Not Just For Musicians: Product Managers Can Practice Too

7K0A0129Contributed by Shane Treadway

Renowned Musicians practice for thousands of hours. Most of us type for thousands of hours in our lives. So why aren’t we renowned typists? I would argue that once our typing skills reach a satisfactory level, we stop practicing typing and focus on getting work done.

This line of thought led me to consider a similar analogy for product management. Once we understand the basics of product management, do we stop deliberately focusing on skills of the craft itself? Are there ways of practicing to become better? After all, renowned musicians don’t just play concerts to get better. They spend hours in focused practice, which pays off when they perform in front of an audience.

As product managers, understanding the customer’s experience is a critical part of our craft. And we form our customer’s perspective based on objective data, not subjective judgments. However, simply observing and talking to customers doesn’t mean that you have objective data. It takes skill to observe the relevant behavior or gain insights from an interview. This is where practice is helpful. Below are two practice exercises that can help you become more objective in data collection.

Practice Exercise #1: Improve Your Observation Skills

Isolating observations from inferences and judgments helps gather objective data. Often times though, it’s easy to lump everything together. For example, how would you describe the person below?

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law

If you said an old woman or a young lady you’d be right, but that would be a judgment. Mentioning an observation with the judgment makes it much clearer. The picture above can be an old woman facing you with a large nose and chin, or a young woman turned away with a necklace. Many people have argued back and forth: young lady, old woman. Once objective data like the position of the eyes/nose are brought in, the argument ends. Suddenly, people can see each other’s perspective.

Exercise A: Guess the winner of a reality TV show

Next time a reality TV show is on, write down some of your observations. For instance, how are the judges speaking? What does their body language tell you? And how much camera time is each contestant getting? Before they announce the winner at the end, see what your observations tell you about the winner for that episode. As your observation skills get sharper, you’ll be surprised by how good your predictions get before the big reveal.

Exercise B: Guess the caption of a picture

Next time you come across an interesting picture in a magazine or online, spend 5 minutes and write down your observations, then create your own caption for the image and compare it to the photographer’s.

One method I have found useful for recording observations comes from Stanford’s Design School. They call it the What, How, Why method and it’s linked here.

Why practice observation?

Practicing deliberate separation of inference and judgments from facts has helped me delve deeper into why people exhibit a behavior. If I can’t project my feelings and assumptions onto them, then I have to ask more questions to truly get into their perspective. That perspective helps me persuade others to build a certain product feature or approve a business case.  

Practice Exercise #2: Become a Better Interviewer

The second method involves recording a customer interview and watching it yourself or asking for feedback from your peers. A small tripod and camera mount can be found for $20 online, (though you can simply have someone hold one, too.) Interviewees may be nervous at first, but most quickly forget about the camera. In case you’re concerned, I haven’t seen it adversely affect interviews.

Once you’ve got an interview recorded, watch it two or three times depending on the length of the interview. Make a tally of how often you ask questions about what someone does, versus why they do it. What questions lead to a passionate response? When does someone reply with a lengthy, useless answer, and how you could redirect the conversation next time.

It’s also helpful to find others to give you feedback on your recorded interview. Find someone who has experience interviewing or another skillset that qualifies them to give feedback.

This exercise can be extremely constructive. For example, I have started doing two things differently as a result of observations I’ve made from recording my interviews. First, I’ve learned that I take atrocious notes when I interview alone. So now, I try to find someone to accompany me. Second, I have a tendency to ask “what” questions too often. I now prepare a list of “why” questions with my team before interview sessions.

Why are these practice exercises helpful? Because objective data makes it easier to talk with and/or persuade development teams and internal stakeholders. As product managers, we have to get better at capturing it, and sometimes that means perfecting cornerstone skills of the profession. This all serves the ultimate purpose of creating a better customer experience. So get practicing!

Please comment with your thoughts or email me directly at My Wife, My Mother-in-Law image courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia.


Shane Treadway Profile PhotoShane Treadway enjoys spending his working hours at Fusion Labs within Optum as a Product Manager. There he’s excited about making customer centered designed a bigger part of product development. At home he can be found fending off his cat while in the kitchen creating a scrumptious meal. He also loves passionately discussing ideas over a cup of tea.

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