December 16th, 2015

Always go back

In enterprise software, it’s often the case that a customer will need a specific feature, in order to use your startup’s product. In the first meeting, you gather the requirements, and follow along watching them work or explain the problem scenario. You have a pretty good idea of what the customer needs, so you jump into design.

Now you think it’s all about executing — designing the feature and getting it built. Moving fast and breaking things.

But the choices you make after the design is done are even more critical to the success of the feature.

Take time to save time

Time with customers is paradoxical. To a performance manager, the best use of a designer’s time is having them behind a computer screen designing things. I’ve learned that this is a false assumption. In almost every case, taking the feature back to the customer has yielded valuable, unexpected learnings and new opportunities.

Recently I was working on a feature that was a hair on fire problem for virtually every new customer we were trying to sign. I had designed the feature around a customer’s use case, then generalized it so it could be used by others. Because this feature was so critical, there was a desire within the organization to throw engineering resources at it and build it right away.

But I took a prototype to the customer anyways. It turns out, the customer didn’t need one of the two flows in the feature, because they had decided to rethink their internal process. We also learned about some other problems they were having with the product, and during this short usability review, they indicated that there was a sales opportunity – they wanted to use the product with other teams.

Any touchpoint is valuable

The more time you spend with customers, the more you are exposed to unexpected learnings. In 2011, Jared Spool’s team did research into the correlation between exposure to customers and good design work. They found the secret lies with design teams that visit customers regularly:

The teams with the best results were those that kept up the research on an ongoing basis. It seems that six weeks was the bare minimum for a two-hour exposure dose. The teams with members who spent the minimum of two hours every six weeks saw far greater improvements to their design’s user experience than teams who didn’t meet the minimum. And teams with more frequent exposure, say two-hours every three weeks, saw even better results.

Repetition is an important part of learning. Spending more time with customers allows you to see through your customers’ eyes – their pain points and unspoken needs – over and over.

Before sending your next feature straight to engineering, take it back to the customer and get feedback. Do it today, if you can. And take the performance manager or another non-design executive with you. Your product and bottom line will be better off.