Realize your product is not the center of your customers’ worlds

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume your product is the center of your customers’ world. After all, you’ve created the most amazing product ever, so who wouldn’t want to use it all day? Sure, you’re spending 40+ hours a week thinking about your product, though you’re sure that customers and users are just as enthralled by it.

If you want to be a good product manager, realize that your product is likely one of a multitude which your customers use in the course of a day. Only in very unique cases is a product truly the center of someone’s universe.  Product development teams need to recognize that they are thinking about their product much more than anyone else outside their organization, and make decisions about design and communication accordingly.

Overestimating the importance and focus your customers place on your product can have negative implications — here are a few examples:

  • You come up with a fancy new user interface, which you think is “better” than anything else out there, though it’s so different than the other programs your customers interact with that they can’t figure out how to use it.
  • You add features that users would find relevant only if they used your product exclusively.
  • You do not consider any potential opportunities to integrate your product with other services or products, and thus do not realize that those integration touchpoints are key to users’ workflows.
  • You use very specific terminology which is not easily recognized by anyone new to your product.
  • You send emails to people on your mailing list talking about nuances of your product, yet you don’t remind recipients what your product actually is. (I received an email like this recently, with the email boasting about new features in their 2.0 version — yet nothing in the email told me what the product was or what it did. Had I been a regular user, I would not have needed this explanation; however, since this was one of probably many  web-based free “beta” products I had signed up for in the past year, I couldn’t remember what it was or why I would have tried it.)

As a product manager, you likely think about your product all day, every day. It is very unlikely that your customers think about or use your product nearly that much; to them, it is more likely just one of a thousand stars in the galaxy.

Taking this into account, here are a few things a product manager can do:

  • Use existing standards whenever they are relevant and applicable. “Control-C” is the shortcut for copy — do not use that key combination for some other function. If there are standard sizes, connections, conventions, or metaphors with which customers are familiar, avoid breaking them unless are absolutely necessary — and even then weigh the benefits of the new approach versus the drawbacks of doing something different than what is expected.
  • Reinforce your positioning and benefits on a regular basis. For customers who are using a multitude of products, they may need a reminder about the explicit benefits and value proposition even well after they have made a purchase decision. Confusion or forgetting about your product could lead to apathy, lack of recommendations / referrals, or even negative attention.
  • Understand how your product functions as part of a system. Realize that your product needs to work with other products which your organization produces as well as products and systems created by others — including your competitors.

By not overestimating the importance and use of your product in your customer base, you will end up creating an improved product which ultimately will better serve the needs of your customers — and, in a strange coincidence, may actually make it a more important part of their day.

12 thoughts on “Realize your product is not the center of your customers’ worlds

  1. Jeff, Great post! Being able to integrate into the customer’s workflow is very important even if you have the game changing or “center of their world” product. There are always other pieces to the puzzle. Good timing for me as well, as I recently started pursuing new avenues of integration to make our solutions work better with other customer systems. I will keep this in mind while researching.

    Love your site, the insight, and the followers! Please keep it up!

  2. Great point Jeff. Most of us are too close to our products, whereas for our customers it’s just one of many products they use every day.

    A SaaS product I use recently revamped their entire UI using Flash. They now have totally cool looking UI and fancy icons, but I can’t figure out what those icons do as they’re too unique (even for standard functions)!

    Good point to keep in mind for all of us as we design new products/features, or new UI for existing products.

    – Raj
    Accompa – Requirements Management Tool for PM Teams

  3. I’m a graduate student in China and I just got my first job as a PM in
    Your post is very helpful for me.
    I must follow you. lol.

  4. Good reinforcement. For me the point that resonates the most is your first one: be careful when making some snazzy, revolutionary new interface – it may well be “better” than anything else out there, but are folks truly ready to adopt such a change into their daily workflows? And that of course reinforces another one of your points: my product is not the only one customers will be using on a daily basis, so it must “feel” like an integral part of the larger system.

    Good read – thanks!

  5. Users focus on their work product. Geeks focus on the tools. Geeks model the tools. Users model their work.

    Applications are like sunglasses. You look at them at the store. You put them on. They either fit your model of yourself or not. If not you put them back, and try another pair. Once you buy a pair of sunglases, you put them on, and you’re finished with it. If you have more than one pair, I suppose you will give them more consideration. But, typically, you are unaware that you have them on. They color your world, but you are unaware of that as well.

    We think through our tools. We consider them. Then, we get on with the work. We like it when we can be oblivious to our tools.

    A wrench is only an issue when it breaks and your knuckles get scrapped. Then, you have to go for the wrench complementors like degreaser, band-aids, and the Sanp-On Tools guy–tech/customer support.

    You want your customer to be oblivious to your tools. That means it fits. That means they pay for it with a credit card and don’t take the time, each month, to consider is it worth it, is it right for me, is it costing too much in lost time and rework? Being a tool used in the reimplicated state of unconsious knowing is the best place to be.

    You do not want to be the center of your users world.

  6. Great post Jeff. Personally I feel that this was part of the downfall of (albeit a small part of the downfall). Whilst their UI was uber cool, actually quite usable when you got used to it, it was so different to other search engines, that the learning curve was too steep.

  7. Thanks Jeff for sharing your thoughts in this area. We tend to like our product so much that we miss some of the customer’s basic expectations and behaviour abt our product. We must never take them granted.

    Harikrishan Verma

  8. Hello Jeff,
    Thank you for sharing your views. They are really very helpful and also makes you realise that to begood a product manager you have to wear a customer hat and understand his issues.

  9. Boy, does this hit home. Everyone who works hard on a product thinks it is the center of the universe…for certain.

    I even explain this general tendency using the analog of Copernicus, and his helio-centric philosophy, being labeled a radical for suggesting that the Earth rotated around the sun.

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