Tips to stay User-focused as a Product Manager

Product Management
January 31, 2023
5 mins read

The success of many professions depends on how well they understand their customers and build products and services accordingly. Even Subway servers need to carefully listen to their customers to make the right sandwich for each of them. An extra onion and you’ll probably end up losing a customer.

A career in Product Management is on top of the “professions where one needs to be user-focused” list. But before we dive into this further, let’s first understand the difference between being user-focused and user-led.

According to Martin Eriksson, the co-founder of Mind the Product, “Being user-focused means ignoring or even going against explicit user wishes in order to better serve the user.”

A great example of this would be 37signals, a famous computer software company, which ignores many of its users’ requests to add more features because the number one request they receive is asking them to keep the product simple. If the company were to grant every single one of their users’ requests, the product would get bloated, less user-friendly and ultimately less likely to meet users’ needs.


To make the process simple, here are some easy-to-execute yet effective ways to stay user-focused as a Product Manager:

1. Place users at the center of your process

Although many of us say “we’re building this product for the users”, sometimes it so happens that we center the process of building the product around business needs. For instance, “How do we build this feature with the least assistance from the development team?”, “How do we execute this launch with the least amount of stress?” “How can we build something that leadership would love?”

Every decision and process that goes on should be undertaken by standing in your customers’ shoes. This happens only when you talk to your customers on a regular basis, and understand their use case and pain points and that’s when you’ll see your business grow.


2. Be honest

Another quality of being user-focused is that you don’t have to ship out every feature that was requested. If a feature is likely to ruin your product’s unique selling point or cause many customers to leave, then you can confidently say no to such requests.

Decisions about if a feature is going to be part of the product roadmap and if so, then the timeline for the same should be communicated with your users. This can be done either by having a public roadmap which most companies have today, through slack groups, or in-app widgets which can be used to collect customer feedback and suggestions.

Some companies even go to the extent of helping customers understand why they’re not prioritizing their suggestions over other things. Being this open and transparent means your customers feel that they are being valued which in turn entices them to give even better and more useful feedback.

3. Understand the user’s journey

To understand your user’s pain points with your product, you need to first understand their experience with your product. And there’s only one sure-shot way to do this, by talking to them and asking the right questions. But this doesn’t mean you talk to them once a month because to understand their experience and emotions, you have to be consistent with communication.

By listening to several users describe their experiences and pain points, you can create a composite user journey that represents the typical customer experience. These pain points are areas your product can make a difference.

Here are some examples of the types of questions that usually prove fruitful:

  • When did you last encounter a problem with this technology?
  • Can you describe exactly what happened?
  • What attempts have you made to solve the problem?
  • What further issues have stemmed from the initial problem?

Here are some questions to avoid:

  • Would you buy a product with this new feature?
  • What is your opinion on this novel idea?
  • Would you use something like this?

These questions are clearly product-based and not user-based which will only give you the answers you are craving. The point of understanding your users’ experience is to give you answers and perspectives you didn’t know existed before.


4. Validate different assumptions

When considering building a new product or feature, it’s quite natural for many of us to let our assumptions about the market affect our decisions. After all, the initial idea for the product probably came from your own experience or could be derived from something you witnessed in the market. But before deciding to go ahead with it, you should validate your product with the actual market and not your perceived one. This can be done by talking to users and leaving your assumptions and biases aside.

With enough data and information about your user’s needs, you can form different valid assumptions with which your product can be built, and these different assumptions will help you envision different features that will likely make your product more successful in the market.

5. Shift the focus

“What is your most valuable contribution to your team?”

PM 1: "Helping my dev team plan and deliver work within a sprint".

PM 2: "Keeping my team focused on delivering the highest priority features”.

*Incoming request*

Customer: “It would be great if you could add a integration.”

PM: “Sure, I will add it to the backlog.”

While these are good things to be doing, they’re not exactly the answers of a customer-focused PM. The PMs here are more focused on the team and deliverables than on the user. Efforts to align your team on their priorities and delivering features should not be a PM’s #1 priority but a bi-product of good product management.

The words that PMs use with their team, stakeholders and customers dictate the focus of the conversation. When having product conversations outside of your team, try to avoid discussions around words like "code", "dependencies", "deployment", "roadmap", etc. These all focus on the actual work being done, and not the value you are delivering to the user.

Try to change the words you use to "value", "problem", "customer", "user", "experience", "journey", "workflow", etc. This will help you to change the focus of the conversation to the users' needs and perspectives.

This also changes how a customer-focused Product Manager would respond to incoming requests. When a customer requests a feature, PMs should ideally respond with something like "that's a great idea, how are you solving the [associated problem] right now?", or "we hadn't thought of that, what would [proposed solution] help you accomplish?"

These questions help the Product Manager get down to the root of the problem before deciding to add it to the backlog.


6. Co-create with your users

Your customers’ valuable feedback helped you understand the principal pain points they were facing during the user journey, and you’re ready to start developing your product. But that doesn’t mean you do it in isolation. You have to keep testing and retesting the prototype of your product with your users at every stage of development.

While customers told you about the issues they faced, now it’s time to test if the solution you developed is the X that will solve this algebraic equation your users gave you. You can then fine-tune the prototypes by following their responses.

PMs should also be mindful that some users can give you false feedback just for the sake of giving a positive response.

7. Define success in users’ words

Kristin Zibell, Director of Product Management at Akili Interactive Labs, talks about how at the beginning of any project she asks her team to define what success means in their user’s words. She has been using this technique for many years to keep her team and herself focused on the user at every step of the project. They create a success statement for each user persona which helps them establish a strong user-centered foundation at the start of a project that’s carried all the way through to reviews.

During discovery, you can assess the validity of this statement with real users, and ask what information or actions they’d need to achieve success.

To review each design and build, Zibell then asks her team this one question “Can a user achieve this stated success from here?” The answer to this will tell you which pieces of information and actions are necessary—and which are irrelevant.


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Rhema Rosy
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