Getting in front of the customer with Marty Cagan

We sit down with the Godfather of Product to discuss the importance of empowering product teams to constantly learn from their customers.

9 minute read
Marty Cagan

For most product people, Marty Cagan needs no introduction. Often referred to as the “Godfather” of modern product or the most influential person in the product space, Cagan’s bona fides precede him.

However, what’s more important than reputation is the real work he’s done in leading product thought over the past decade. His seminal book INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love is found on shelves of current and aspiring product leaders the world over, and now, his much anticipated follow up EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products is already making similar waves.

What’s more—Cagan truly understands the value of user research for product teams. Naturally, we’re big fans. In this interview, we cover myriad research and product related topics and get Cagan’s take on continuous discovery, lean research, the democratization of research, why he loves intercept testing, and loads more. So, sit back, relax, and dive in to see what one of the sharpest minds in tech has to say about research.

You’re now almost twenty years into your career at SVPG. What are you working on these days?

I started by focusing on product teams—product managers, product designers, and engineers working together to solve hard problems for your company and customers in ways that customers love yet work for the business. The book INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love is aimed at this group.

That work exposed the issue that, in many companies, product leaders were not aware of their responsibilities to provide an environment where their teams could do good work. So my next focus was product leadership, and the new book EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products is aimed at this group.

I’ve recently begun the next step, which is to focus on those people who are trying to help product teams, product leaders, and product companies. I refer to that as “coaching the coaches,” and it’s an acknowledgment that far more teams and companies need help than there are people with the knowledge and experience to provide that help. So, we’re trying to do our part to address that problem. We are starting by helping to develop a network of coaches in Europe but hope to take that to the rest of the world.

What was the general thesis of INSPIRED and EMPOWERED, and what do you hope people take away from those books?

INSPIRED is all about product discovery, which is how a cross-functional product team discovers a solution worth building—a valuable, usable, feasible, and viable solution.

EMPOWERED is all about product leadership, which provides the necessary coaching and strategic context to the product teams, including the product vision, product strategy, team topology, and team objectives.

What I hope people take away from both books is that the best product companies in the world produce products in ways that are very different from most companies and that it’s not an accident that they are also the most valuable companies in the world. And most importantly, there’s no reason you can’t change to work like the best companies.

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How do you retain customers in an atomized world where their options are seemingly infinite?

There is no question that the bar is higher today than it has ever been, and customers have more choices than ever before. But despite the crowded playing field, the key is to truly take care of your customers and not worry so much about competitors. It’s remarkable how many companies I meet that give lip service to caring about their customers but, unfortunately, have little idea of what it means to truly work to continuously innovate on behalf of your customers.

Talk to me about the importance of qualitative user research.

Every good product team I know uses both quantitative and qualitative techniques. They are both critical because they answer different questions. The quantitative techniques tell us what’s actually happening (good or bad), but they can’t tell us why. The qualitative techniques help us learn what’s wrong with our products and provide great inspiration for how to fix them.

What advice and tips do you have for PMs looking to better understand their customers?

The higher-order point is that if you are doing user-facing products, you need a steady cadence of getting in front of your customers. Normally, that means the product manager, product designer, and at least one of the engineers spend at least an hour each with three different users or customers every week. We combine this with quantitative techniques (such as running A/B tests to see which solution approach performs best).

You advocate for PMs to do user research each week. Some would argue that this may not be possible for early-stage companies with limited resources. What would you say to them?

If resources are limited (especially time and money), then that makes this work especially critical, as it’s all about learning quickly. It’s much faster than older approaches where someone would just take a guess and then spend months to build, QA test, and deploy, only to find out customers didn’t want it.

But it is important that product teams pace themselves. I often find teams spending way too much time validating that customers actually have the problem (even when the evidence is clear) and not nearly enough time figuring out if customers will actually buy their approach to solving the problem.

When you cut to the chase, what’s really hard about product is coming up with a solution that is so much better than the alternatives that the customer is willing to switch.

What’s your opinion of lean research? And what do you say to those that argue this approach leads to cherry-picking or biased results?

There’s no question this is a real problem in some companies. I’ve seen product managers working without a trained product designer or user researcher, and also not including their engineers (but that’s a different issue), and just going nowhere fast.

I advocate a compromise that is used at many strong product companies. These companies have a relatively small number of professional user researchers to coach and enable the product teams to do good product discovery work every week. Realize that this model depends on having professional product designers on these teams, and also realize that most professional product designers have had some level of training in user research. So the combination is powerful.

It’s worth pointing out the problem on the other extreme.

In several old-school companies, professional user researchers do all user research, and months later (literally), the product team gets a report that they rarely even read, let alone pay attention to.

Why? Because they weren’t there learning firsthand. I tell user researchers that their work is too important to be ignored, and they need to enable the product teams to learn directly if they want to have a real impact.

You’ve talked about “intercept testing” in the past, where you essentially get real-time feedback from people already using a product. Could you elaborate on this?

Yes, we love intercept testing and have done it for many years, but today the tooling makes this easier than ever. The concept is simple. If we are building an app to help someone book a table at a restaurant, you could go to pretty much any adult and ask them if they’re ever booked a table at a restaurant before, and if so, could they please pretend to do that now so we can see how well our app solves that problem. However, if we can get people that are actually in the process of booking a table, the learnings will be much more valuable. In the first, the focus is usually on usability. In the second, you quickly get to the tougher issue of value— would they really use this to book a table?

One use of user research firms is to recruit users, and of course, with intercept testing, that process is essentially automated. But the actual running of the test and interpreting the learnings is where the user research skills are still critical.

Talk to me about some methods for continuous product discovery. Why do many PMs neglect this, and why is that a mistake?

In truth, product discovery is only relevant if the product team is empowered to actually come up with the solution. Sadly, most companies are not working like the best companies, so they don’t empower their teams. Instead, many stakeholders, executives, or even customers (which is why we hate focus groups) tell us what features they want us to build.

In which case, all the product team is asked to do is design and implement that feature, build and QA test that feature, then deploy that feature. We call these feature teams because it’s all about delivering features and projects on a roadmap.

Product discovery is necessary when we are instead given a problem to solve, and now the product team has to figure out a solution that will actually solve that problem. And that requires considering the various risks—value, usability, feasibility, and viability—and testing out different approaches until we discover one worth building.

Researchers sometimes feel like they’re ignored and don’t have a meaningful seat at the table. How can they improve their relationships with PMs and other stakeholders?

The key is shared learning. Unless the actual product team—the PM, the product designer, and the engineers—learns the issues firsthand, they will not act on those learnings. So the key for user research is to enable that shared learning. Not to do the research for the team, and not let the team go off and struggle to do the research themselves. But rather to work with the product team to coach and enable them to do good research every week.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs just getting their start?

There are so many great places to start—I started as an engineer and have benefited from that to this day. Product design is a fantastic role and is in very high demand. Product management can be a stressful role, but it’s where many entrepreneurs learn the critical skills that eventually lead to running a startup. User research is a great place to develop true customer-centricity. Data analytics and data science are some of the fastest-growing areas.

Why do you love what you do?

I love building things, and today, almost everything is powered by technology. And the enabling technology changes literally every day. So every day, new things become possible. I think any other career would have been boring compared to that.

About the contributors
Scott Newman
Scott Newman
Writer of words, imbiber of scotch.
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