After a meeting at work today, I thought about one question that was written boldly on one of the slides. Who is the customer? After the answer to this question was provided, I immediately started thinking of some statements that I have heard in product management that can be very dangerous when trying to build a successful product. I consider these statements dangerous because most of them have led to poor product decisions and steered companies in very wrong directions.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, nor is it to say the statement in itself is wrong. The main problem is that most times, it is used out of context or without a proper understanding of what a good product development lifecycle should be. Without hesitating, let’s consider my (ever-growing) list of dangerous statements I hear often as a product manager
1. Customers will love it.
This is by far the most common statements thrown around in product development. Ideas come from everywhere and anyone who cares just a little about your product would have an opinion about it. From what they like, to what they dislike, and the feature they wish could be added. Engineers, designers, executives, and everyone in your company probably has a bunch of ideas on what they would love to see next.
The danger in this statement is that everyone thinks they’re the typical customer. Subconsciously, they’re thinking “If I like it, then everyone would like it too”. This statement is usually thrown around without any data or customer discovery to back it up. It is very important to remember that most of what we would like to see are just ideas and always “expect that many of our ideas won’t work out, and the ones that do will require several iterations” [Inspired, Marty Cagan].
The next time someone tells you “customers will love it”, remember to ask them how many customers they’ve tested the idea on and how much customer discovery they’ve done. Don’t be surprised if the answer is zero.
2. Customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
I know you might probably be asking: “how dare you say this is a dangerous statement?” Let me explain. I agree with this statement ONLY if used in the right context and only after you’ve truly done due diligence and hard work to properly understand the user’s needs.
If you do not know your user and what they need, then throwing this statement around to justify your next big idea can be very dangerous. So before you use this statement, you must be very confident that you truly understand your customer, their “job to be done”, and that whatever it is you’re building is going to solve any pain points that exist with the current solutions. If you don’t understand any of these, then sorry to break it to you, you’re not the next Steve Jobs.
3. Stakeholder: I am the customer
Imagine a high ranking executive or stakeholder in your company who’s idea helped create your company’s current cash cow. Maybe they may have even founded the company based on a personal problem and then found there’s a market for it. Months or years later, they remain the primary filter for all ideas. If they like it, then it’s approved, if they don’t, then it’s probably a bad idea. No customer discovery, no data validation, no user tests.
This statement comes from these types of stakeholders. One example I can think of to describe this statement is like hitting a jackpot in a slot machine and believing it’s because of how you dropped the coin. Maybe lightning can strike twice, but we all know the odds are extremely low. It is important as a product owner is companies like these to always find a way to validate the ideas with proper customer discovery, data, and/or user tests.
4. This should be easy to build
This is the trap of execution without proper planning. Unfortunately, many product owners can easily find themselves saying this statement. I shamelessly admit to saying this a few times. I’m a strong believer that anything is easy ONLY if you know WHAT to do and you have the right plan.
Unfortunately, knowing what to do, especially in the product development lifecycle, is usually not so straightforward. In my experience, a simple flow diagram on a whiteboard with the relevant people (designers, engineers, stakeholders, and of course the product owner) in the same room can help with this dangerous statement.
Most of the time, what you thought was “easy” to build is going to take at least a couple of sprints to get right, and if it takes more than one sprint then it’s not as easy as you once thought.
5. It will have no bugs
“The only software without bugs is a blank document” [anonymous]. As a product owner, setting the right expectations and communicating them is a really important part of the job.
Anytime you hear this statement, just remember that your primary goal is to have a process where you can catch the most critical bugs in development before rolling out a feature to users. Whether it is by having a good QA process or spending time documenting and testing yourself, it is very important to accept that crashes and bug reports are part of the job and exposing a subset of your users to a new feature or version is usually a safe way to catch most critical issues while not getting on the bad side of most of your customers. The next time you hear this dangerous statement, be sure to set the right expectations.
These are the statements I can think of right now. As I hear more dangerous statements, I’ll add them in this post. Do share some of the dangerous statements you’ve heard in your experience as a product owner or just working with a product team.