A blank page, much like the one I’m using to write this article, used to scare me. A new product can feel the same way. There’s nothing to build on and so many more risks. There is a place between nothing and a great product that’s full of uncertainty. Earlier in my career, this was nerve-wracking. Now, after a decade of managing products and advising, I find it exciting.
These days I look forward to starting research and discovery with nothing but a hypothesis. Throughout my experience, I’ve used many frameworks and tools to support the research and discovery process. I may not know exactly what I’ll uncover in the discovery process, but I know how I’ll get there. I look forward to becoming smarter every day and knowledge unfolding at a rapid pace. And I just want to pinch myself because I’ll never learn as rapidly as when I’m starting out not knowing much at all.
With the launch of Launch Management at ProductPlan, I’d like to walk you through what research and discovery looked like for us and share the lessons we learned along the way. So if you are looking to launch a new product or feature, you are prepared with some tips to reduce that blank page anxiety.
1. Start with your company and product mission and vision.
ProductPlan is the product management platform that operationalizes product strategy and execution best practices and drives innovation, trust, and accountability. To fully realize this and empower product teams to change the world through their products and the people they serve, ProductPlan is more than roadmapping.
With our vision in mind, we stepped back and asked, “What can we do for customers in addition to roadmapping to achieve our vision?” Understanding (or defining) your vision is important because the journey ahead is not easy, and you’ll need something to reflect on to help you remember what you are trying to accomplish and why.
To be a product management platform that operationalizes product strategy and execution best practices and drives innovation, trust, and accountability.
2. Understand your customer outside of why they use your product.
Focusing on how and why customers use your product is incredibly valuable for increasing the depth of your product offering but less valuable for increasing the breadth. When you understand your customer outside of why and how they use your product, you can uncover customer jobs and opportunities that your customer may not ask you to solve. It’s possible there isn’t a solution to these problems on the market today.
What you learn is your opportunity to surprise and delight your customers. I approached this through customer interviews, spending time in groups and forums where my customers are, and looking for gaps in the product stack my customers use in their larger workflow outside of just how they use ProductPlan.
This work led me to dig into the product team’s role in launching products. There seemed to be a lot of pain and no solutions for launching a product or feature from the product manager’s perspective. There was so much pain that I found improving launches is one of the first tasks a new product operations team is responsible for.
Bonus Tip: When a customer shows up late to a meeting (happens all the time, right?) and says, “Sorry that I’m late. It’s been a crazy week.”, ask them, “Sorry to hear that, what’s going on?”. You’ll learn what’s causing them stress. And that can give you incredible insight.
3. Refine the problem early, even if you are uncertain.
The challenges with launching a product are immense. It would have been easy for me to take on the whole domain in my research. It also would have been easy to move to analysis paralysis and thoroughly research every opportunity within the domain.
Instead, I chose to refine the problem to a high-level report or dashboard of upcoming launches, so that product managers and stakeholders could get a quick glimpse at upcoming launches and whether they needed attention.
Early research into where this and other opportunities would sit in the market and its impact on customer pain around managing launches informed the decision. Researching outside of customer interviews can be incredibly valuable, but there’s nothing quite like talking to customers to learn quickly whether a problem or opportunity has potential.
4. Be prepared to be wrong.
If you don’t prepare yourself to be wrong, you might miss noticing when something isn’t right! When we get too invested in a solution early, we’re more likely to see all the ways that the solution is the right solution. Bias is really strong and can cloud your judgment when it comes to recognizing errors.
For this reason, I celebrate when I find out I’m wrong through research since it’s a sign that I didn’t let bias cloud my vision. You’ll find out sooner or later, and it’s far less costly to find out sooner. The opportunity around managing launches was appreciated and validated by customers, but why and how was different than I expected.
Instead of being most interested in the higher-level dashboard, the customers we talked to were most interested in managing launches at a lower level. They wanted something that would reduce the time they spent project managing the launch and would be a tool to support co-ownership and accountability for cross-functional colleagues contributing to launching deliverables. This led to us keeping the scope and design of our Launch Management dashboard very lean and instead investing more in the checklist.
5. Embrace the shitty first draft.
As a writer, I’m a big fan of Ann Lammot’s Bird by Bird, where she encourages writers to write a shitty first draft. If your intention is for the first draft to be shitty and not perfect, then you free your mind from the burdens of perfection. It allows you to move faster and be more creative, even if some of the creativity results in more bad ideas! I’ve embraced this in many areas of my life and work life, including Launch Management.
The first visual designs for Launch Management took a lot of time and had a lot of emotion tied to them, especially when we received initial feedback from customers that we didn’t quite understand their problems. When the product designer and I discussed the feedback, we revisited the job of those early designs. We didn’t need those early designs to test usability or guide our engineering team in what to build. Since we were working on a greenfield product, the primary job of those early designs was to take the stories and words customers shared with us and reflect our understanding in the form of a picture.
The picture didn’t need to be pretty. Customers just needed to see themselves in it. With this in mind, I asked the product designer to create an “ugly table” so we could see if this would better show customers the solution to the problems they were facing. Tables are relatively uninteresting aesthetically, but we went with something functional first.
When this got the validation from customers we needed, and they communicated that what they were looking at would be a good solution, we started improving the functionality and aesthetics. That imperfect and frankly ugly table was perfect for the conversations because it was relatively quick to produce, and our customers felt comfortable giving us critical feedback on something that was far from finished.
6. Your customer is the expert, even if they don’t know the answers.
Because Launch Management was the first solution that helps product managers launch products and features, there wasn’t anything on the market we could reference. Also, our customers didn’t have experience using anything to solve this problem either. We asked questions about launches and how to measure the success of launches. As a result, we got a fair amount of “I don’t know” answers from our customers.
While managing a launch created all sorts of challenges, our customers didn’t have expectations that this problem could be solved. So they hadn’t thought deeply about it. Instead of gathering our customers’ direct feedback, we focused on the pain they were facing and understanding the cost of not solving the problem, where our customers were the experts. As these stories started to come together, themes started to emerge, and the solution of Launch Management developed.
7. Look for your customers to take ownership and action.
When your customers assume ownership of what you are showing them and start talking about how they’ll use it with their team, you’ll know you truly understand the problem enough to solve it. When you can move your customers to action, you’ll know you have a good solution.
As we iterated on a solution through designs and prototypes and listened to customers, we got to a point where we could talk about the problems we were solving with Launch Management with product leaders the validation was clear. A customer asked, “When can I use this?” as they peered through the screen. They then asked, “Are you in my Slack?” and excitedly pumped their fist. Their language shifted from asking us how it would work to telling us how they would use Launch Management. They even shared how it would help them with their challenges.
Similarly excited, people who weren’t customers yet wanted to talk to our sales team. This is when the research and discovery team at ProductPlan looked at each other and said, “It’s real now. It isn’t built yet, but it definitely feels real.”
8. Use your beta wisely.
While customer betas shouldn’t be about finding bugs, getting feedback before everything is polished and perfect is ideal. Beta feedback can help you figure out what to build next through enhancement requests, but I really love beta feedback to understand if I’ve effectively solved the problems I intended to solve.
I used ProductPlan to create a list of jobs necessary to accomplish the Launch Management vision. I put the jobs in the order I expected us to accomplish them. As our fantastic customer success managers talked to customers and gathered feedback, they added it to the board.
The feedback created this beautiful curve on the board that showed enhancement requests for the jobs we were working on. The feedback was validation (in addition to the customer interviews) that customers recognized the problem we were trying to solve. It was a good signal that we were moving toward product-market fit.
9. Rely on the experts on your team.
Launching a new product is not a one-person endeavor. Even the most skilled among us need colleagues with different expertise to help. Similar to when launching products, when discovering a new product, product managers can take too much on.
By focusing on where each of your team members is an expert, including yourself, you can work together more effectively. In researching Launch Management, I relied on the expertise of product design to create a great customer experience. I looked to product marketing to craft a message and test it with our customers before enabling our customer-facing teams. And I trusted engineering’s expertise to build a right-sized solution that would help us learn quickly and scale.
Since I trusted that my colleagues owned their expertise, I could focus on my own expertise. This was amplified during our launch. We eventually got to the point where we could use Launch Management ourselves. Which meant I wasn’t the one keeping track of all the launch deliverables.
10. Know that what you launch with won’t be done.
Launch Management is far from done. Our first priority was to visualize what was happening in a launch alongside the roadmap strategy. So, the launch manager and launch team could easily see the launch. Rather than having the launch live in the launch manager’s head.
Once we have the launch visualized, we want to help customers standardize their launches. By doing so, they become more predictable and ultimately more successful. Our enterprise customers really value standardization as it helps operationalize best practices and creates predictability in teams across the company. As much as I want all of this to be possible in our general availability launch, I’m launching with less. And instead, I’m focusing on learning from customers to refine the Launch Management strategy.
Research and discovery for a new product is a big challenge. It requires relishing ambiguity on the path from turning that blank page to a product your customers love. Once you’ve got that figured out, then ProductPlan will help you make launching it easy. Learn more about Launch Management when you schedule a 45-minute demo with us!