Product Management leader Omaya Robinson shares the importance of Product teams conducting their own customer research.
Omaya Robinson has worked in Product for nearly 20 years and has held senior roles on multiple big-budget projects. She leads her own consulting company, Omaya Robinson Consulting, which specialises in Product and Payments.
Joining the digital realm from a more traditional Product background highlighted to Omaya how critical customer experience is to Product success. Where in previous roles she hadn’t always directly engaged with customers herself, now she sees it as a priority.
Omaya joined a recent Product Talks Meetup in Sydney to explain why customer feedback is an essential part of the product development process and how it can make a major difference to your business cases.
Taking ownership of customer conversations
Of course, there are myriad companies and agencies which can undertake customer research on your behalf. After using these companies in her past roles or delegating the task to other teams, Omaya now sees the importance of Product teams and leaders interacting with customers themselves. This includes interviews and being in the room to witness customers interact with new features.
According to Omaya, “Never will I give the power or the knowledge of my business and my Products to a third-party agency. It’s my asset and I’m the one that needs to own that.”
Experience creates blind spots
As Omaya explains, the more you know about your Product, the better. However, being in ‘too deep’ can result in blind spots.
Her current role involves developing Product strategy for payment innovations at supermarket giant Woolworths. “I walked into the role thinking I know everything that you need to know about customers,” shares Omaya.
In fact, “It was very confronting for me to realise I didn’t know everything. I had to step back and self-reflect on my biases and my assumptions and my frame of reference.”
“Woolworths employed me as an expert in payments, not an expert in knowing everything that their customers want or need. There was a particular customer segment which I thought I understood because I had spoken to them before. But for the new feature we planned to launch for Woolworths, the knowledge I had wasn’t actually helpful,” Omaya adds.
Speaking directly to her customers uncovered a treasure trove of useful information which helped her ensure the new features would better suit the customers’ needs.
“It’s so important to be aware of your biases, your frame of references, be honest with yourself. You can’t be good at listening if you are overlaying your own assumptions,” says Omaya.
The product approach: Traditional vs ‘Lasagne’
Omaya has worked in digital and non-digital, and tested a range of different approaches.
“In non-digital businesses or for Products which are a direct copy of something which already exists on the market, the traditional approach to product development may work,” she explains, “This means bringing in different in-house or external teams to inform your product related decisions. It often results in a situation where people are saying what they think others want to hear in order to meet their own KPIs.”
For innovative and digital products, she finds Agile more effective. “Finding a problem to solve and figuring out the customer friction points requires an iterative process,” says Omaya.
The Agile process allows for iteration, adding layers upon layers and creating what Omaya calls a ‘lasagne of value’.
“I call it the lasagne of value because every time we iterated at Woolworths, we would create a feature or a solution to part of the problem. From there, we would go back out and talk to the customer and then come back in and ideate again to keep building these layers.”
In Omaya’s experience, an Agile, customer-focused method is a lower-cost approach plus a faster way to develop ideas and test the feasibility of them. “I found discussions with customers to be rewarding and beneficial. They helped inform the value chain needed, the service experience and the capabilities we need to enable the product for the different customer segment types.”
“More importantly, an Agile approach created a bond between people at Woolworths who ordinarily would not have bonded because of hierarchy and corporate structure.”
“In an Agile world, you are working with a group that has diverse skills, not a hierarchy. Because of this, you get a great outcome. A range of people have been involved and they can all see customer feedback in its raw form and throughout the ideation process.”
Leveraging your customers for a better final product
Talking to your customers helps you do your job as a Product Manager.
As Omaya explained at the Brainmates meetup, when you speak to customers, they will help you answer the following questions:
- Why should (or does) the product exist?
- Why do people want to use it?
- Why do we need to advocate for the customer more?
- What is the proposition and value?
- What features do they like or not like?
- What customers and types of people would use this?
- Who should be targeted first (early adopters) and why?
- How will they be reached so they are aware of the product
- Which features should be launched first?
The outcome of ‘When’ will form the foundation of your roadmap. Once you have answers from customers, you can prioritise which features to launch first.
Creating your business case
“Having conversations with your customer allows you to learn where you can be different and why your product can be successful. After these experiences, you become the advocate of the customer’s voice,” Omaya explains.
Speaking to your customers is important so you can meet their needs. Its other purpose is validating your business case.
Having accurate customer information makes your proposal ‘real’ for your leaders. It builds your coalition of supporters and can make the difference to an investment case decision.
“With customer feedback and research, you have the information to have the trade-off conversations about scale vs getting to market,” explains Omaya, “And don’t forget that customers will give you good insights about your competitors and what they do or don’t like about them.”
The practice of speaking to customers shifts your business case from a good idea to one based on what customers want. “It’s not just an idea you’re presenting to senior management. It’s something the customers want,” Omaya says, “and that is always more powerful”