How to improve your product search
In the tech world, where the products we work on must cope with the stresses of a rapidly changing marketplace, finding customers is essential to keep pace. Doing it often and well is one way to keep your business ahead of the competition. Despite this, most searches do not go beyond the first mention. Researchers often talk about not having a seat at the table and not having enough respect to gain traction in an organization.
Let me know if this sounds familiar: you work hard to talk to customers and get a bunch of data. Oddly enough, none of this ends up in the final project. The project ships, and as you can imagine, it falls flat. No one listened. Nothing has changed. Everyone lost.
Good research involves more than just talking to customers. Good research is targeted, packaged, and sold like any of your favorite products. A good search understands the subtext, or what is hiding under the surface of the answer given to you, and adjusts the dynamics. Good research understands that if someone says they like the color of a button, it could mean they like what the button does, but can’t really explain why.
In short, good research helps teams understand the why behind the why – which motivates the client’s need to find a solution to the problems he is facing.
A dichotomy exists between what we see in the lab, including lectures and classrooms, and the reality on the ground. In the lab, we see our research as a way to get closer to the mental models of our clients. Since we are so close to work, we see, with each iteration, how much subtext exists in the conversation and observation. We see our research strengthening or weakening our theories, and we are able to incorporate the data into our work as we go along.
Outside of the lab, however, people are busy. They have their own priorities. Each discipline has other areas of concern. Curiosity often takes a back seat. This process is what happens when you bring data into a complex world.
Before moving forward, we need to recognize this reality and address the problem: Our research is not being respected because we are not meeting our stakeholders where they are.
Let’s talk about how to solve this problem, using the prism of discipline, visibility, and negotiation to ensure your research is successful.
The search is full of subtext. In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of us become researchers in the first place – the client is a mystery we’re trying to solve.
It’s fun talking to customers and trying to understand them. But that fun is why discipline is important. Although customers have a million things to say, we have limited time to engage with them. If we’re not careful, a lack of discipline can float through our analysis and results and lead to research that fails to address critical business issues. If your research doesn’t affect the issues people care about, it will be ignored, and with good reason.
Therefore, it is essential that the rest of the organization sees your attention through the quality of your artifacts i.e. good study guide and thoughtful questions. This will give your research a level of seriousness and keep you honest about the work you do. You will need to be rigorous in the inputs you use in the research, in the way you conduct the study, and in the way the results are perceived by those involved.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How do you compose your research study guides? Are they rigorous? Have you compared your study guide to company and team goals, with open, thoughtful questions focused on the customer’s perspective and a clear goal?
- Is your hypothesis falsifiable? If that can’t be “wrong” then prejudice takes over and ruins research. You will see what you want to see. Can the customer refute it and lead you to a better path?
- How clear are you with your recommendations after your analysis (three max – remember your stakeholders have their own full plates!)?
Keeping things neat takes discipline. To build trust, give others in your organization the recommendations they need and, if people outside the research team want, a place to read how you arrived at those recommendations. If you keep this discipline, you will notice that more of your work is used in the organization.
One of the things that sets Waffle House, a southern US-based restaurant chain with large 24/7 diners, is that you can see the kitchen right in front of you. When you’ve had too many drinks, it even works as entertainment. We love to see how the sausage is made. This peek behind the curtain is one of the reasons Waffle House is one of the largest and most beloved restaurant chains we have.
Your research is no different. As Cyd Harrell notes, communicating your research to the world is just as important as doing it. Start by inviting other people to the lab. It is the most effective gesture that you can do for the visibility of your research. Asking your engineering team or salespeople to help you with your research gives them an appreciation for the work involved in drawing conclusions.
Want to get them there? My bet is that these people are curious about what people have to say about their products. Play on this curiosity. A few anecdotes from the research will raise some eyebrows. Give them a recording of a session. Bring them on board during the analysis phase to talk about issues that fall within their area of responsibility. Small nudges will bring them into the room. Once there, I rarely saw anyone not wanting to come back.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when thinking about search visibility:
- When was the last time people had the chance to view your research while you were doing it?
- Who is involved in creating the research? How aware are people of the problem you are trying to solve?
- How many times have you shared your unfinished research? Is there a cadence with the rest of the company / team?
The first step in making people care is to educate them. There is a ton of value just in people knowing about the process. You can create even more excitement when people can engage and be a part of your plans.
A basic principle of advertising is the Rule of Seven. This saying states that a person must see or hear something seven times before purchasing a product or service. Less than that, and the listener will more than likely forget the name of the product. Whenever you watch an ad or listen to a podcast ad, note how often the company name and offers are mentioned. I guess you will hear it seven times.
Think of our own research in the context of the Rule of Seven. In an advertisement or podcast, you hear the name of the product repeated seven times. This is what it takes for an idea to remain in the consciousness of another person. So how often do you talk about research, in general? If I were to review your product development process, how often does the research come back? If you don’t talk about it, what makes you think people will care?
Equally important, how good is the pitch? You’ve spent time disciplining yourself and increasing your visibility, but at the end of the day people are busy. They need to have the data presented in a way that is close to their hearts.
Here, stakeholder management comes into play. Ask a simple question like this: “How would you like to get information from me in the future?” This can help you create the right artifact at the right time. For example, if a CTO likes to read transcripts and the CEO needs a presentation, it’s your job to provide both. Coming back to the first point, if you are disciplined it is much easier to do this since your research will be contained and accessible.
Ultimately, when selling your research to your stakeholders, be sure to tailor the story to the audience and then repeat it often.
How is this different from visibility? Visibility consists of making your work known to people on your terms; the sale is on the action on theirs.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when evaluating how you sell:
- Who is buying your research? Are they in-org or out-org? What are their priorities? Is this reflected in your artifacts for them by highlighting what is important to them?
- How does research, as a whole, generate resources for the company? Does it help people solve problems? How can you highlight this process?
- If the research is good, how often do you present it to people who make decisions?
Research has to be sold over and over again. People need to understand the why behind the why. Without selling, the work you do can make it seem like you are just talking to customers all day long with no action. You will need to do some good research.
At the start of this article, I talked about the importance of research. It’s not enough to just talk to customers and show people you’ve spoken to them. None of this matters if you can’t get the research in the product. The first step towards this goal is to understand that your research exists in a system and it will not sell.
A team that maintains discipline with its research practice while making it visible and salable is the team that draws its conclusions in the product. These findings make the difference between a product that stays in touch with the customer and wins the market and others that also become competitors, doomed to follow the leader and eventually die as the market evolves.