Putting the user first
When people say, "I don't understand" or "it's too complicated," it's an important product signal. Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy, #128
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Hi, I’m Greg 👋! I write essays on product development. Some key topics for me are system “handshakes”, the expectations for workflow, and the jobs we expect data to do. This all started when I tried to define What is Data Operations?
This week’s toy: colorful socks selected by an AI model. I’m not sure if my idea of a cheerful novelty sock includes being excited about grapefruit but then, AI answers can be a bit weird. Edition 128 of this newsletter is here - it’s January 17, 2023.
The Big Idea
A short long-form essay about data things
⚙️ What does it mean when users are confused?
You often hear companies say, “we’re customer obsessed.” What does this mean exactly?
Beyond the obvious reason of keeping current customers from leaving and lining them up for expansion opportunities, the idea of being customer obsessed has a lot to unpack. Customer obsession implies the customer’s viewpoint matters more than almost anything else, and that we should measure our success by the happiness and understanding of the customers we serve. After all, if customers don’t love your product, they are likely to consider another one when the time is right.
Amazon.com lists customer obsession as a leadership principle, writing:
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
If you’ve never heard Amazon employees talk about customer obsession, this is a good summary of how the company views this value statement.
Understanding the Value of Customer Obsession
Even if you don’t work for Amazon, you can use the power of customer obsession to drive improvement in your business. Let’s take a look at each of these value statements in detail.
Start with the customer and work backwards
The basic idea is that the customer knows what they want and what they need. We often separate these statements to demonstrate that a want is not necessarily the same as a need. But even if the customer doesn’t know exactly what they need to solve their problem, we should use their statement of wants to identify the gap between the current product experience and the ideal state.
As a product owner, what can you do to help? Pick up a pen and paper, or draw a solution using a lo-fi tool like Balsamiq or Figma. Imagine what the experience would need to be to answer the customer’s request. Even if you don’t get there in a single flow or drawing, you’ll move forward.
Working vigorously to earn and keep customer trust
Customer trust is notoriously difficult to earn and easy to squander. It’s easy to see why. Customers almost always have a choice and could go anywhere to achieve it. They need to see that you are working hard to keep their business. If you think of a concrete way to define trust, it’s a series of “one in a row” experiences where the customer asks you or expects you to do something. If you deliver or overdeliver to those expectations, your trust level goes up.
Product leaders have an additional dimension to consider when thinking about customer trust. Customers who use Saas products in particular might not have immediate help at hand when they try to complete a task. The product flows themselves end up being a proxy for customer trust. If things “feel easy”, then it’s more likely for the customer or a prospect to gain trust. If things feel hard, then it’s hard for the customer to feel trusted (and to deliver trust).
Pay attention to competitors
For every product you’re working on, there are probably several teams in your own city working on that problem. So you need to pay attention to what they’re doing. But not too much, because that will distract you from the job at hand. Customers will be looking at the competition, so you should too.
As a product person, that means thinking about the task a customer wants to do and trying it out in a competitive product. How do you feel when you try that product? Are there flows, items, or language that you could emulate or borrow to improve the experience of your product?
Obsess over customers
Customer obsession means acknowledging that the customer is the arbiter of whether your product or service is a success. They bought your product for a reason. If you don’t know them well enough, you probably don’t know what they are expecting your product to do.
From the product perspective, this probably means that you need to be direct and obvious with the asks you are making to your customers. Being cute or being smart may be great brand goals, but unless your customers expect that from your product there may be a mismatch of experience. And sometimes that mismatch crops up when you get feedback that customers are confused.
How do you handle and redirect customer confusion or frustration? The value of customer obsession can help.
Using Customer Obsession to Drive Analysis
If we think of customer obsession as a series of values based on putting the customer first and orienting our actions toward customer success, we should know what to do even when they are confused.
Customer confusion or asks for unintuitive product behavior is a sign that they either need something different than we offer or don’t know how to get what they need from our current offering. Yet we often jump to “they just don’t get it” as product leaders, or think that they are asking for something weird.
What does it mean when customers are confused by products?
When customers tell us they are confused, there are some common product reasons that cause these situations.
One category of problem happens because the product expectations or user tasks are not obvious and simple.
Here are a few examples:
unclear calls to action (buttons are mislabeled, action verbs are missing, modals or wizards don’t tell you what’s happening)
mismatched metaphors or actions in the product
lack of feedback when things happen (items are hidden and require a lot of investigation to know what’s going on)
This kind of confusion usually happens due to a lack of consistency, hidden information, or generally hidden features. Fixing this is best done by interviewing users who have never seen the product before and asking them how they would complete a task.
When customers ask for something that we don’t (or won’t) do
Another common mismatch is when customers ask us to do something we wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Here are a few reasons why this comes up:
The boundaries and benefits of the product aren’t as clear as they could be (why are they here in the first place?)
We have underestimated a user need (there is more needed from this feature than we have currently provided)
It’s not clear how to find out what’s possible (where is the place where we make it clear how to help the user)
Our assumption - that this is something we wouldn’t do - is being challenged. It’s a good opportunity to ask: what do users want and why?
Asking for something counterintuitive
When that unusual ask happens, this is a learning moment.
What could be happening?
we haven’t made our own viewpoint clear enough with the product (what’s the best way to use it, and why)
We asked them to do too much without providing feedback
We might not understand the problem well enough
Now that we know the customer is confused or asking for something marginal or new, how do we proceed?
Improvements based on Customer Feedback
Listening to customer needs and understanding what to do next is the core of driving customer obsession back into the business.
First, you won’t satisfy or delight every customer. But the process of learning about customer confusion gives you important clues to delivering an exceptional experience to more customers.
A first step in this process is to develop a feedback loop for every time a customer exhibits confusion or makes an unusual request. The after-request report might look like this:
what did they ask? (Did we validate that we heard correctly)
Is this an expected or new need? (Do we know how to solve or is this completely new)
What are we going to do to address this (will be solved directly, ignore, or add to a list of customers who want this)
The next you hear a “weird” request, you might evaluate it differently.
What’s the takeaway? Amazon’s value of customer obsession is an excellent frame to evaluate customer requests. By using “unexpected” requests to test user wants, you can learn more about how people expect to use and value your product.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my 👀
1/ Planning how to measure - Will Larson posted this excellent table on the different flavors of measurement in his article on measuring engineering organizations.
What’s great about this piece is that it provides a through line to compare metrics from one department against metrics from another department. Too often we don’t link these items.
2/ AI crosses the chasm? - Ethan Mollick writes that ChatGPT is a tipping point for AI. By bringing AI into an easy-to-use interface, it’s accessible to normal people who want the power of AI without the fiddly bits.
3/ What is design thinking? - Christina Wadke writes on the five habits of design thinking. Design thinking is a strategy of user interviewing and thinking to generate creative and practical ideas to improve the user experience.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
Want more essays? Read on Data Operations or other writings at gregmeyer.com.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon