02003 Product Research in Today’s Tough Times

I don’t think there is even one Product Manager out there who doesn’t know deep down that the very first step to creating successful software is research. Those Product Managers who concentrate on the marketing side have even less of an excuse to ignore the axiom that before you write a single line of code, make sure you find out what your customers really want.

So why is it that Product Managers everywhere fail to follow this cardinal rule? Too many of us in product management approach research into what potential customers want from our software with the same dread as a root canal. You’re not sure exactly how to carry it out. What’s more, you’re sure that you could never justify to the management team the effort and expense required to conduct that research right.

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground between full-blown research using focus groups observed behind mirrors, interviews of thousands of people, statistical sampling, — and doing nothing. There are a few simple efforts you can undertake, aided by recent technology, to get a good reading on what customers and prospects want, in order to ensure that you invest your development dollars wisely. Here are a few ideas.


First: Wait For the Pattern to Appear

Before listing some specific suggestions below for research that doesn’t require more resources than you’ll ever have, I’d like to talk about a phenomenon I’ve observed when conducting research with customers and prospects on how they want to use software. I have found that after you have gotten the opinion of several participants, say half a dozen to a dozen, you begin to see a pattern emerge.

Say, for example, you are trying to determine whether your future customers want to build a report by looking at database information graphically or in folder and list form. The first three or four interviews may be highly contradictory. After ten interviews, however, it becomes clear that 80% of those interviewed want a graphical interface. Each new interview simply confirms either the majority or minority opinion.

The fact of the matter is that even if you interviewed hundreds of people, you would wind up with the same pattern. So all you really need is to get input from enough people that you see a clear, consistent pattern emerge, and experience no particular surprises or deviation from the pattern as you continue to conduct interviews.

The pattern will not necessarily be simple. You may see a pattern emerging that shows a three-way split between the graphical camp, the proponents of folders and lists, and those who use a mix of the two. Such a pattern would lead to the conclusion that both options must be available to satisfy an evenly split future customer base.

Conference Call Focus Groups

You are not required to sit behind a mirror watching a dozen people discuss the software for five full hours. Consider pulling together a representative sampling of participants into a conference call. While it becomes very difficult to read tone of voice, the phone call provides some anonymity, encouraging participants to speak up. If you can get a lively discussion going between participants, you can sit back and “observe” over the phone.

Conference calls should probably not go beyond an hour and a half to two hours long, though you can conduct a series of calls to get the equivalent of the five-hour focus group.

Webcast Focus Groups

Another way to bring research subjects together is to create a virtual meeting room using webcast or webconferencing technology. These meetings are elaborate enough, with slides, live software demos, speaking, and the ability of any participant to mark up sample screens, that participants take them seriously.

One of the best features of webcasts is not how cool they are, but how short they are. You don’t want to keep people on a webcast for more than two hours at a time – for their sanity and yours (though there’s no reason not to hold three two-hour webcasts on three different days if you need that much time). A webcast attended from each participant’s office is much less disruptive than traveling to a one-day meeting. People are more willing to participate in your research when they don’t have to sacrifice a whole day.

One thing I recommend for webcasts is that you ask participants to attend in a private location, such as an office or training room where they can be alone. This prevents interruptions and lets each attendee feel free to contribute to the conversation.

And don’t forget that you can conduct polls and surveys at any time during the webcast, and show the results to all attendees as they vote.

Formalize the Informal Interview

This is a technique you can use without going through the preparations and time required for teleconferences or webcasts. Chances are you are continuously conducting product research in an informal way, talking with existing customers in the course of other discussions, talking with prospects at trade shows and conferences, hearing feedback during demos and training. Many Product Managers collect this information in their head, and obtain a clear idea of what the market wants, but find they have a hard time justifying their opinions to management because they don’t appear to be backed up by distinct feedback from specific sources.

The way to incorporate this ad-hoc research into a more formal effort is to have an interview form at the ready for these occasions, and to take a slightly more thorough approach to asking questions and noting down the answers. You could even offer free giveaways if your subjects will agree to spending a couple more minutes with you while you wrap up your questions.

By collecting this information in writing in a consistent format, over time you wind up with documented research where a clear pattern appears. Plus you have the confidence that comes with material that backs up your opinions.

Not Quantity But Quality

The suggestions above open up new avenues that let you conduct significant product research in a business climate that doesn’t accept extensive surveys and full-bore research efforts. But if you focus on building findings of sufficient quality, you can make do with less quantity – at least until budgets aren’t so tight.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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