brad dickason
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Use your damn product

Most people dream up improvements and a laundry list of features that they think their customers want. But most of them don’t actually use their product.

When I first started at Shapeways (a 3D Printing Marketplace), I was enamored by the intricate designs created by talented 3D artists. I would regularly browse through users shops and purchase cool little gadgets and trinkets. As a regular user of Shapeways, I felt like I could empathize with our customers. I remember talking to a shop owner who sold an item that I purchased and hearing complaints about customer service issues and how painful it was when we told their customers that an object couldn’t be printed (for example, due to variance in 3D printers). I remember hearing this feedback and thinking, “Oh yeah that sounds frustrating but surely if we help increase customers to her shops, those few models that fail will become a tiny fraction of sales." Holy crap I wrong.

Fast forward to a year later when I decided to open my own shop. I wanted to familiarize myself with our tools for sellers so I designed a custom dog tag and offered it for sale. My dog tag was simple, like dead simple. It was styled after the House Stark sigil from Game of Thrones and I offered it in Stainless steel or bronze. I purchased one for myself and thought it was so cool, I sent it to my friends and encouraged them to buy it.

Five friends purchased, five friends waited a few days, and five friends received an email that said, “I’m sorry, Brad’s model has been rejected. We are refunding your money.”

I was mortified. I was embarassed. What the heck? I WORKED at this company and I couldn’t make a successful product?!

This is only a fraction of the embarassment that someone who sells on this platform for a living must feel.

In that moment, I gained a ton of empathy for my customers.

Most Product Managers don’t take the time to use their product. I don’t mean “Superficially load up your product, poke around and be done.” I mean truly experience your product, day in and day out, to accomplish the same goals as your users.

Fred Benenson of Kickstarter tried to use his own product to raise money for a t-shirt. Seems simple, right? Doing so uncovered a host of pain points and improvements to the product that had gone unnoticed by the team:

“Getting one of those details right — backer addresses — made me realize we needed a better way to ensure we were delivering valid backer mailing addresses to project creators at the most crucial part of their project: reward fulfillment.“ -Fred Benenson, Kickstarter

These pain points typically lie in the depths of your product. The screens that only serious users access. Not the surface-level shiny stuff.

If you use your product like your serious users, you will start to truly understand them.

Bear with me and put your imagination caps 🎩 on for a moment. For the duration of this note, I’ll imagine that you work at a hypothetically ecommerce company. Let’s call it Bakeways (not in any way associated with my former company, Shapeways!). Bakeways enables bakers to sell bread to users all over the world. It’s a two sided marketplace with bakers and baked goods enthusiasts. (editor’s note: feel free to steal this startup idea, I would use it!)

Your typical PM at Bakeways would probably talk to a few bakers, maybe assemble a customer advisory council of bakers, and look at some data. They would probably get some solid insights and have a pretty good understanding of the baking space. They probably would even visit the site a few times per week and peruse the best baked goods, maybe even curate their own list of their favorite pastries.

But they wouldn’t try to be a successful baker.

Successful baker’s on the site have to do so many more things than just upload a few glamorous pictures of bread and prep their oven. They have to:

  1. Create a brand: Pick a name, a photo (and decide if they want to position themselves as a ‘serious baker’ or a ‘playful baker.’)
  2. Get a single human to care about what you’re doing (post on social media to attract your first click)
  3. Convince many humans to care about what you’re doing (repeatedly attract clicks and/or build an audience)
  4. Convince their audience to visit their Bakeways profile (catchy photo, clever brand name)
  5. Convince one human to actually pay you for your baked good (product photos, product description, pricing)
  6. Ship it to them (fulfillment, shipping, returns)
  7. Deal with your interface (which is probably confusing)
  8. Deal with your customer service (which might be frustrating, slow, etc)
  9. Deal with actual customers (who are probably angry people on the internet)
  10. Pay their rent and other expenses (ok I guess you can skip this one since you have a day job :D)

There is a TON of work that goes into using your product and by just casually browsing your site, you are likely missing 90% of it. Going through the process as a real user will not only allow you to develop DEEP empathy for your customers, but it will help you pinpoint specific problems with your experience:

“Once I shipped my shirts, I wrote up an internal email to Kickstarter staff detailing my fulfillment process. That email became the kernel for a number of discussions about how we could better improve the data processing creators face when delivering their rewards to backers.“ -Fred Benenson, Kickstarter

Eddie and Arsenio traveled to America to understand our exotic culture

“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” -Sun Tzu

“To know your customer, you must become your customer.“ -Brad

How to become your customer

  1. Set a real goal. If it’s an e-commerce site, try to make $1000 using your site.
  2. Make a real product. If there are specialized skills required (e.g. 3D Modeling), pay someone to help you make it.
  3. Don’t tell people you work on the platform (to level the playing field).
  4. Go through the whole process: signup, uploading your products, and trying to get your products noticed, and customer support.

Hint: It’s really hard.

If you need to sell something, try designing mugs or other printed merchandise. A great way to start is to design a T-shirt (you can have a logo or design made for cheap on sites like Fiverr). You’re a Product Manager, you can do this! :)

Gary Chou teaches a course at SVA and has built an entire business on the premise that everyone should be able to make $1,000 on the internet. He helps people go through this exact process because it’s incredibly hard.

“The hard thing is there’s a real possibility that you will never get there, or that no one will care, or that it will never work.” -Gary Chou, Orbital NYC

That is the reality your users face every day. Embrace it, and you will uncover a ton of useful insights about how people use your product.

How to productize these insights

As you’re going through the process of actually using your product, take copious notes so you can share them with your team. They will treat you like an expert on your users after sharing this writeup. Fred’s blog post is a great example of how adding detail adds alot of value. Here are some specific areas to focus on as you use your product:

1. What problems did you have to solve along the way? What questions did you have?

Chances are your customer has these problems/questions too.

2. How did you solve these problems? Did you use in-product guidance? Did you have to Google? YouTube?

Chances are your customer will look at the same guides.

3. What milestones along the way felt really good? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment setting up your shop? Making your first sale?

Chances are, your customers get really excited here too!

🥳 Congratulations!!! By now, you now know more about your customers than most of your company. 🥳

I am not suggesting that using your product is a substitute for talking to your customers, but rather an additional, high signal data source that will both help you identify and fix problems and have a better understanding of your customer’s feedback when you do talk to them. I’ll publish more notes in the future detailing other great ways to learn about your customers.

Have you tried using your product like a serious user before? How did it go? Any success stories or colossal fails? I'd love to hear more: @bdickason

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Post last updated: Jan 15, 2021