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In the recent post entitled  “Where is the Customer in your project? Nowhere!”, I shared a video post by Kalpesh Shah about increasing the value of user stories, and shared some thoughts on the problems of excluding the customer.

But this topic is a bit of an irritant to me, because it’s one of the key root causes in product failure, or at the least, project entropy.

There is an interesting corollary to this question that Kalpesh doesn’t cover extensively, that is one of the main reasons why teams don’t go and get their user stories from customers or potential customers.

The corollary of “Where is the Customer in your project” is “The Customer is not interested in your product”.

But let’s face it, teams often avoid or downplay direct involvement in customer research for much more pedestrian reasons. Sometimes it’s for the surface reasons that are implied in the video.

Or Product Owners may put their faith (often over-emphasised) in their own understanding of the users needs.

Frequently, Product Owners rely on easily obtained operational data regarding what the user does online, such as web logs, commonly declaring: “of course I understand our users’ needs: we are a digital product and I can see what they are doing via my analytics tools”.

But folks rarely state the real, underlying and compelling reason that customers are not involved directly in product development projects.

It is hard and confusing and easy to get wrong.

Perhaps they might imply this with symptomatic objections such as “it will take too long” or “it will cost a lot of money to get to that level of detail”.

But however it is stated, it is rare for projects to have customers directly involved throughout the project.

And that is really the core of why getting to the “Next Level of Awesome” is so hard.  (Or perhaps it’s the next level after the next level outlined in this video).

Firstly, Product Owners have to endure the noisy and hard to interpret inputs from real live customers.  How do you analyze, aggregate and package up the many different ways that people have of giving you feedback.  It’s so easy to get wrong.

And, if the Product Owner gets it wrong, there is no-one or nothing to hide behind: it was all his or her judgment.  Product owners remember that apocryphal Henry Ford quote and use it as an excuse to avoid direct reliance on those confusing customers.

Secondly, there are very few PO’s who can interact with customers without their products being the centre of reference for the discussions.

At the very least it is the interaction between product and customer that dominates.

But you will never really understand what will make your product sustainably useful and attractive to customers if you frame the analysis in the context of a product.

Customers in truth, don’t care about your product or your brand or your company.  Customers only care about what the product helps them to do or be.

If you have ever watched Kathy Sierra or read her most recent book “Badass: Making Users Awesome”, then you’ll be familiar with the concept.

As Kathy writes:

“It’s not about our product, our company, our brand.  It’s not about how the user feels about us.  It’s about how the user feels about himself, in the context of whatever it is our product, service, cause helps him do and be. “
 
“… Nobody says, “I’m awesome” because of a product. They say, “I love this” or “This app is amazing.”  It’s not about the actual words they say, but about the feelings  that inspired them to say it. “I’m awesome because of this” is the feeling behind their actual words, “This thing is awesome”. “
Kathy Sierra in “Badass: Making Users Awesome” Page 19, 29/1/2015 (O’Reilly Media. Kindle Edition).
So when you decide to go looking for answers to the question of “what do users want”, don’t frame it in terms of “what do uses want from my product” because they don’t really care.
The takeaway from all this is that it is your fundamental responsibility as a Product Owner to provide your team with the most cogent, accurate and vivid description of what is going to make a customer feel awesome.
You won’t get it from Gartner, and you won’t get it from your own past experience.  You definitely won’t get it from analytics.
You can only get it from one place, and your product doesn’t feature in that discussion.
Get used to it.