The Value of a Learning-based Process
Part of the problem with Customer Development and/or User Research is that not everyone buys into the value. It's hard, time consuming work and, in the end, the learning isn't always all that tangible. That can leave some people mystified or feeling like the effort wasn't worth much.
And, let's be honest, there can be times when you don't really learn that much. Not every customer interview, usability session or experiment is going to bear fruit.
Many people, for example, measure progress with hard deliverables: wireframes, code, etc. Getting these people to buy into working on something that doesn't directly go into a product as code, for example, seems like a waste of time. “Learning”, to some, might not seem like a valuable end game for the amount of work it takes.
I see value, a lot of value, in making sure we're working on the right things. But I also get the counter argument. Why not just build, test and iterate from the get-go? Let the data tell it and change the product accordingly. Well, you could do that. And you might argue (correctly) that it'd be an equal effort, and you'd still be learning things. With the benefit of having releasable code at the end. A compelling argument, for sure. However, that argument falls apart if you've built something that nobody wants and that's all you learn—what you did wrong. And this happens ALL THE TIME. Sure, you'll learn from your mistakes and you, hopefully, can pivot, but now you've got a pile of technical debt, design baggage, etc. Even if it does take the same amount of time and effort, wouldn't it be better to pin down your customer and market first, before wasting time on building? I think so. And focusing on your customer on an going bases is something I'm 100% sure there's value in.
I've got a lot of thoughts I need to work through about Lean principles as it relates to design, development and running a business. In the last few months I've been in several workshops, watched quite a few talks and videos online and bunch of relevant books (The Lean Startup, Running Lean, etc.). There is a lot of dogma out there, especially around running a company, and much of it, frankly, I'm not sure of.
Getting out of the building.
(Thanks to the guys at Lean Startup Machine for that one!)
What I am sure of is that if you're not involving your customers in what you're doing, you're probably not learning as much as you should be and you could very well be working on the wrong things. Involving your users/customers in what you're doing is always a good thing.
Learning from your users should be something you work into your process on an ongoing basis.
So, how can we make the less tangible effort that goes into learning something everyone involved sees value in? Well I've got a few ideas:
- Tailor your process. Just as in individuals, learning is different for each team, company, product, etc. You need to figure out what you need to learn and then make a plan to learn/test that as quickly as possible and in a way that makes sense for you. For example, don't just literally follow Steve Blank’s Customer Development techniques and expect to learn what you should, let alone get your teams on the same page. I don't think the traditional Customer Development process works all that well for web apps, for example, once you're past the initial learning phases.
- Scale appropriately over time. You'll want to figure out a scalable and repeatable way to keep learning from your customers on an ongoing basis. Customer Development will shift more into User Research, for example. You'll probably rely more heavily on metrics-based learning, etc. Be sure you're looking to adapt as you build and iterate on your process, and always have an eye on what you need to be testing and learning as your product evolves. Do this right and the value will become clear to everyone.
- Involve everyone. It's pretty hard to deny the value of Customer Development or User Research when you're knee deep in it talking to customers. This has an added benefit, especially when doing field research and getting out of the building. An extra pair of eyes or ears, and someone to record notes so you can focus on listening, is great to have.
- Overshare. Tell people about your learnings. Figure out a way to share everything with them all the time. Get feedback, get ideas for new learnings.
- Try to get into metrics early. Do this, even if you need to do it by hand. People tend to love bite sized information and numbers work great, especially for management and engineering types. If you do interviews, for example, share regular reports with hard, meaningful numbers in addition to qualitative data.
- A little teaching goes a long way. People love to learn, it's one of the reasons why this stuff is great. It not only directly informs your work, it's fun to do. Instead of expecting folks to blindly buy in—and let's face it, we all do that at times—you might look to take some time to educate people on the value of what you're doing. User Research is a pretty easy sell, you just need to take the time to sit down and explain why it's worthwhile.
- Question everything. Including your Lean practices. None of this, in my opinion, replaces vision and having solid vision means knowing what questions to ask, who to ask those questions to and when to ignore the answers. :)