bulb.co.uk/#/patterns/styles/colors/README.md
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/90160960/the-design-theory-behind-amazons-5-6-billion-success
  4. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/guide-to-design-systems/
  5. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/scale-design-systems/
  6. https://medium.muz.li/how-to-create-a-style-guide-from-scratch-tips-and-tricks-e00f25b423bf
  7. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/secrets-design-leadership/
  8. https://www.lightningdesignsystem.com/
  9. https://www.uxpin.com/create-design-system-guide
  10. https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-build-a-design-system-with-a-small-team-53a3276d44ac
  11. https://www.uxpin.com/studio/ebooks/create-design-system-guide-checklist/
  12. https://blog.prototypr.io/design-system-ac88c6740f53
  13. https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793
  14. https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/
  15. https://material.io/design/

Is it Time for a Licence to Practise Product Management?

This article was first published on https://www.mindtheproduct.com/ on August 14, 2018

I recently came across a piece by Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, titled Design’s Lost Generation, in which he makes the case that designers should require a licence to do their job.

Mike got me thinking; should product managers also require a licence do their job? After all, we’re a sizeable professional community and having a product management certification or licence in place would ensure that all product managers comply with the same standards.

But is it even possible to standardise product management, and in any case would this be desirable?

The Case For Licensing and Certification

I started my working life as a corporate lawyer in The Netherlands, so I had to obtain a professional licence to do this job. Looking back on both my legal and my product management careers, and studying common product management challenges, I can see there are a number of reasons in favour of licensing and certification:

  • Seal of Approval — Your company’s product is likely to be in good hands if it’s being managed by a licensed product manager.
  • Recruiting Product Managers — You only recruit product managers with a licence and the appropriate certification.
  • Quality Control — Increased consistency of quality and professionalism among product managers, since they’ve all studied the same content and standards.
  • Increased Accountability — If product managers act unethically, their licences can be revoked.
  • Broader Understanding and Recognition of What Product Managers do — Similar to government and industry bodies, if there were a single product management licence or code of conduct, it would help gain a wider understanding of the product manager role.
  • Ruling out Unethical Products and Behaviours — By codifying an agreed list of behaviours and standards that all product managers are expected to comply with. This can be outlined further in the right level of product management certification.
  • Keeping on top of Latest Trends, Approaches and Standards — A product manager could only have their licence renewed after obtaining relevant professional certificates or demonstrating compliance with set standards.

So I can see where people like Mike Monteiro are coming from; licensing would keep the (ethical) quality of products high and eradicate unethical products or behaviours. Professional certificates could be used as a way to continuously educate product managers about professional and ethical standards.

Why I’m not Convinced

However, from my experience as both a lawyer and a product manager, I believe that licensing isn’t the Holy Grail for either product managers or the companies they work for. This is why:

  • Product management isn’t yet a standardised discipline — The legal profession is well established, and deeply rooted in legal systems that are centuries old. There are serious consequences for people who don’t abide by the law. In contrast, the craft of product management is still developing. There isn’t a set way to practise product management, and it’s much more about a mindset.
  • Killing off creativity and diversity — By certifying and licensing we would create a significant barrier to entry into product management. One of the things I love is the diversity of background of most product managers. These different prior experiences add distinct flavours to someone’s approach to building and managing products.
  • No bulletproof safeguard — Even if we were to go down the route of licensing and certification, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that unethical products would automatically be a thing of the past. There are plenty of questionable lawyers with shady practices out there!

In short, I don’t believe that a licence and certificate based on set standards or requirements for all product managers is desirable, or even viable, at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we look at two alternative steps that will help us move towards solving the problems that licensing looks to address: a manifesto and certification.

What can be Done Instead — Manifesto and Certification

Similar to the original Agile Manifesto, I’d love for a group of product management thought leaders to get together and devise a “Product Management Manifesto” which stipulates the basic standards that we should adhere to.

While not being as “strict” as a universal product management licence, the manifesto and the principles it contains would heavily influence a product manager’s day-to-day approach and decision making.

One way to treat such a manifesto as a living and actionable document is by creating certificates which enable Product Managers to continuously learn about the core principles stipulated in the manifesto. There could, for instance, be certificates that cover “appropriate usage of customer data” or “continuous iteration”.

I guess the challenge with these kinds of certificates is to not make them too restrictive, as that would create the risk of removing the creative and innovative elements from product management. Equally, the certification content would have to move “with the times”, constantly adapting to evolving societal needs and circumstances.

Too Early?

I think it’s too early to look at a single, industry-wide licence that all product managers should comply with. Product management is still in its infancy, and a licence or code of conduct would create more confusion than good at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we start thinking about a Product Management Manifesto, outlining core principles to strive for in everything we do as product managers. This will in turn drive associated certification.

Given that product managers are rapidly growing in numbers and that our discipline is gaining broader appeal, I think it’s time to start a serious discussion about moving this idea forward.

The Agile Manifesto was conceived in a ski lodge, but before I start to look for somewhere similarly cold and inaccessible for a meeting, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the Product Management Manifesto and what should be in it. Let’s get started!

App review: Forest

My quick summary of Forest before using the app – I think I first heard Nir Eyal, who specialised in consumer psychology, talk about Forest. Given that Nir mentioned the app, I can imagine Forest impacts people behaviour, helping them achieve specific outcomes.

How does Forest explain itself in the first minute? – “Stay focused, be presented” is Forest’s strap line which I see first. This strap line is followed swiftly followed by a screen that says “Plant a Tree” and explains that “Whenever you want to focus on your work, plant trees.” This suggest to me that Forest is an app which aims to help people focus on their work and eradicate all kinds of distractions.

How does Forest work? – The app first explains its purpose in a number of nicely designed explanatory screens.

After clicking “Go”, I land on a screen where I can adjust time; presumably the time during which I want to focus and avoid any interruptions.

I set the time at 10 minutes and click “Plant”. I love how, as the time progresses, the messages at the top of the screen keep alternating, from “Don’t look at me!” to “Don’t look at me!” to “Hang in there!” Nice messages to help keep me focus and not fall prey to checking my phone. At any stage, I can opt to “Give up” which presumably means that the tree that I’ve been planting – through staying focused – will be killed.

I’m motivated to see this through and plant my first tree. When I complete my 10 minutes of uninterrupted time, I expect to see a nice tree right at the end of it. Try and imagine my disappointment when I don’t see a tree but instead am encouraged to create a Forest acount

Did Forest deliver on my expectations? – I can see how Forest helps people to focus and avoid checking their phone constantly. Just want to explore the gamification element of the app a bit more.

Book review: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”

You might have come across “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Patrick Lencioni, a consultant and speaker, wrote this seminal business book back in 2002. In this book, Lencioni identified the common root causes behind teams and companies underperforming:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust:

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict:

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment:

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability:

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results:

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Fig. 1 – Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions

 

I recently read Lencioni’s followup book to “The Five Dysfunctions”;  “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is all about how to best solve common team dysfunctions. There a number of things one can do to overcome the different team dysfunctions that Lencioni identified all those years ago:

1. Building trust

Lencioni stresses the importance of trust: “no quality or characteristic is more important than trust.” Trust and vulnerability are closely interlinked, as Lencioni explains. Vulnerability-based trust comes from people not being afraid to admit the truth about themselves.

People being open and honest with themselves and each other, instead of wasting time and energy on politics. Building up this level of trust is by no means an easy feat or one off exercise. In contrast, it’s best to start small – with The Personal Histories Exercise, for example and continue maintaining trust.

Fig. 2 –  Patrick Lencioni’s “The Personal Histories Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf

2. Mastering conflict

Mastering conflict comes back to vulnerability-base trust, according to Lencioni. He explains that “When people who don’t trust one another engage in debate, they’re trying to win the argument.” In contrast, when vulnerability-based trust exist, team members say everything to each other that needs to be said and things don’t need to be discussed further behind closed doors.

Let’s make no mistake about it; conflict is supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable. Lencioni explains that if team members “never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it’s extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.”

Conflict Profiling is a great way to understand where you and your colleagues sit on the Conflict Continuum (see Fig. 3 below). What’s your appetite for healthy conflict? How does your appetite compare to Joe or Kathy’s on the team? Once you’ve figured out the different conflict profiles on the team and understand the differences, the best thing is to just talk about it within the team.

For example, what to me might feel like a good discussion, might to you feel like we’re butting heads … Once we understand our individual conflict profiles, we’re in a much better position to talk about how we best have a constructive discussion. One could, for example, agree that when we ask what might sound like difficult questions, these questions aren’t meant as personal attacks. Instead, these questions are only being asked because we want the best for the team, the business or the product.

Fig. 3 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Conflict Continuum” – Taken from: http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/

3. Achieving commitment

The next dysfunction to overcome is the lack of commitment by team members. Lencioni makes the point that “commitment is not consensus.” There seems to be this misconception that everybody needs to agree intellectually on a decision, and that you’re bound for failure if you don’t … Lencioni argues the opposite: “Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration.”

 

 

I totally agree with Lencioni’s points about most meetings being boring due to a lack of conflict. As counterintuitive as this may sound, I think we can all think of at least one regular meeting where we all just turn up and go through the mentions. However, meetings don’t have to be dull and unproductive.

In the words of Lencioni: “Team members can indeed become engaged in a meeting, but only when there is something at stake, a conflict worth caring about.” There is an important role for team leaders here, since they’re in great position to give team members a reason to care at the beginning of a discussion or a meeting.

In contrast, commitment is about “Buy-In”, defying a lack of consensus. It’s about getting a group of individuals to buy into a decision especially when they don’t naturally agree. Lencioni identifies two critical steps to achieve buy-in for a decision:

  1. Extract and explore team ideas – Good leaders drive team commitment by first extracting every possible, idea, opinion and perspective from the team. This is why I believe that good product leaders and managers need to be able to facilitate these open ended conversations or brainstorming sessions, especially since product people need to be able to influence without authority.
  2. Stick your neck out and decide – Once you’re comfortable that all options and perspectives have been explored, then the team leader needs to step up and make a decision. I know from experience that this is easier said than done, because our instinct is to try and get everybody to be happy about your decision. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll please everyone with your decision and that’s fine, as long as you explain the decision and why you made it – especially to those people with an opposite view. Lencioni refers to this process as “disagree and commit” and suggests the “Commitment Clarification” exercise to ensure that everyone in the team is clear about what exactly has been decided in the meeting or conversation (see Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 4 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Commitment Clarification” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf

4. Embracing accountability

Are you prepared to “enter the danger”? It’s the key question that comes out of Lencioni’s chapter about embracing accountability. Lencioni defines accountability as “the willingness of team members to remind one another when they aren’t living up to the performance standards of the group.” In an ideal world, this kind of accountability should be peer-to-peer and require the team leader to hold people accountable.

In reality though, and for peer to peer accountability to become the norm, the team leader needs to be prepared to call an individual on their behaviour or performance, and thus “enter the danger”. I totally agree with Lencioni where he observes that most leaders he knows “have a far easier time holding people accountable for their results than they do for behavioural issues.” This can be problematic because behavioural problems almost always precede results.

As daunting as it may seem at first, it is possible to have a constructive conversation about their behaviour. In my experience, the key is to be very specific about the behavioural issues that you’ve observed and describe the impact that these issues have caused (I highly recommend reading “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott if you’re keen to learn more about this topic).

The next step would be to run what Lencioni call a “Team Effectiveness Exercise”:

Fig. 5 – Patrick Lencioni’s “Team Effectiveness Exercise” – Taken from: https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageTeamEffectiveness_Exercise(8).pdf

 

5. Focusing on results

Lencioni raises the questions about what makes it so hard to stay focused on results? He answers the questions by talking about self-interest and self-preservation. To avoid these human pitfalls, Lencioni suggest the team picking one goal the whole team can focus on:

“On strong teams, no one is happy until everyone is succeeding, because that’s the only way to achieve the collective results of the group. Of course, this implies that individual egos are less important than team achievements.”

In this scenario, the team will know that it’s being successful when it accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. This requires team members to prioritise team results over their individual or departmental needs. To stay focused, teams must publicly clarify their desired results and keep them visible.

Main learning point: “Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is a valuable resource for anyone interested in creating or being part of effective teams. In addition to studying the factors of successful teams, the book  offers a number of helpful exercises to overcome these dysfunctions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions
  2. https://www.tablegroup.com/books/overcoming-the-five-dysfunctions-a-field-guide
  3. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantagePersonal_Histories_Excercise(4).pdf
  4. http://www.corporategames.com/whats-new/leadership-training/good-leaders-can-use-conflict-build-great-team/
  5. https://www.truity.com/blog/personality-type-conflict-style
  6. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/Commitment%20Clarification%20Exercise.pdf
  7. https://www.tablegroup.com/imo/media/doc/AdvantageCascading_Communication_Exercise(6).pdf

Managing products of the future – Business as usual?

“Managing products of the future” came up when I was thinking of a suitable title for a piece about products that look and feel very different to most products that we see today. Products such as driverless cars and voice assistants popped into my head as examples of products that are likely to dominate our daily lives before we know it.

However, these products are here already and I’m keen to look at if and how this does affect the role and focus of product management.

Will we manage products differently when the user interface of these products changes? Do we need to think differently about our products when data becomes the main output? Will customer needs and expectations evolve? If so, how? These and other questions I will start thinking about; considering the nature of machine learning, different product scenarios and their impact on the role of the product manager.

Taken from: https://robertmerrill.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/the-future-is-already-here/

It’s easy to get swept up by the hype surrounding AI and products based on machine learning, and to start feeling pretty dystopian about the future. But how much will actually change from a product management point of view? People will continue to have specific needs and problems. As product managers, we’ll continue to look at best ways of solving these problems. Granted, the nature of people’s needs and problemx will evolve, as it has always done, but this won’t alter the problem solving and people centric nature of product management.

To illustrate this, let’s look at some AI-base products and the customer needs and problems that they’re aiming to solve: Google Photos, Sonos One and Eigen Technologies.

Google Photos

Google Photos’ strap-line is “One home for all your photos – organised and easy to find”. Over the coming months, Google Photos will roll out the following features:

  • Using facial recognition, Google Photos will know who’s in a picture and will offer a one-tap option to share it with the person in question – provided that this person is in your phone’s contact list, Google Photos will have learned this person’s face. If that person appears in multiple images, Google Photos will even suggest to share all of them in one go.
  • Automated image editing suggestions, Google Photos will suggest different corrections based on the look and quality of the image. For example, if there issues with the brightness of the image, Google Photos will automatically display a “Fix brightness” suggestion.

Taken from: https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/

With these new features, Google Photos aim to address customer needs with regard to sharing pictures and improving image quality respectively. These needs aren’t new per se, but the ‘intelligent’ aspect of Google Photos’ approach is.

Sonos One

The Sonos One is entirely controlled by voice. The speaker works fully with Amazon Alexa, which means that if you’ve got an Amazon Alexa compatible device, you can control your Sonos sound system through Amazon Alexa. Because Alex is a native app within the Sonos platform, you don’t even need to have an external Amazon device – i.e. Echo or the Dot – installed to control your Sonos One speaker. The installation of the Alexa mobile app will be enough.

Taken from: https://uniquehunters.com/sonos-one-marries-amazons-alexa-high-end-audio-hardware-exquisite-musical-enjoyment/

The integration with the Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is a logical next step within Sonos’ mission to “empower everyone to listen better” and makes it easier for people to control the music they listen to. Granted, the user interface of Sonos One is different to other product; it doesn’t have buttons, for example. However, it still is a product like any other in a sense that it delivers tangible value to customers by solving their music listening needs.

Eigen Technologies

“Turn your documents into data” is London and New York based Eigen Technologies’ mission statement. The company enables the mining of documents for specific data. For example, if you work for a mortgage lender and are looking to make a decision about the credit worthiness of a home, Eigen’s data extraction technology helps to quickly pull out key ‘decision inputs’ from a number of – often very lengthy – property documents.

Taken from: https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/

The way in which Eigen Technologies use machine learning algorithms, is ultimately to improve the speed and quality of decision making. Even though the underlying technology is based on machine learning, the outcome is very much like that of any other product: a clear user interface which shows the relevant document data that a user is interested in and needs to make decisions.

Main learning point: AI and machine learning based products will no doubt change the ways in which we interact with products and what we expect of them. However, existing examples such as Google Photos and Sonos One already show that the core of the product manager’s role will remain unchanged: building the right product for the right people and building it right!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://productsthatcount.com/blog/66-google-vp-product-ai/
  2. https://www.wired.com/2015/05/bradley-horowitz-says-that-google-photos-is-gmail-for-your-images/
  3. https://blog.sonos.com/en-gb/making-sonos-one/
  4. https://www.engadget.com/2018/05/08/google-photos-will-add-ai-powered-suggestions-to-fix-your-images/
  5. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/04/sonos-announces-alexa-controlled-wireless-speakers/
  6. https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/
  7. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/sonos-one-alexa-review-uk-price
  8. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/sonos-one-is-the-speaker-to-beat-for-those-that-want-great-sound-and-smarts/
  9. http://uk.businessinsider.com/connected-speakers-explainer-sonos-libratone-echo-google-home-2018-4
  10. https://assistant.google.co.uk/
  11. https://www.sonos.com/en-gb/social-impact
  12. https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/
  13. https://www.eigentech.com/
  14. https://blog.bolt.io/what-cracking-open-a-sonos-one-tells-us-about-the-sonos-ipo-dcab49155643

Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (2)

I wrote earlier about Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop, in which he teaches attendees about “User research, quick and dirty”.  Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures covers user research topics such as user interview types and getting to the right learnings. He also offer a number of practical tips with respect to recruiting users and how to best conduct user interviews:

Recruiting users

Margolis mentions that recruiting 5 people to get feedback from is often sufficient, especially when you’re doing usability testing. He does stress that it’s worth the effort recruiting these people selectively and carefully, as this will help generate better results and avoid wasting time. Creating a simple participant screener document or survey is a good way to recruit the ‘right’ users (see an example in Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Ethnio.io screen survey example – Taken from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/

Margolis lists a number of very helpful questions to feed into your screener document, in order to engage with the right users (and exclude those that aren’t right):

Users to include

  • Who do you want to want to talk to?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to talk to?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Users to exclude

  • Who do you want to want to exclude?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to excliude?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Conducting a user interview

Fig. 2 – Arc of a typical user interview, by Michael Margolis – Taken from: https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d

The representation of the user interview in the form of an arc, I probably found the most helpful aspect that Margolis (see Fig. 2 above). This arc really helps in structuring an interview, identifying the appropriate sequence of activities during the interview.

Main learning point: User research doesn’t have to be complicated, super time consuming or overly expensive. A huge thanks to Michael Margolis for sharing such a wealth of very useful and practical user research insights!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.usertesting.com/blog/2015/01/29/screener-questions/
  2. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/
  3. https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d
  4. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/interviewing-users/

Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (1)

Why do I keep coming across businesses that struggle to engage with their (prospective) customers, to learn about their needs and behaviours? Too often for my liking, I hear comments like:

“Marc, we’re a startup, we don’t have the time and budget to do customer research!” 

“I’m not allowed to talk to customers.” 

“In my old place, we used to have a dedicated user research team and they’d just give me their research report on a platter, after them having spoken to users.”

It therefore felt quite timely when a colleague pointed me in the direction of Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures.  Back in 2013, Margolis delivered a great Startup Lab workshop in which he covered the ins and outs of “User research, quick and dirty”. The recording of the 90 minute workshop is available on YouTube and you can find Margolis’ slides here (see also Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop: “User Research, Quick ‘n’ Dirty” – Published on 26 February 2013 on https://youtu.be/WpzmOH0hrEM

I watched Margolis’ workshop in full and these are my main takeaways:

Seeing through users’ eyes

Margolis started off his session by talking about the importance of continuously learning about users, seeing things through their eyes. In a subsequent Medium post, Margolis writes that in his experience, startups will typically use UX research to achieve one of these objectives:

  1. Improve a process or worklflow
  2. Better understand customer shopping habits
  3. Evaluate concepts
  4. Test usability
  5. Refine a value proposition

Two types of user interviews

It’s great to hear Margolis making a distinction between two types of interviews:

  • Usability: A usability interview is all about learning whether users can actually use your product and achieve their goals with it. Can users do it? Can they understand it? Can they discover features?
  • Discovery: Discovery type user interviews tend to be more contextual, and delve more into the actual user. Who? Where? When? Why? How? All key questions to explore as part of discovery, as well as the user’s existing behaviours, goals, needs and problems.

Margolis then talks about combining the two interview types and highlight two sample questions to illustrate this combination:

“How do you do things now?”

“How do you think about these things?”

The distinction between “usability” and “discovery” isn’t just an artificial one. I love Margolis’ focus on objectives, acknowledging that objectives are likely to vary depending on the type of product, its position within the product lifecycle and the learnings that you’re looking to achieve. I’ve found – at my own peril – that it’s easy to jump straight into defining user tasks or an interview script, without thinking about your research objective and what Margolis calls “North Star questions” (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Michael Margolis’ 5 studies startups needs most- Taken from:  https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb – Published on 5 May 2018 

Margolis provides some very useful pointers about discovery and usability questions, which you can use to create a research plan and an interview guide:

Sample discovery questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • What are users’ behaviours, attitudes and expectations towards the product?
  • Who are the key user groups? What are their needs and behaviours?
  • What are the pros/cons of different designs? Why?
  • What are the pros/cons of competitor products?
  • How are people using existing/competitor products? What features are mots important and why?
  • What barriers hinder users from adopting <product>?

Sample usability questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • Can users discover feature X?
  • Are users able to successfully complete primary tasks? Why (not)?
  • Do users understand feature X? Why (not)?

In a similar vein, I believe it’s important to distinguish between problem and solution interviews. There’s a risk of your customer insights becoming muddled when you mix problem and solution interviews, especially if you alternate problem questions with solution questions.

In a problem interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Problem – What problem are you solving? For example, what are the common frustrations felt by your customers and why? How do their problems rank? Ask your customers to create a top 3 of their problems (see the problem interview script in Fig. 1 below).
  • Existing alternatives – What existing alternatives are out there and how does your customer perceive your competition and their differentiators? How do your customers solve their problems today?
  • Customer segments – Who has these problems and why? Is this a viable customer segment?

Fig. 3 –  Outline of a problem interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

In a solution interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Early adopters – Who has this problem and why? How do we identify and engage with early adopters? (see Fig. 3 below)
  • Solution – How will you solve their problems? What features do you need to build as part of your solution, why?
  • Pricing/Revenue – What is the pricing model for your product or service? Will customers pay for it, why?

Fig. 4 – Outline of a solution interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

Main learning point: In his Startup Lab workshop, Michal Margolis, drops a lot of very valuable tips on how to best keep customer research quick and simple, whilst still learning the things about your customer and/or product that you’re keen to learn. So much so that Michael Margolis’ tips warrant another blog post, which I’ll share soon!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb
  2. https://library.gv.com/user-research-quick-and-dirty-1fcfa54c91c4
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/LauraKlein1/shut-the-hell-up-other-tips-for-learning-from-users
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzmOH0hrEM
  5. https://library.gv.com/tagged/design
  6. https://medium.com/@maa1/book-review-just-enough-research-2d714d447eda
  7. https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-23-customer-empathy-a1e66ff15012