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

I wrote a book! “My Product Management Toolkit” is out now

I wanted to share with loyal readers of my blog, details of my first book: “My Product Management Toolkit”.

In the book, I’ve been building on some of the themes, tools and techniques which I’ve written about in my “As I learn” blog over the past eight years, with the aim of sharing more about what I’ve discovered as well as some practical tips.

Whether you’re just starting out as a product manager or are looking for a refresher, I hope it is something you might find useful.

“My Product Management Toolkit” is available on Amazon now – if you are kind enough to buy a copy I’d be incredibly grateful if you’d also leave a review.

Many thanks as always for your ongoing support!

Some good conversational UI examples to learn from

It was Dennis Mortensen – CEO/Founder of x.ai – who made me aware a few years ago of the concept of ‘invisible interfaces’. He talked about applications no longer needing a graphical user interface (GUI), taking “Amy” – x.ai’s virtual personal assistant as a good example (see Fig. 1 below).

hi-im-amy-xai

Fig. 1 – Amy, x.ai’s virtual assistant – Taken from: http://www.agilenetnyc.com/business/x-ai/

Since then, I’ve been keeping more of an eye out for bots and virtual assistants, which can run on Slack, WeChat, Facebook Messenger or Amazon Echo. Like “Amy” these applications can be driven entirely by complex machine learning algorithms, or can be more ‘smoke and mirrors’ and operated entirely by humans. Let’s just have a look at some relevant examples to illustrate where I think some of these virtual assistants and chatbots are heading.

Example 1 – Nordstrom Chatbot and Operator offering personalised discovery:

US based Nordstrom recently launched its first chatbot for the 2016 holiday season. If you’re already on Facebook Messenger or Kik, Nordstrom’s virtual assistant is only a click away. Users who engage with Nordstrom’s bot will be asked a number of questions about who they’re shopping for. The bot will then respond with bespoke gift suggestions based on the user’s responses.

nordstrom-v1

Fig. 2 – Nordstrom Chatbot – Taken from: https://chatbotsmagazine.com/the-complete-beginner-s-guide-to-chatbots-8280b7b906ca#.l5e2i887r

You can get a similar experience using Operator, which is driven entirely by human experts who’ll provide you with personalised advice on what to buy (see Fig. 3 below).

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-20-46-37

 

Fig. 3 – Operator’s experts providing tailored advice to its users – Taken from: https://www.operator.com/

Example 2 – KLM sharing flight information via Facebook Messenger:

KLM, the well known international airline, now enables customer to receive their flight documentation via Facebook Messenger. After booking a flight on KLM’s website, customers can choose to receive their booking confirmation, check-in details, boarding pass and flight status updates via Messenger. It’s built on a Messenger plug-in which customers only have to enable in order to receive ‘personalised’ messages from KLM (see Fig. 4 below).

screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-20-17-33

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of KLM’s Messenger app – Taken from: https://messenger.klm.com/

Example 3 – Telegram using buttons for discovery and shortcuts:

As much as it’s great to have a very simple ‘single purpose’ conversational user interface, there are messenger apps and virtual assistants out there that do offer user functionality that works better with buttons to click. A good example is the Telegram app, which has buttons for specific actions and shortcuts (see Fig. 5 below).

telegram-v1

Fig. 5   – Screenshot of the buttons in Telegram’s messenger app – Taken from: http://alistapart.com/article/all-talk-and-no-buttons-the-conversational-ui

Main learning point: I’ll no doubt learn more about conversational user interfaces over the coming months and years, but looking at simple examples like x.ai, Nordstrom’s Chatbot, Operator, Telegram and KLM’s Messenger feels like a very good starting point!

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://alistapart.com/article/all-talk-and-no-buttons-the-conversational-ui
  2. https://uxdesign.cc/10-links-to-get-started-with-conversational-ui-and-chatbots-3c0920ef4723#.yqpfdz5re
  3. https://chatbotsmagazine.com/the-complete-beginner-s-guide-to-chatbots-8280b7b906ca#.l5e2i887r
  4. http://www.geekwire.com/2016/new-nordstrom-mobile-chat-bot-ready-help-shoppers-find-perfect-holiday-gift/
  5. https://www.techinasia.com/talk/complete-beginners-guide-chatbots
  6. https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/07/conversational-interfaces-where-are-we-today-where-are-we-heading/
  7. http://www.theverge.com/2016/3/30/11331168/klm-facebook-messenger-boarding-pass-chat-integration
  8. https://messenger.klm.com/
  9. https://www.operator.com/

Lending revisited: Bond Street

Bond Street lends to small businesses that might typically struggle to get a loan from traditional banks. In a recent talk on a MIT Fintech course that I was doing, David Haber – Bond Street’s CEO/Founder – mentioned how Bond Street saw a clear niche in the market for small business loans and acted on it. Haber encountered a problem that seemed pretty common for early stage, online small businesses: banks or other financial services offering small loans for short durations at high rates. To resolve this problem, Bond Street offers loans range between $50k-$500k, for as long as 1-3 years and with rates starting at 6% (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Loan size, rate and terms comparison between Bond Street and other small business lenders – Taken from: https://bondstreet.com/

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-07-42-33

Fig. 2 – Overview of Bond Street positioning – Taken from: https://bondstreet.com/blog/an-introduction-to-small-business-financing/

bond-street-v2

In the MIT talk, Haber mentioned that OnDeck – a direct competitor of Bond Street – offers small business loans for an average amount of $35k, 10 months’ duration and charges of 40% Annual Percentage Rate (‘APR’). Bond Street competes on rate and speed, but as Haber explained, the business is very focused on “offering more value beyond the economics of a loan, since capital is essentially a commodity.”

Haber then explained that technology allows Bond Street to not just innovate on the loan transaction itself, but to provide a great customer experience on either side of the transaction. For example, by offering a borrower data about similar size businesses, the borrower can then make a better informed decision about taking up a loan.

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Bond Street online loan application form – Taken from: https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-07-56-36

Haber mentioned one other thing which really resonated with me: “building an ecosystem around your business.”  By, for example, leveraging data on an entrepreneur across a network of (similar) entrepreneurs, Bond Street and others can really help people grow their businesses. This doesn’t mean committing data violations, but using data to build an ongoing relationship with one’s customers, and being able to warn them about potential risks or suggest new market opportunities.

A great example is how easy Bond Street makes it for its customers to link to their accounting packages (see Fig. 4 below). I see this is a simple but good example of creating an ecosystem where data is combined in such a way that people and business can derive tangible benefits from it. Through linking to your accounting package as part of the loan application process, businesses save a lot of precious time and effort, since they no longer have to manually input all kinds of financial data.

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of Bond Street’s functionality which links to one’s accounting software – Taken from: https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/

bondstreet-accounting-link

 

Main learning point: Even though lending isn’t a new proposition, I really like what Bond Street are doing when it comes to offering loans to small businesses. It has carved out a specific market niche – small, early stage businesses – that it targets with a compelling proposition and an intuitive customer experience to match.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.thebalance.com/what-does-apr-mean-315004
  2. https://bondstreet.com/blog/category/resources/
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/06/18/6616/
  4. http://www.peeriq.com/p2p-explosion-business-models-may-change-risks-still-need-managed/
  5. https://bondstreet.com/blog/an-introduction-to-small-business-financing/
  6. https://bondstreet.com/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-cloud-based-accounting-software-ii/
  7. https://www.fundera.com/blog/2016/06/01/application-process-works-bond-street
  8. https://angel.co/bond-street
  9. https://www.nav.com/blog/376-decoding-a-loan-offer-from-bondstreet-4788/
  10. https://www.fundera.com/blog/2016/06/01/application-process-works-bond-street

 

 

App review: Abra

abra-1

The main reason why I’m excited about Abra – a US-based peer-to-peer payments startup – is that people become tellers or ‘human ATMs’ who expense cash at hand to the recipient. The Philippines is a key target market for Abra, and it facilitates seamless payments between residents of the US and the Philippines.

Recent stats show that about two-thirds of the adult Philippine population is still unbanked. Currently, Filipinos will have to go to a local exchange ‘business’ (often a one-man band or small operation that does foreign exchange as one of its activities), fill out paper forms to send or receive money abroad. This can be very time-consuming, costly or unreliable.

Abra’s mission is to change all this and make cross-border peer-to-peer payments as easy and seamless as possible. This is how they do it:

  1. Deposit money into the Abra app – Users can deposit money into the Abra app either via a linked bank account, or by using Abra’s network of Abra Tellers, which are like human ATM machines (see Fig. 1 below). Each Teller will set their own fee with the customer, after which the Teller and the customer will meet up in person to accept a cash deposit and credit the customer’s account with funds (or vice versa, if the user wants to cash out) (see Fig. 2 below).
  2. Convert into Bitcoins – After a user’s account is credited with the necessary funds, the money is instantly converted to bitcoin behind the scenes, but still denominated in a traditional currency. What I like about Abra is that it doesn’t really talk that much on its website or its other comms about using bitcoins to underpin these payments. Abra, however, does use bitcoins and shared ledgers to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions without the need for an intermediary.
  3. Send and withdraw money – Customers can use the Abra app to send and withdraw money, or buy things online where Abra is accepted by the seller. The company generates revenue by charging a .25 percent fee to a customer upon transacting with an Abra Teller.
  4. You don’t need a bank account – One of the key upsides of Abra in my opinion, is that you don’t need to have a bank account to do a transaction through the platform. Competitors like Simple and Venmo still require users to add their bank accounts, whereas Abra let’s people transact without the need for a bank account.

Main learning: I’m really excited about innovations like Abra; using bitcoins and blockchain technology to solve a real-world problem and enabling unbanked people transact easily and cheaply.

Fig. 1 – Add money through Abra – Taken from: http://fintechranking.com/2015/03/05/why-we-started-abra/

 

abra-2

 

Fig. 2 – Finding and engaging with Abra Tellers – Taken from: https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/10/abra-raises-12m-in-series-a-funding-for-its-bitcoin-based-remittance-service/ 

abra_maria_teller

Related links for further learning: 

  1. https://www.goabra.com/
  2. https://www.goabra.com/blog/were-live-in-the-us-and-other-updates/
  3. http://www.coindesk.com/abra-remittance-app-us-launch/
  4. https://www.finextra.com/pressarticle/65114/bitcoin-remittance-app-from-abra-goes-live-in-the-us
  5. http://uk.businessinsider.com/mobile-payment-company-abra-launches-with-blockchain-technology-in-us-2016-6
  6. http://techcrunch.com/2015/09/10/abra-raises-12m-in-series-a-funding-for-its-bitcoin-based-remittance-service/
  7. https://www.reddit.com/r/Buttcoin/comments/4qq794/can_someone_explain_to_me_how_abra_tellers_are/
  8. https://www.mybanktracker.com/news/new-startup-to-be-uber-of-banks-abra-turns-everyday-people-into-atms
  9. http://money.cnn.com/2015/06/08/technology/abra-bank/