My first job in a product management role was back in the mid-90’s at Adobe. Photoshop sales were surging, and the company was not sure why. It was my job as an intern that summer to call these new Photoshop customers and ask them why they recently purchased the software, and what they were using it for. I fully expected for the users to be annoyed that I was calling them to get their feedback, but they were universally thrilled that I was calling to get their feedback and to have a discussion to make sure we were building a product that served their needs.

Pragmatic Marketing defines the product manager’s main role as being the “messenger for the market,” representing the customer in identifying the marketing opportunity, making the product business case, and translating those into requirements for the design and development teams. Many people assume that the role largely involves asking the user what features they want. While this is sometimes the case, is an important part of the process, and can lead to a better product, it is rarely the way to expose unmet customers needs or to innovate to solve a market problem. Everyone has heard the urban myth quote by Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” There’s actually no evidence that Ford ever said those words, but it is clear that he believed that innovation was not about listening to customer requests.

I don’t see it as that binary. Both methods are necessary: product managers need to both listen to users and to observe them. While 10 years ago that meant doing both qualitative and quantitative research, now the ability to understand the customer extends to mining usage data, and to doing ethnographic research. All 4 are important tools in understanding the market:

  • Quantitative research uses structured techniques to gather information from users. Research tools include questionnaires, surveys, and conjoint analyses. They allow product managers to test hypotheses, to prioritize feature sets, and determine bundling and pricing strategies. They rarely expose unmet needs, but they can help to refine a product offering.
  • Qualitative research is primarily exploratory research, designed to reveal an audience’s perceptions and preferences; however, the inquiry is generally focused on specific topics or issues, limiting the range of discovery to an intended topic. Tools and methods include focus groups, site visits, customer councils, user group meetings, and other physical and virtual forums.
  • Data mining: desktop and mobile applications have been collecting and sharing crash data with the software provider for years. When I worked on Flash and AutoCAD, I always was amused to see that the most-often used application command was “Undo.” While interesting, that did not mean that we should make the “Undo” command better. Instead, we instrumented the applications to show what the user was doing before hitting “Undo,” so that they would have to use that command less frequently. Web and SaaS applications allow for an even deeper opportunity to record, mine and analyze the data exhaust of every user interaction. Further, A/B testing allows us to compare two versions of a web app’s interface to see which one performs better. To effectively interpret this data, product management teams now employ data scientists to draw insights out of the user data, then work with the product and design teams to incorporate those insights in the the next releases of the software.
  • Ethnography is traditionally known as the scientific study of the customs of peoples and cultures, but the term has evolved to describe research that provides a depiction of everyday life. Ethnographers observe without bias, in an attempt to gain deep empathy with the users and to understand what it means to “walk in their shoes.” This involves “participant observation,” which is long-term engagement in a user’s “natural habitat.” Instead of asking questions or directing a topic of discussion, an ethnographer gains insight to a user to achieve an “insider’s point of view” that could never have been gleaned through a survey or focus group.

The goal of modern product managers is to perform and assimilate all of these methods to be a true messenger for customers, allowing them to build a faster horse, while recognizing the unarticulated customer needs that drive true innovation.

That begs the question, “who is the customer?” Blackboard long viewed the customer as the buyer and the power user, and much of the company’s research centered on their needs. Our customer councils, user groups, and community programs catered to them. But our focus is broadening. While these personas continue to be important, we now view the end-user as our primary focus: the hundreds of millions of students and faculty that use Blackboard solutions.

So, our product managers are now focused on these segments globally as well:

  • Students
  • Faculty
  • Administration

They all have different customs, cultures, and needs, and it’s the role of our product managers to discover, document, and prioritize these needs, so they are all represented in the appropriate mix in our offerings.

We build our products for you, and it my team’s job to know you and be a champion for you as we build our products.

Are you a student, faculty, or education administrator? We’d love to engage more deeply with you in our process. You can start by joining the Blackboard customer community.


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