Hit the Right Note
When I talk about requirements in the classes I teach, I talk about the importance of including use scenarios: typical situations where a user encounters a problem. All good technology should strive to solve real problems for real human beings, whether you’re building B2B or B2C products. And we should provide that information to development, so they can design and build the products that address those problems.
Understanding unsolved problems can be difficult to do, particularly with information coming in bits and pieces from all product stakeholders. Everybody in the organization wants to do what's best for the product, to make it dominate the market and to have a higher profit than anyone else. We can have faith in that. The issue is that each of the stakeholders has a fractured view of the market:
Sales. Sales might tell you they lost a deal because a product didn’t have a certain feature or they might say, “If you add this feature, I’ll win the deal of the day.”
But the people that sales deals with are the ones who are already trying to buy your product—and they might not even really understand what they need. When I first thought about having portable music, all I knew was that I wanted some sort of a digital player. The technology was fairly new and my only real requirement was that I needed it to handle my whole music collection. (I can’t stand to leave Tool or Mushroomhead at home.)
When I purchased my first player, I soon realized that it was really hard to load the songs and group them together. I didn’t know enough during the buying process to ask the right questions. (And eventually, I gave that one away and got a more user-friendly model.)
Everything that happened after the sale was using criteria, but sales only has access to the buying criteria, because they move on to the next deal once the sale closes.
Customer support. Another sliver is customer support, and they get their information from customers who have already done business with you.
Customers tend to call support to ask for very specific improvements to the existing technology, such as wanting to push a certain button or produce a specific report. That type of input usually focuses on the user’s perceived solution, rather than providing a deep understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve.
The danger is that your existing customers have already accepted your technology and said it’s good enough to solve their primary problems. They don’t provide insight into the problems of the rest of the market–including the problems that might cause others not to buy.
Executives. Business executives tend to have big visions; they see what is possible overall. Sometimes they are company founders who got a really good idea into the market, and have proven they can be successful at building products.
When they share an idea for a product, they truly believe it is the right one. But they got it based on their interaction with a very small fraction of the market. Maybe it’s the very large customers who were asked to be on the customer advisory board. Or sometimes, their ideas come from their memory of what the market used to look like. Either way, they still only represent a sliver.
Development. Even development might provide its own view. When working in part of the code, a developer might suddenly remember hearing from customer support about a related problem. They want the product to be successful, and might think it would be efficient to fulfill the request “while they’re in there”—even though they didn’t actually see it in a requirement. They do often see enhancement requests come through, but that only provides data about a small portion of the current customers.
And where does product management come in? Slivers of information fly in from all over the company, but even if we read it all and do perfect analysis, we’re left with an incomplete picture. In many cases, the largest portion of the market is those people who seem like they should want our product–but for whatever reason, they’re not shopping. Who is talking to them?
Product management must discover, understand and evaluate the problems in all parts of the market. We must put all of those slivers of knowledge together and supplement with our own pragmatic research, until the market puzzle is complete and clear—or at least until the picture is recognizable! That data leads us to the right decisions on the path to a highly profitable future.
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