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How Do I Incorporate “Early And Often” Customer Feedback Into Product Development?

So, you are getting on the Agile / Lean Startup bandwagon and want to do the best you can to get “early and often” feedback and start learning how to “fail fast”.  Good for you!  Let’s back up and explain why you want to do that. Then we’ll fast forward to some practical suggestions as to how […]

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April 11, 2013

So, you are getting on the Agile / Lean Startup bandwagon and want to do the best you can to get “early and often” feedback and start learning how to “fail fast”.  Good for you!  Let’s back up and explain why you want to do that. Then we’ll fast forward to some practical suggestions as to how to start doing it.

Customer Feedback Makes Your Product Decisions Data Driven

We often talk about Agile methodologies as ways for the Product Owner to be able to see progress and make business decisions in a matter of weeks, not months.  But let’s take that a step further.  As a Product Owner, you can’t make business decisions in isolation from your customers.  In fact, even if you go to a million focus groups to talk about customer problems, the way you want to go about solving them in your product may be entirely different than you think.  Recently, I worked with a team who spent a long time developing certain features based on focus group feedback, but when it went live, they learned a great deal more about some of the nuances the focus group had left out.

By putting your product out there for consumption, whether it be a prototype, beta site, or the real-deal, you have just opened up a world of opportunities to make your product decisions based on information — not hunches. The faster you are able to verify this information, the more nimble you’ll be at responding to market demands.

Push Your Comfort Zone on How Early You Engage Your Customers

Understanding that every customer is different, the best customer feedback loops I’ve seen have really pushed the limits on how soon products engage their users.  But there’s a subtlety to it, too.

Let’s take Gmail’s recent email change.  You got to “try it out”, right?  Change-adverse users didn’t have to adopt like the early adopters did, but the early adopters were warned — “we’re still seeing how you like it!” said Gmail, in essence.

Fix Your Mistakes Faster

Let’s just get this out on the table — you will not make a perfect product on your first try.  In order to live up to the expectations demanded by your customers, (assuming you do a great job at “failing fast”) you’ll need to do a good job of recovering fast, too.  It’s good that you are Agile, that’ll help, but make better software engineering practices a priority in order to right the ship in a timely manner.

Let the Data Decide

Assuming you have launched your product, there is an unbelievable amount of data at your fingertips.  Let’s talk about how to use that data to your advantage.

First, cast a wide net in the data you capture.  There’s just tons of data out there ripe for your taking.  Some of this data is available in a web analytics tool, like Google Analytics, or Web Trends, to name just a few.  You may need to get customer satisfaction reporting, such as ForeSee.  You may want to track your social engagement stats.

Then, know your key product features and identify the data that goes with it.  Here are a few examples.  One of my teams’ main product functions is providing users with a specialized search platform, so we figured out how to collect information on what users were searching on.  With that information, we could better tailor the product’s core functionality to better meet how the consumers were using it.  Another example might be collecting information from an e-commerce site on shopping cart abandonment.  Ask yourself all these questions, and more:

Next, identify any correlative relationships between your features in the world around you.  Have you heard the famous story of how Walmart learned that when hurricanes hit an area, their customers stock up on Pop-Tarts?  You can do the same thing.  The type of events you’ll want to track are going to be different based on whatever you are defining as your key product features, but you may want to track externalities like weather so that you can begin to build known and unknown relationships with what your users are telling you.

Finally, smarten up on how you use that data.  The worst possible management strategy for all this data is to never look at it.  Or, just as bad, freak out about a Facebook comment here or there.  The truth is:  you will not please everyone.  Yes, you should let help desk comments or customer survey responses change how you view your consumers.  Maybe you want to change your requirements personas because you realize you are testing really well with an unexpected audience.

Just the Beginning

Ok, I know, I know.  There’s a lot to think about.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  To be really smart about your product management, you may need a product management or operations data warehouse.  There are all kinds of cool things that you can learn about your product, or even feedback into your product real-time.

Got any questions about customer feedback or data warehousing for product management or development?

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