Writing on product management and user experience design

It’s been over 4 years since I published my last article on this blog, a post-mortem of my previous startup which was winding down at the time.

Since then I’ve been working on growing Martial Arts on Rails, a SaaS product which provides online management software for gyms and martial arts schools. As a single founder this time, I took much more (= all) responsibility with regards to user / customer interaction and managing the product lifecycle than I ever did previously as the technical lead at several companies.

During that time I was also the CTO of a mid-sized eCommerce company in LA for a couple of years. Though I served as CTO previously at early stage startups, it was a different experience with different responsibilities, and I learned a lot about cross department management and owning the technical product on different levels.

I learned a lot about product management and user experience design during those 4+ years. How to take continuous user feedback, turn it into actionable items and translate it into constant improvement of the product. How to build a team to implement it and manage the requirements from different departments and stake holders while maintaining positive forward progress.

I’m finally getting back to writing and this time will be focusing on product management and user experience design, two areas in which I’ve experience immense growth over the last 4 years, and are my current passions.

Letting go of the developer mentality

At previous companies I typically had a “buffer” between me and the users using our products. A co-founder or another person at the company would be in charge of day-to-day communication with users, and they would then discuss it with me and the rest of the team as we tried to find good solutions together.

Though I always had an interest in user experience design, it was always from the viewpoint of a technical person. The solutions I would come up seemed intuitive to people who grew up using software and the internet.

It was pretty common for me to dismiss some user feedback as “they’re doing it wrong”, and that “it’s obvious” how to do what they’re failing at doing. I would have an instinctive reaction sometimes, where my developer self would think something along the lines of “how can they not see how to do that, it’s right there!”.

Being a single founder with Martial Arts on Rails, there was no buffer between me and the users of the product, most of them much less technical than users of previous products I’ve built – owners of gyms and martial arts schools that are often not tech savvy, and are looking for a solution to make the technical aspects of running a gym easier for them.

I’ve been taking user feedback directly from the very beginning, and engaging with users on a daily basis. Over time this interaction changed from something I used to dread to something I cherish greatly, and to which I attribute the continued and growing success and popularity of the product.

The biggest change in mentality for me was being able to let go of the natural push-back to changing features that seem to work for most people, and working on understanding why a small fraction of people consistently have a difficulty there.

As a technical person, it can be hard sometimes to tell in advance how non technical people would react to specific user interface design choices. It is something that you can develop a feel for and improve on by being self aware of your inherent bias. I feel I’ve made great strides there, but I still have to constantly work on it.

Embracing user feedback

The most important part of this process is user feedback. No matter how clever or simple you think your interface is, the only real test of its efficacy is users being able to achieve their goals without friction. And the best way to determine if friction exists is by engaging users and listening to their feedback.

As part of onboarding process, I send a personalized Email to every new sign-up a few days after they create their account, in which I introduce myself and ask about their usage of the product. I also man the live-chat on the website. Through those channels and more (on which I will expand in future articles) I’ve been continuously engaging users from the very start, and have built personal relationships with many of them that enable a constant stream of feedback to flow back to me.

Knowing how to analyze and act on user feedback is also a key part of the process that I’ll be talking about on this blog. A lot of times users don’t tell you what the real problem is, but rather what is the “perceived” problem from their viewpoint, and it’s important to engage them and understand what it is they’re actually trying to accomplish before rushing to make changes.

There is a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Sometimes designing a car is the answer, if the real requirement is being able to get from point A to point B in a timely manner consistently.

Mixing In Product Management

While user experience design has become my main passion, it does not happen in a vacuum in most cases. In bigger companies you have to deal with multiple stake holders with different objectives and criteria for success. Different departments in the company are also your customers to some degree, either directly (using the product) or indirectly (interfacing with users).

Managing competing expectations and the direction of the technical product is the core of product management. Gathering requirements and feedback from different teams, working with designers and developers on implementation and managing the roadmap of the product is an entire art unto itself.

Though somewhat cumbersome and bureaucratic at times, It’s another aspect of the development process I’ve come to embrace and consider it essential in certain environments. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and opinions on that as well in the coming months.

What am I getting out of this

The initial catalyst for starting to write again is undoubtedly the shelter-in-place situation many of us are experiencing right now with the COVID-19 pandemic situation and having too many thoughts racing in my head as I’m self guarantying.

However, I believe this can also be a helpful process in a different way – thinking and writing about processes I’ve been developing a natural feel for is a great way to formalize it and understand it better – another thing I learned while mentoring the developers on various teams the past few years.

I hope I’ll have the energy and dedication to continue writing here about those topics, and I’m looking forward to reading your feedback on my approaches to product development and user experience design.

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