Product managers should not do customer research

Product managers should not do customer research

One of the most essential pieces of advice from the YC playbook is to launch the product right away and talk to customers. Talking to customers is really important to understand what the customer wants and then customize your product to fit their needs. This is much better than waiting to build the perfect product. Of course this advice works the best for a startup or a small organization. 

As a PM, the pressure to deliver is extremely high. The PM has multiple responsibilities and needs to manage different stakeholders. At the same time, the PM  needs to maintain the continuous release of products as decided in the product roadmap. 

The pressure of product delivery along with managing stakeholders makes it extremely difficult for a PM to also manage user research. This is not to say that a PM shouldn’t talk to customers but if the role of the PM includes coordinating user research then you’re setting up yourself for failure.

What does user research involve? 

User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies  There are different frameworks available for user research. 

Typical user research framework starts with defining the business goal along with the research goals. Then we identify the participant profiles and target market. Once we have the goals and the profiles defined, the next step is to define the timeline for the research. After that we look at the different research methods that we will adapt for the project such as surveys, interviews, facilitated brainstorming, behavior analysis and card sorting.

Defining this framework for your product and then executing in itself becomes a full time task. Hence expecting a PM to perform this task along with working on all their other tasks is asking for the impossible. You are setting yourself up for failure as a PM if you include user research in your job responsibility. The best way to accomplish user research is to hire a UX researcher. Hiring an UX researcher pays handsome dividends and rewards in terms of understanding the user by leveraging the framework and offloads the workload from the product manager.  

The role of the PM is to interact with the UX researcher and define rules and the framework. Then let the researcher do the work. The PM should help the researcher understand the product features, target market and share the timeline using the product roadmap. The UX researcher will then take all these inputs to execute the framework  and come back with the results within the agreed upon timeline. 

At this point, the UX researcher will be a stakeholder in your product roadmap and his/her iinput her will be critical for the product decisions. Backlogs and scrum cycles will now include a higher priority for the inputs from the usual researcher, since they directly reflect the customer feedback.

Remember that the UX researcher is not the only one providing feedback, but you also have sales folks and field reps talking to customers. The field reps bring in feature requests along with the marketing team and hence your customer feature priority should be a fine balance between all these different stakeholders.

If you run into budget troubles in hiring a full-time user researcher then there are a couple of temporary options.  One of the options that I have tried earlier is to outsource the work to a research agency. Another option is to hire a contract worker or a freelancer. The advantage of this method is that it’s easier to convince management to set a separate budget for a temp worker than asking for full time resources. A freelancer still gets you dedicated research that you always wanted and also helps you focus on your critical PM tasks.

Let me know your thoughts on PM not doing any user research. If you think the PM (even for large companies) should do user research, then I am willing to listen. 

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