Colby.so Writing on bootstrapping, product, and web development

Directional inputs for your product

The world of product management is noisy. Your clients are asking for new features. Your sales team needs a magical new feature to close their next deal. Your success team heard from 50 people yesterday about gaps in your product. Noise is coming in from every direction, all of the time. Learning to process a constant barrage of information from disparate sources into a coherent product vision is vital to success as a product manager.

One mistake that product managers make is becoming too focused on a single input channel. Most often, this happens when a single source is the loudest — the squeaky wheel gets the new feature. To break out of this habit, it can help to identify all of the different input channels that you should be monitoring and clarify the role each channel plays in the product management process.

External conversations

Let’s talk about external conversations with users and prospects first. This is the lowest hanging fruit — we all know we’re supposed to be talking to people, right? Right.

Early on in a product’s lifecycle direct conversations with the people who use your product and the people who might use a product like yours are your lifeblood. If you haven’t achieved product-market fit, you’ll never get there without talking to your users and learning from them about how to make your product better. You don’t yet have enough users to have reliable or useful data so you must make judgment calls based on your deep understanding of the individuals who use your product. Trusting your gut is a lot easier if you have a bench of people who can provide honest feedback for you as you shape the early direction of your product.

As your user base grows, the weight you give to each individual opinion from a user must change. In the early days, you may only have 100 users — you can talk to 10 of those people and feel pretty confident you know how your user base feels about a particular topic. Once you have thousands or millions of users, counting on one-to-one conversations as your primary source of truth becomes less useful.

External conversations will always be a key input channel as a product manager. No matter the size of your user base you can use these conversations to rapidly identify problems and new opportunities and to get quick, honest feedback on your product. External conversations also play an important role in humanizing your users — telling a story about a real person when you are pitching an idea is a great way to build a case to a reluctant internal team.

Internal conversations

Internal conversations with your frontline teams help you identify trends, pressure test ideas and multiply your access to real stories. Your support team members are going to know your product better than you, especially the quirks that confuse or frustrate your users. Your sales team will know what features really get people excited and which are falling flat in demos. Talking to these frontline teams regularly will help you identify the areas of your product that need the most focus. Building trust and two-way communication with these frontline teams is one of the best things you can do to keep your product heading in the right direction.

Conversations with your engineering team are part of this channel as well. Keep an open line of communication with your key engineering resources and leave room for them to share honest feedback with you on what technical debt needs to be addressed and when.

Internal conversations can be a dangerous input channel for a product manager because of the dreaded HiPPO trap. The pressure to move a pet project along from an executive can be intense. It can sometimes feel easier to just prioritize a project to eliminate the pressure, even when you know that it isn’t the right direction for your product. Managing expectations and avoiding the trap is a topic for another day — for now just keep in mind that when you approach internal conversations with executive teams, your job as a product manager is to deliver a great product and it is your role to speak up and push back when steps are being skipped to ease internal pressure.

Conversations, whether they’re with internal or external folks, will be happening daily and this input channel should always be the biggest block on your calendar. Avoid spending all of your time in meetings and on the phone with users and internal stakeholders— this channel can be incredibly time consuming and you will find that the return on most individual conversations is quite low.

Research

Research is an input channel that encompasses all of the stuff that product managers do that looks like searching Google all day. Competitor research, industry research, market research, and, depending on your company’s definition of product management, technical research all get broadcast on this channel. This channel must be actively sought out — your competitors aren’t going to bang down your door to tell you about a new feature and you are probably not so central to your industry that the news all runs through you.

The most obvious input in this channel is competitor research. Be cautious about relying too much on competitor research — in many cases, you’ll find it is of limited value. Don’t ignore what your competitors are doing but if what they are doing is driving your roadmap you will always deliver a product that feels a little bit behind. Instead, keep an eye on what they’re doing and know how you compare but build what works best for your users and your own long term goals.

Because you have to actively seek out this channel, it is easy to ignore it in favor of channels that demand your attention. To avoid this, I recommend carving out dedicated time to focus on researching what’s happening in your space and writing up notes to structure your thinking. The right cadence for this type of work is determined by your working style and the maturity of your product and your market — a few hours a week works best for me but you might find you need more or less time on this channel.

A handy way to save yourself some time and energy when doing research is to let other people do some of the work for you — subscribe to a service like Owler to rollup news on industries or competitors you care about, find the important newsletters and journalists covering your industry and subscribe to them, and let the research show up in your inbox.

Feedback data

Feedback data is our first of two channels that involve that famous product management task of staring at a spreadsheet for a few hours and wondering why no one likes the feature everyone told you they had to have.

Feedback data is aggregated information on what clients are saying about your product. We’re firmly in qualitative data land with this channel and most of the value in this channel will be in reading words that people wrote about your product.

This type of data can be sourced from places like:

  • Client surveys (such as NPS)
  • Support cases from your ticketing system
  • Search trends on your online help center
  • Feedback on a community portal.

The feedback that you have available will depend on the size and maturity of your business, how transparent individual business units are, and what proactive work you’ve done to build these channels.

Feedback helps you apply a new lens to individual conversations — if you hear a problem in a one-on-one conversation your next step should often be referencing aggregated feedback to look for validation this the problem is relevant across your user base.

Feedback can also help you identify trends that you might not see in a few individual conversations. NPS surveys and other sources of direct, structured feedback on your product from a wide range of users can identify the most acute problems your product has and, with the right analysis, can help surface potential solutions to those problems.

In my experience, NPS data is often the most valuable input in this channel. NPS surveys are a constant source of high-value ideas and, as your product matures, you’ll find that negative NPS feedback about your product will focus on very similar things. If you aren’t running NPS surveys for your product, consider partnering with your client-facing teams to start an NPS process as soon as you can. Every zero you receive is an opportunity to have a conversation about what your product can do better.

If you have access to it, support case data can be high impact too. Reading email/chat cases directly is the ideal for this, but even higher level trends on the types of questions people ask can be a useful source for understanding what areas of your product you should focus on.

The right cadence for reviewing and analyzing feedback will depend on the data that you can access and how much of it you have. In most cases, a weekly review of incoming data will work. In organizations with longer cycles or lower volume, a monthly deep-dive may be sufficient.

Engagement data

This is where the spreadsheets can get really intense (this is how I learned Excel has a row limit of 1,048,576) and where you can get very, very lost if you aren’t careful.

Engagement data moves away from softer, qualitative feedback data into direct quantitative data. Forget what people are saying about your product — how are they actually using it?

Engagement data plays two important roles in helping you shape your product’s direction.

First, engagement data allows you to validate what you are hearing through conversations and feedback inputs with how people are actually using your product. Is everyone telling you that they love a new feature? That’s great! How many of them have used it more than once?

Whenever possible, back up decisions that you make based on conversational input with usage data.

Second, the vast majority of your users are silent. You never hear from them and you never will. They aren’t going to get on the phone with you, contact your support team, or fill out a survey. They’ll just use your product in silence. The only way you can give these users a voice is to understand how they use your product. Which features are popular and which are lagging? Which features are most likely to predict renewal? Which features never get used but feature prominently on your marketing homepage?

In addition to deep dives into the world of SQL queries, CSV dumps, and pretty charts and graphs generated from product usage data, I include data from sales and marketing in this channel. Understanding what leads are coming in and which are moving through your conversion funnel helps you build a better product. This raw data can be a great way to identify new market opportunities or ways to tighten up the funnel with a stronger product.

Reviewing and analyzing engagement data should be part of your daily routine. As your product grows the amount of data you have about how your product is used can quickly get overwhelming. Stay on top of the data and build good processes for yourself to automate reporting on key metrics to make this channel more valuable.

Bringing it together

Learning to balance all of these inputs takes time, experience, and plenty of false starts. Your personality and your background will naturally attract you to spending more time on certain channels — if you love talking to people you might overemphasize conversational channels. If talking to people takes a lot of energy for you (that’s me) then you may find yourself leaning into data and spreadsheets and missing out on important conversations.

Ensure that you are using the full array of input channels by building routines that force you to consider each channel, and evaluate the source of the items that make it onto your roadmap to hold yourself accountable to staying engaged with each channel.

Finally, remember that tuning into all of these different input channels is a privilege that most people at your company won’t get to have — think about ways to surface the insights that you glean from spending so much time processing this feedback to the rest of your company. As product managers, we have an opportunity to help propagate a deep understanding of our products, how people feel about them, and how people use them throughout our whole company. Invest in that opportunity and you may be surprised at your returns.