This article details the why, what, and how of my ongoing journey to create a product discovery process at an enterprise software company. I have structured it in five parts: situation, task, action, challenges and results in order to help you understand my thinking and approach to my work.
Change in any company culture is often filled with challenges and pitfalls, but overall it requires self-reflection and honesty and this is what I am trying to achieve in this piece of writing.
When I first became a Product Manager just over a year ago, I became acutely aware of an ongoing problem in my current company. The problem is that there isn’t a formal product discovery process that can be called upon to validate new product ideas with users. Instead the conversation is focused on the solution and how best to build it, rather than on finding common and painful problems experienced by our users. This is a problem that has affected many B2B products, where the value of UX design has long been secondary to the number of features.
This issue is exacerbated by the fact that there are no UX researchers or UX designers in the organisation. It means that no validation of the solution or the subsequent user journeys is taking place, and the concept of creating quick and easy prototypes is alien. Although the adoption of product discovery and UX design techniques is relatively new in the world of enterprise software, I see these as essential ingredients in the creation of modern, innovative and successful digital products.
A lack of a product discovery process is something that Marty Cagan, founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group, wrote about in 2007. However, I feel that it is symptomatic of a market that only rewards output, where each company is trying to out-feature the other.
When enterprise software companies fail to see value in the design-led programme it means that the user’s problems are not considered from the start, and user experience is often an afterthought rather than the main driver.
I think of myself as a big picture thinker, and in the enterprise software market, I see a large gap for the business that is able to scale design practices to better serve their customers. This has proven successful in the consumer space with the likes of Airbnb, and is seemingly the catalyst in revolutionary Banking sector apps such as Monzo and Starling Bank.
Although the challenges are slightly different, I don’t see any reason this could not work for enterprise software. SAP, for example, have now put greater emphasis on the importance of UX design and Design Thinking and although their approach is still to be proven successful in reality, I think their ideas are moving in the right direction.
My task therefore has been ,and continues to be, to convince senior management that product discovery and UX design functions are valuable and important parts of an enterprise software business. I have done this by writing out a formal process and following it through, using my UX design skills along the way.
My vision is that by formalising the product discovery process it will encourage us to better collect and understand user insight to establish the real problem, and identify the pains that our customers will be willing to pay for to resolve.
Following on from this it will demonstrate why we need to build up our UX design capability to continually test prototypes to validate user journeys, while in parallel continuing to work on innovative functionality.
I have jumped into the world of UX with both feet. By learning more about the UX process I have managed to improve my understanding of how I can create and implement a product discovery process, as well as become a UX resource for the business.
I began by successfully making the business case to take a 10 week part-time course in UX design at General Assembly. I took on a live project so I could demonstrate the value that UX could offer the business. I have also taken on other UX design projects in my free time to better understand the discovery process, and work on improving my user interview technique. Since finishing my course at General Assembly I have taken on tasks within the company in user research, synthesis, interaction design, wireframing and user interface design.
I also go to monthly UX meetups in London including UX Crunch, Product Tank and the UXPA events so I can stay in touch with the industry, network with other designers, and learn about other people’s best practices and challenges.
I have been collaborating with the development team lead to ensure that the process ties in seamlessly with product development. On top of this, I have started using design and user focused vocabulary in meetings, and although this is a small thing, it indicates to other colleagues the way I am thinking.
When it came to writing out the process, I detailed out each step with the following stages: idea generation, competitor analysis, analytics review, market research, stakeholder interviews, user interviews and contextual enquiry. The aim of this document is to guide other members of staff through the product discovery process in future.
Getting stakeholder buy-in
I encouraged the need to create a formal product discovery process by identifying it as an area of weakness for the company, and I continue to push its importance, by getting stakeholder buy-in. This involved convincing the CTO that UX design has a place in the business both through my General Assembly coursework and from other case studies. I wanted to demonstrate that discovery can work alongside our product development process, and I was successful in gaining approval to move forward with creating the plan for discovery.
Trying to create change in any company can be tough, but I feel strongly enough about the importance of product discovery to persevere.
No user interaction
One of the first indications that a formal discovery process was badly needed was my lack of access to interact with actual users. In enterprise software, this is a unique challenge because users are often scattered across the globe and they may be contractors that change frequently. Although this design research challenge is unique, it doesn’t make it less important.
Founder of User Interface Engineering and UX design thought leader, Jared Spool, believes that all staff members should be exposed to users for at least two hours every six weeks as a gateway to improving UX design within an organisation. This isn’t restricted to just Designers and Product Managers, this is everybody.
I see getting to know your users as a key component of Product Management and UX design as it can be a big step towards improving usability and overall enjoyment. Unfortunately, this is not something that is actively encouraged in my current company except in the case of consultants and salespeople. This makes it very difficult for me to understand user problems and how best we can create a solution to overcome them.
I see a lack of interaction between users and Product Managers, as a fault in company perspective on how digital products should be built. This situation, for the most part, validates my hypothesis that for enterprise software organisations, output still comes before outcomes. This is one of the reasons a formal product discovery process needed to be created.
Because of the nature of some of our products (on-premise windows applications) there is currently no analytical feedback to indicate how users are interacting with our software designs. This means that, other than support tickets, we have no way of knowing which areas of the product users are encountering problems. Therefore, developing features and fixing bugs is a reactive exercise rather than a pre-emptive one.
Qualitative research and contextual enquiry could remedy this somewhat and help us to understand user behaviour in their own environment. These techniques would allow us to better perceive issues within the product experience without the use of available analytics.
The biggest challenge, and the one that has the biggest impact of company culture change, has been proving and demonstrating that design has business value to senior stakeholders. Many senior stakeholders were sceptical that this was a need within the business, and many don’t believe that they need to evolve and adapt when their products are selling well.
But, what about the next five to ten years? What needs must the business perceive now to secure future success? I don’t believe that the past experience of senior managers alone is enough to rely on in order to build great new products. I believe that it is through constant validation and testing with users that businesses will make better software. This is where the product discovery process comes in.
Through my learning and ongoing development of a UX design skill set, I feel I have begun to improve our design capability in the company and enabled us to deliver features that better suite our users’ needs. I am asking ‘why?’ a lot more when features are requested, and am about to push out our first System Usability Study to current active users. I continue to push the importance of design, which in turn is pushing the importance of focus on our users.
So far I have managed to get the development team lead and the CTO on board with this product discovery process. My course at General Assembly has also helped demonstrate how UX design could be used in the context of our business. I still have some way to go with convincing other senior stakeholders of the value design can bring, but the process is currently being used as part of our Product Strategy Board process to help discover and define problems we see our customers and the market having in future.
I have learnt that great design motivates and inspires me, I feel like design is in my DNA. I truly believe that UX design can be the differentiator between mediocre and great products. That is what gets me up in the morning, and allows me to persevere despite stakeholder scepticism, geographical challenges with obtaining design research and lack of analytical design feedback loops.
I am hopeful that this product discovery process will provide tangible value for my current organisation, so that we can continue to make great products that engage and delight our users.