How do you anticipate your customer’s needs?

Sketch of the
Sketch of the California Academy of Sciences, 2009 © Renzo Piano Building Workshop

How do you anticipate your customer’s needs?

Before I began down the path of product management, before I even knew what a product manager was, I was a designer working in the built environment. I’d studied architecture and whilst doing so, spent many late nights designing new spaces and experiences for people to enjoy. I could not tell you how many hours I spent poring over concept renders, models and photographs of well-known buildings, trying to understand how their architects thought. I wanted to understand the craft for myself.

What did it involve?

It involved careful consideration of the context of the brief, and looping back to that many times throughout the design process. Asking questions like:

  • who will occupy this space, a family or strangers?
  • How much time will they spend here, just a few fleeting moments every day (as with a train station) or will they curl up on a chair to read a good book (as with a library)
  • What do they need to achieve in this space, such as entry or exit (as with the lobby of a building) or uninterrupted deep work (as with a research laboratory or private study)
  • What do they need this space to provide them, such as privacy (as with a bathroom) or an adoring audience (as with an opera stage)

Any design brief you encounter will give you some facts, requirements and hints at a deeper need or purpose, all of which will begin shaping your understanding of context. Then you must get to work, researching what has come before, what worked and why, what was a failure and for what reason. You must ask probing questions, looking for insights and influence and anything that might invalidate any of the assumptions of the project.

You have to really come to terms with the subject at hand, specifically the combination of:

  1. this site
  2. this brief
  3. this client
  4. the public sentiment (from unhappy neighbours to a city-wide debate about your project)

and much, much more.

So how does this relate to product management? Well, in my mind the two fields of architecture and product management have a lot in common. They are ultimately interested in creating things for people, things that serve and delight their users, also striking the right balance between form and function. They are both creative fields that rely on many partners from different disciplines to achieve the end result, and therefore must understand how to collaborate effectively across professional divides.

Neither architects nor product people are mind readers, we cannot predict the future nor can we expect to get it right all of the time (or even most of the time). But what we can do is bring our time-honed skills to the task in order to get closer to right, each time we chip away at our edifices:

  • deep knowledge of the context and the characters involved,
  • a keen eye for observation and insight,
  • an ability to do the research that uncovers the hidden context or meaning,
  • strong communication skills in all forms, and a knowledge of which skill will best convey the right message at the right time, and
  • a dogged determination to persevere, even when the outcome isn’t clear.

This last skill, perseverance amidst uncertainty is probably the most important. The job of the product manager is to find the answers to the unknown, to determine the shape of things to come.

There’s no silver bullet or easy answer for anticipating customer’s needs, changing as they do over time. It takes time, experience, curiosity, imagination and a good deal of effort. And even if we have all of those in good supply, we still might get it wrong.

Faced with this uncertainty, we product people simply roll our sleeves up and get to work.

Cutting room floor

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