I've been at Automattic for 10 months and one of the most fascinating aspects about Automattic is how fast everything is. New projects will get spun up, team members added, and a minimum viable product (MVP) out the door in less time that it takes your typical company to green light the project. How is this possible? Automattic is faster than WooThemes ever was. And Automattic is 450 people and WooThemes prior to the acquisition was 50 people. How can a 400 people company move this fast?
The unbelievable speed is due, in part, to how empowered all employees are to solve their day to day problems.
I've been heading up customer development for WooCommerce for a year and a half and it's time for me to share some of my learnings. The first aspect of product management I want to talk about is customer development. More specifically: customer interviews and how you can get the most out of them. I have two different ways of interviewing customers and they're both useful for getting different types of information.
When I need to know specific information about how or if our customers would even use a specific feature I ask a small group of people a series of questions that give me the real reason they might need a feature. I call these targeted interviews because you're looking for several specific pieces of information.
I also make time for impromptu interviews whenever a customer says something unexpected. For example “Google Shopping brings in 30% of my traffic and I wouldn't be here if you guys didn't offer that extension”. All things considered this is a small extension and one we don't really promote. When someone says something unexpected it's an opportunity for you to challenge your assumptions and learn about your real product market fit.
The targeted interviews are what you often hear product people talking about. They're straight forward to conduct and their return on investment is obvious. You can spend a couple hours interviewing customers to build the right feature or you can just build things and hope that you're right.
One thing I do that really helps the interviews is to send out a survey to get some baseline information from a large number of people. When our customers started asking us for a point of sale integration we really had to narrow that down that could mean any one of a dozen different things.
Do you want all WooCommerce payments to go through a POS system?
Do you want products to somehow sync between both systems?
Do you want to see your reporting all in one place?
Don't Rule Anything Out
Don't make decisions for your customers. Ask them everything you want to know -even if it's not possible.
I'm a big fan of keeping surveys short. The shorter the are the more likely people are to finish them right? This makes sense but don't rule anything out. It's always useful to collect data and what's impossible today might be trivial tomorrow.
This exact thing happened to us while researching Square. I didn't include any questions about integrating payments because I looked through their API and it wasn't possible. It wasn't until months later when we opened up a discussion with Square that we found out it actually is possible and it's the top request by their customers.
Now that you have data from a survey or two to give you a baseline it's time to fill in the gaps. It's especially useful if you can interview someone who's already doing what you want to do. In our case there were a number of people who already use Square and have to manually sync information. It's easy to talk to them and see their biggest pain points.
What do they really care about?
Is it primarily inventory syncing?
Seeing the reporting in one place?
Or syncing product data (prices, descriptions, and images)?
From these interviews you can really understand people's use cases and you can write thorough stories to cover each of these cases. And your surveys should help you prioritize the stories.
While targeted interviews are great for helping create a new feature; exploratory interviews help you understand your customers and feel out all of the edge cases. I love going to conferences and meeting our users. I can usually help them find something they're looking for or I listen to their story and tell them how awesome it is they're using our software. Sometimes though I heard a really unique use case or surprising use case and that's when I'll setup a Skype call where we can talk in depth.
I have a couple of questions in mind when I start the interview but these interviews tend to wander and that's the point of them. It's okay to let them wander. By wandering I've found out a lot of useful information:
Why one of our users has spent 4-5K on custom development instead of buying one of our much cheaper products
How one of our customers has a horrible experience taking phone orders
Why customers sometimes use outdated software in conjunction with our software
Where our customers get the perception about # of products and the speed of your site
None of the interviews started out this way. I was originally interviewing them about some of our features like Product Vendors, WooCommerce Subscriptions, & Storefront.
One of my favorite take aways was from the user who spent 4-5K on custom development. Not only did he not spend a dime with us but they never did any market research on their market and they didn't know how to position themselves in his market yet they have been reading our blog for two years. And from that it's obvious we need to revamp our marketing not just the product.
Before you setup your store understand how you want to position yourself
Before you customize your store with code did you know that we offer 300 extensions which do 99% of everything you'd ever want to do?
Find Your Blind Spots
The product management does a great a great job with targeted interviews. We find out what we need to know about feature X that we've been planning for a month. What the community isn't quite as good at it is finding your blind spots.
It takes a bit of space in your schedule. Usually you're busy doing something when one of those unusual cases walks right in front of you. Take the time to talk to these users and understand all the weird edge cases and holes that your users fall into.