Day-to-day business operation can get in the way of getting to know our customers.

In this episode of People & Business Podcast, we talk with Jeff Gothelf, author of “Lean UX” and “Sense and Respond.”  He shared practical advices on how to integrate User Research and Agile practices to create a culture of continuous learning.

Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf

Author of Sense and Respond & Lean UX.

Jeff  is a Lean UX advocate and User Experience designer based in New York City. He is a leading voice and founder of the global movement of Lean UX, and wrote a book of the same name.

He promotes a deeply collaborative and cross-functional process to build shared understanding among product team members.

On his new book, Sense and Respond he will focus on how successful organizations can listen to customers and continuously create new products.

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Transcript Notes

[1:34] For a company that is moving from being a small start-up to becoming a more structured organization, what would be your advice to them to not lose their continuous learning experience?

It’s a really big issue for companies as they start to grow, and certainly for large companies.

I think one of the reasons for that is there is an increased value, almost a universal value, placed upon shipping features. Let’s get features out the door. The value of learning isn’t appreciated or rewarded.

One of the biggest reasons that I see that that happens is because the work that leads to learning, things like research, experimentation, design, hypothesis work, customer conversations, those types of activities rarely get visualized the same way that delivery activities get visualized.

And so you’ll find teams that are using Agile or Agile methodologies, and they are doing a decent job of managing their software delivery activities using a Kanban or some kind of a task flow board.

But rarely will you see discovery activities, learning activities on that same board visualized the same way, prioritized against the delivery work, assigned and estimated the same way that the other work is done.

So what this does is it first of all delegitimizes the learning work. And so it’s seem as simple not as important as the delivery work.

And second, the people who are actually tasked with doing that work, have to sneak away to do that. They have to feel like they aren’t doing their ‘real job’ to do this discovery work.

Discovery work has to be seen as equal to the rest of the work.

And so one of the simplest ways to ensure that learning and discovery is sustained in your company as you grow is to visualize the learning work.

Whether it’s a Trello board, a Kanban, whether you are using Gantt charts, whatever you are doing for project management, your discovery work has to live there as well. It has to be visualized. It has to be seen as equal to the rest of the work. And it has to be prioritized against the rest of the work.

In other words it has to become a first class citizen of your backlog.

Once that happens, you can’t ignore it because it’s there. It’s work that somebody has to do and if somebody has to do it, it means they aren’t doing something else.

Those are the kinds of conversations that you want to have.

That’s a very tactical approach but it’s one that actually has broad implications and impact throughout the teams and throughout the organization.

 

[5:06] What would you recommend to company leaders to shift from a culture of delivery to a culture of continuous learning?

The key here is to change how the work is assigned. In other words, what do we ask our teams to accomplish?

We ask our teams to ship a feature. In other words, let’s say I want you to implement two factor authentication. Then in those cases, we are incentivizing a culture of delivery because the task is build this product, and ship it.

If we change the way that we assign the work, we change the measure of success and we change the words.

So for example, instead of saying implement two factor authentication, what we really want is we want to decrease the number of times people have to reset their password. Or decrease the number of times accounts get hacked.

All of a sudden, what you’ve done is you’ve given the team a measure of customer behavior to use as their definition of success. And based on that success metric, the team then gets to decide what feature or set of features will help achieve that. And the only way for them to do that is to start to experiment and to learn.

The key is to change how you assign the work

So that’s the key. The key is to change how you assign the work because the way that you assign the work, assigns the incentive.

So the incentive is really key here. People will optimize for the work that they are incentivized to do.

So if my incentive is ship a feature on time and on budget, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about continuous learning and product discovery, people are going to work towards shipping that feature.

But if we say, I want you to reduce the number of times that people ask for a password reset, all of a sudden there is no feature to launch there. There is simply a behavior to shift. And so the measure of success changes and you are no longer measured on if you shipped two factor authentication or it’s more like, did we reduce the number of times people are asking for password resets?

And if so, how did we do it?

That becomes the much more interesting conversation and it’s an empowering conversation because it let’s the team decide what to work on, what the best approach is and it forces them to start to learn and to discover which approach will actually achieve that customer behavior because as you know, you can design and implement an infinite number of ways to solve for a particular customer behavior challenge.

 

[8:16] How can a company achieve a shared understanding of the customer goals and then balance them with their business goal?

This is a principle that I try to teach every company that I work with. And it is this, customer value and business value are the same thing.

If you make your customer successful, if you build products that are a delight to use that solve meaningful problems in compelling ways, they will reward you. They will make you a successful business.

They will come back and they’ll use your product over and over again. They will tell their friends. They’ll buy more things from you. And that is a realization that many companies don’t really see yet which is mind blowing to me that this is still something that I have to teach companies.

But that’s the key, the key is to put the customer at the center of the conversations and if you assign the work and incentivize the work based on customer behavior, in other words outcomes, that is the first step into building that shared understanding across the company of the customer is the core of our success.

Leverage any kind of opportunity to put people who don’t normally talk to customers in front of customers

Now the next thing we need to do is introduce the customer to the rest of the company. There are those of us in an organization who speak to customers all the time, so outside of research teams, there are sales teams and there are customer support teams, field sales and that type of thing.

Those are the kind of folks who talk to customers every day. But there is a significant chunk of people in the organization who don’t talk to customers at all.  And so we need to start to bring those people into these customer conversations or bring the customers to them.

There are all kinds of ways to do that. The most effective way is what Jared Spool calls exposure hours.

Essentially it’s a company wide mandate that every employee has to spend some amount of time exposed to customers over the course of a month or a quarter.

So for example, every month everybody has to spend two hours exposed to customers, whether it’s listening in at the call center, going out on sales calls, doing customer research interviews etc.

So in other words, leveraging any kind of channel and any kind of opportunity to put people who don’t normally talk to customers in front of customers is the key because then that drives home the fact that if you make these folks successful, we do better as a business.

 

[11:16] Can you give us please a brief background on what lean UX actually is and how it can benefit start-ups and companies alike?

Lean UX when we first set out was a manifesto for designers to rethink how we work in an increasingly Agile world.

So how does the design process have to change to support Agile software engineering and Agile business?

What I think has happened in the five years or so since we’ve started is the conversation for lean UX is broader. It’s not just how does design function in an agile world, it’s how do we design and implement better products as a cross functional collaborative team?

How do we make sure that the ideas that we have, for how to solve this particular customer problem are true? And that we are investing our time in the best possible solution for those ideas?

How do we make sure that the design that we are coming up with is the best possible design for this workflow? And how do we make sure that we are building the right feature sets and in a way that actually solves customer problems.

That’s really the key behind Lean UX these days, it’s not just a design activity, it’s building a comprehensive user experience with product management, with engineering, with marketing, with QA, with content etc., to make sure that everybody understands who the customer is, what the problem is we are trying to solve and what success looks like.

And really that last piece is so important because in so many teams and in so many companies, if you talk to six different people on the team and ask them what success looks like, you might get six different answers. And you’ll certainly get a bunch of answers that are like, it’s just shipping this feature or this product.

And the conversation that we want to have is, how do you make your customers successful?

Lean UX is a methodology and a philosophy to help drive that conversation to extract assumptions out of people’s heads

Lean UX is a methodology and a philosophy and a series of activities to help drive that conversation to extract assumptions out of people’s heads. And to formulate hypotheses based on those assumptions and then to test those hypotheses as quickly and as effectively as possible so that we are always working on the thing that stands the greatest chance for success based on what we know today.

 

[14:07] How can startups and companies break the traditional mindset and perhaps adopt a faced paced continuous learning practice as you are recommending?

My little catch phrase here is do less, more often.

That’s really the philosophy behind all of this, is to do less but to do it more often.

I think one of the biggest challenges in getting the learning into an organization is that learning has traditionally been associated with research. And research has been traditionally associated with large lengthy, expensive, time consuming efforts.

And so why don’t we turn that on its head and say, we are going to do research, with research being learning, but we are going to do less of it. And we are going to do it more often. Instead of doing one big research activity at the beginning of the project or at the end, we are going to do a little bit of learning in every sprint.

What can we do in this sprint? What can we do in the next spring?

And what you are doing there is you are starting to build a feedback loop into the cadence that you work in. And that starts to build this continuous learning loop.

So instead of saying, we are going to go out into the field for three months and interview 300 customers and come back with a real sense of what the pain points are, we are going to say this week we are going to talk to four customers. We are going to try to find out the most important thing that we need to learn first.

And then based on that, we are going to adjust our work for the next two weeks. And then we are going to do something similar two weeks from now, we’re going to identify what the riskiest thing is or the most important thing is that we need to learn next.

And then we are going to figure out how to find that out as quickly as possible. And we are going to do that.

The goal is to collect evidence and use that evidence to justify moving forward

The goal is not to get definitive proof that this is by far the best possible approach because I don’t think you are ever going to get that.

The goal is to get just enough evidence in the market that says, this is worth investing in for another small cycle.

We want to take the team and work on this for another two weeks and another two weeks.

That’s the goal, the goal is to collect evidence and use that evidence to justify moving forward with an initiative for another small step.

So doing less, just doing it more frequently.

 

[16:00] Do you think that this short-term research cycle is going to nullify the long-term vision of the product or even the company? And how much should a company stick to their vision?

Yes. I think these short cycles of learning can ultimately drive a shift in the way that a company works.

It really depends on the size of the company. So I think the bigger the company, the more challenging it’s going to be to make significant shifts in the way that the company works based on these short learning cycles.

However, I don’t know that you are trying to shift vision. Vision is the mission of the company, the driving force behind why we come to work every day.

But I think what you might shift is strategy a little bit and perhaps even more successfully, you’ll definitely shift execution with it.

So what we want is we want to have a clear vision for the company, sort of the mission statement for the company. And we want to have a strategic direction that’s fairly fixed for 9 months or a year.

However, how we achieve that strategy is the variable. And it’s really here where continuous learning can help us determine if the choices that we are making are going to help us achieve or strategy or not.

And if they aren’t, we pivot. And pivoting is maintaining your strategy but changing the tactics that you are going to use to achieve it.

 

[18:54] Let’s be humble with what we find during the research process. Like if we are measuring the pulse of the market and the market is telling us something else, maybe we can be humble enough to make the shift if needed.

Right. Humility is the core here. It’s unfortunately a quality that’s lacking in many executive suites at large companies.

Really that’s the key, the key is to have a strong opinion which is perfectly OK. Have that strong opinion that says, I believe we should do X.

But when that evidence comes back, be able to adjust your thinking, to pivot your thinking based on fact.

That’s humility and that’s really the key to making this successful.

 

[19:48] Can you tell us more about your book? When is it coming out and how can we get it?

Sure, so the new book is called Sense and Response. It will be out on February 7, 2017. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.

So if you just search for Sense and Respond or my name on Amazon, you’ll find it. It’s a bright yellow cover.

The book is a book for managers and executives. And it is an attempt to educate executives and the goal is to get these executives to rethink how they structure and lead their companies to create environments that promote continuous learning, that promote lean UX ways of working. Or promote product discovery.

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