Many product managers are faced with the challenge of building solutions for industries they have no hands-on experience with. Pilots and construction workers and doctors all need stuff, and it's pretty likely you never flew a 747, operated a backhoe, or performed open-heart surgery before throwing it all away to become a product manager.But some of us lucky enough to build products for roles or industries where we actually have first-hand experience - we ARE the end user! That makes things much easier, right? Well...
Just because you could be A user doesn’t mean you are ALL users. Let’s think about some differences between you (product manager) and you (end user).Regardless of whether you used to actually do the job of your end user or have just spent endless hours interviewing them, shadowing them and absorbing their environment, you’re not doing their job NOW. You’re sitting in your home office, or are at your standing desk within the brightly painted walls of your well-funded startup, or working away at a major corporation. Chances are, your clients are not.Your goals are all about getting this product out the door and delighting customers, not delivering a ton of gravel, shooting down an enemy missile, or processing payroll more efficiently.You spend most of your time thinking about this product. Your customers might use it for a couple hours a day, once per week, or only a few times each year. It’s probably not raining inside your office, it’s not so loud you need to wear ear protection, you don’t also have to answer the main office phone every time it rings, and there’s not a tractor-trailer full of frozen vegetables waiting for your decision on which walk-in cooler they should be stored in.The list of things that differentiate you from your user is endless. You have different experiences, different environments, different schedules, and different objectives. While you might have many things in common as well, you are not currently standing in their shoes trying to do the same thing they are.That’s not to say your industry experience and deep dives into the working lives of your customer base are worthless; you’ve definitely got a leg up on anyone coming to this space cold. But it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that you “get” an industry and you therefore represent any kind of universal user. Instead, use your expertise to build out personas that truly reflect the various types of actual users and then find their real-world corollaries to bounce ideas off of and enlist them for customer interviews and usability studies.
Thinking all this great advice doesn’t apply to YOU since you’re creating consumer-facing solutions that should be universally applicable? We are ALL consumers, right, so this will be easy!Let's take a second to step back:This thinking is an example of the False-Consensus Effect, which “refers to people’s tendency to assume that others share their beliefs and will behave similarly in a given context,” says Raluca Budiu of the Nielsen Norman Group. “Only people who are very different from them would make different choices.”We can test this theory by thinking about a TV remote control: “Everyone watches TV, so the way I use the remote is the way everyone uses the remote.” This is a TERRIBLE assumption. For one thing, you probably have far more comfort and technological familiarity than your parents. You aren’t intimidated by all those extra buttons - you know what “AUX” and “HDMI2” means, and you might really want the opportunity to use picture-in-picture or zoom in. Meanwhile your 13-year-old cousin has been using a touchscreen since they were in diapers and cannot fathom why there are 37 buttons to choose from.As a product manager for a product like this, you need to design a solution that works for you, Grandpa, and your little cousin… along with the recent immigrant next door that is still learning English, the wealthy family with six TVs spread throughout their mansion, and the babysitter who just wants to turn on a cartoon so she can make the kids a snack in the other room.By working on your product - and being interested enough in your product that you took a job in a company that makes it - you are simply too close to it.“As a company employee, even if you look exactly like the early customer, and you built the product for people exactly like you, you have way too much domain knowledge to truly represent the long term customer,” says Casey Winters of Greylock Partners. “Your customer focus should always be on new or potential users, not early users.”It’s also important to remember that no matter how similar to your user you may be, you have no idea where they are in their particular customer journey. Are they just trying it out, are they a regular user looking to gain proficiency, or have they become a power user that wants to unlock additional value? You already know everything about your product, so it can be pretty hard to rewind your knowledge even if you’re otherwise a clone of your typical user.“If you work on a development project, you're atypical by definition,” says UX guru Jakob Nielsen. “Design to optimize the user experience for outsiders, not insiders.”
The simple solution to keep your products from being custom built just for you is testing. Let real users try things out, struggle, fail, and tell you all about it. These insights simply can’t be replaced with gut instinct or industry experience.Real users trying to do real things is the only way to stick your biases on a shelf and truly measure your product’s usability. And conducting these tests as early as possible in the process (and as often as you can throughout) is the best way to keep your actual customers front-and-center during the product development process.Beyond testing, the most important way to avoid this trap is to listen. Make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Interview both the users that use your product AND the ones that went with a competitor. Listen to the data: look at your analytics and logs to see where real users are having real issues. You already know the shortcuts, you already know what’s possible and what’s not. Finding out what less informed people are experiencing (and then addressing it) is the difference between a great idea and a great product.