Customer feedback and validation
Product managers have a tough job. They’re tasked with market and competitive analysis and laying out a product roadmap that delivers unique value based on their customers’ demands. What makes this so challenging is that the needs and demands of those customers can often change. To be successful in the role, product managers need to build the right feature at the opportune time, while keeping development risk low and maximizing adoption potential.
Making decisions based on guesswork is a risky endeavor. Make the wrong decisions and teams face costly rework and lost time to market. Product managers can’t just assume, they must validate their ideas beforehand, directly with their customers.
At UserTesting, our experience shows us that continuous customer feedback throughout the development cycle is a highly effective strategy that product teams should employ to get their products right the first time. Product managers from Burberry and Rothy’s to Microsoft have relied on UserTesting to keep a pulse on people’s needs and desires, reaffirm their product decisions, and build better brand experiences.
As NBCUniversal transitioned more to digital media, it leaned on UserTesting to boost subscribers and enhance their messaging. After running tests to see how competitors stack up and settle debates between Product and UX teams, this led to not just external but internal success—from millions more digital subscribers to their UX team earning more credibility.
To better understand the importance of customer feedback and validation in product development, we reached out to 12 leading product managers and product management experts to get their thoughts on the topic. Here’s what they had to say.
How important is customer feedback and validation to your line of work?
Kenton Kivestu, CEO and Founder, RocketBlocks
“Creating great products is all about two things: 1) uncovering core user needs and 2) meeting them. If you don’t have some evidence-driven approach for the first part (e.g., anecdotal feedback, user data, experimentation), your ability to consistently deliver on the second will suffer.”
Sachin Rekhi, Founder & CEO, Notejoy
“While teams often declare themselves as customer-centric organizations, the ones that truly live by this mantra do so by building a culture of constant customer discovery, validation, and customer-driven decision making. While many teams take shortcuts to this, the ones that do it well are the only ones who are able to deliver truly delightful customer experiences.”
Tanya Koshy, former VP, Product Management, UserTesting, Co-Founder, Starling Cooperative
“Customer insight is one of the most powerful tools PMs can leverage to build better products faster—and avoid the dreaded guesswork or rework. Incorporating a customer feedback loop into the development process helps product teams innovate and iterate quickly, and drive informed decisions founded on validated customer needs.”
Steve Johnson, Vice President of Products, Pragmatic Institute
“For years, product managers have used observation and interviews to provide market insights. And they should! But, nowadays, it’s easier than ever to supplement intuition with evidence-based validation and experimentation. I tell product managers to visit a few and then validate with a bunch. Our most popular quote for folks who have attended our classes on product management and marketing is this: ‘Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.’ Market data is the key to influencing others in the organization.”
Jeremy Horn, The Product Guy, Head of Product, Tafifi
“Every day a product manager should be validating (or invalidating) a hypothesis and running experiments. Product managers deliver their greatest value when they go beyond what users and other stakeholders think the product needs and get to the core of what would best help their users while furthering the key business objectives of the larger organization. There are many ways to approach experimentation—from within the same team responsible, to executing the core roadmap to various dual track approaches, always remembering to find the cheapest way (meaning with few to no engineering resources) to learn the most in the least amount of time. In the end, as product managers, we should always be striving to learn and engage with everyone and everything that touches our products.”
Tremis Skeete, Senior Product Analyst, Paralect
“It depends. My work takes me into private and public institutions, and we’re all aware of their respective differences in culture and incentives. However, what they share as product owners is they are always faced with the question of whether or not experimentation ensures their success. In those moments, I would ask them, ‘If you had to choose one, which is most important to you? Product design, product delivery or customer satisfaction?’ I do this because product owners who choose ‘customer satisfaction’ realize that the success of their evidence-based decision-making strategies depends upon validating ideas with user feedback.”
Michael Luskind, Product Manager, Connected
“There is always a sense of urgency in bringing a new product to market. The process of discovery and validation through qualitative methods and rapid prototyping significantly de-risks product development efforts. Understanding prospective users and customers is critical to that success. Investing effort in uncovering their behaviors, motivations, mental models, and the systems in which they operate is a serious competitive advantage. Failure to conduct proper discovery work upfront will lead to an investment in design and development based on faulty assumptions. The result of which is problems for delivery teams downstream—the work becomes costlier, timelines get extended, or products get shipped half-baked, and team morale suffers. It’s therefore imperative that teams move aggressively to find out which problems/opportunities are real and worth pursuing (are we making a bet on the future or capitalizing on existing behaviors?); which are they best positioned to solve given their unique capabilities; and whether it’s technically possible to solve in a way that makes for an amazing user experience. This hypothesis-driven validation leads to insights that help teams design solutions at the right level, build memorable and delightful user experiences and, as a by-product, generate real value.”
Mike Hopkin, Lead on Purpose, Product Strategy Consultant, Hopkin Creations, LLC
“Product managers have many responsibilities, which can differ among companies. One of the most important is understanding the market(s) their product(s) serves. One of the best ways is to talk with people in the market, observe the way they work and learn what drives their decisions. Validation plays an important role here; it’s important to validate your assumptions with real-world experience. Using experimentation can also play a part in your success in this area. The ultimate goal is to acquire the data and facts that will drive decisions for new product enhancements to existing products. This feeds evidence-based decision making, which leads to successful products.”
Dr. Jim Anderson, The Product Doctor, The Accidental Product Manager Blog, Blue Elephant Consulting
“So what’s the cost of being wrong? Product managers often find themselves in a tricky spot – the rest of the company wants to know ‘what’s next’ for their product. Sadly, none of us seem to have the ability to read the future, so we have to rely on what limited real-world skills we have. What this means is that we need to find ways to make the right decisions. Making the correct decision is often as easy as simply making sure that we don’t make the wrong decision. We can make this happen by taking the time to think about what direction in which we want our product to go. When we think that we know the answer, that’s when it’s time to do some experimentation. Take a step in that direction and see how your customers respond. Use their feedback to validate your decision—or use it to change your mind! Making good decisions is hard. Making decisions based on the evidence that your customers have provided you with is easy. The next time that you are called on to make those tough decisions, take the time to do some experimentation so that you can allow your customers to tell you what the right answer is.”
Daniel Alvarez, VP of Product & Design, NBC Owned Television Stations
“Extremely important. The NBC and Telemundo owned stations’ product and design team, which supports more than 40 local stations and two multicast networks, is constantly running experiments to validate our hypotheses and help us determine if we should iterate, persevere or pivot away from an idea. When creating digital products in support of our local TV stations at our scale, we need to do our best to ensure we’re heading in the right direction before we invest heavily into a product.”
Mike Mace, VP Market Strategy, UserTesting
“One of the most common causes of product failure I see is faulty assumptions: those times when you believe you understand what customers want, or what the market will do, but in reality, you don’t. That can affect everything from the features and pricing you use to little details like the language you choose for the product and the designs you use for buttons and icons. Teams are usually pretty good at gathering input in areas where they know they’re ignorant, but it’s natural for a fast-moving group not to question its assumptions because everything else seems like a higher priority. That puts you at risk of failure. The answer is to get in the habit of validating all your assumptions, even the ones that feel safest. It’s not all that hard to do if you get in the habit of doing research as you go along.”
Chris Massey, Product Lead, Mind The Product
“‘Data-driven’ is a real buzzword—it has been for some time! But it would be better to say ‘data guided.’ Crucially, quantitative data is immensely valuable when it comes to building a high-resolution picture of what your users are doing, but it’s not as effective at building the insights into why they’re doing it. If you’re lucky enough to have a lot of customer contact, coupled with deep domain knowledge, you might be able to see some of the ‘why’ by spotting patterns in the data, but you’ll always be dealing with an abstraction—potentially a well-informed abstraction, but still. When wondering what kind of information to be gathering about your customers, it’s worth thinking beyond just ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ types of information, and also consider ‘self-reported’ and ‘direct’ data gathering methods. Make sure you’re looping between human conversations and insight to build an understanding of your customers’ motivations and underlying needs, as well as experimental and analytics data to flesh out and add detail to how they’re meeting those needs.”
The verdict: customer feedback and validation is essential for building the right products fast
Product managers are curious, analytical, and strategic by nature, making them excellent experimenters. Unsurprisingly, every expert we spoke with agreed that customer feedback and validation are essential tools that drive the creation of products and experiences people will love. Whether it’s through fast and remote customer research or on-demand interviews with customers, a continuous practice of customer-centered exploration uncovers valuable insight at every stage of the development cycle.