The role of instinct in product development

As a product manager I know and understand the importance of making customers part of the product development process through research and interviews. Especially those of us who come from a design background have this philosophy deeply engrained. We know that “I am not the user” and we have the t-shirts to prove it! So it is with some surprise that I recently realized that sometimes — when the circumstances are conducive to it — it’s ok to trust our instincts and create products and features without talking to customers directly about it first.

See, the thing is, talking to customers isn’t something we do, it’s something we are. And if it’s something we are — if we really are immersed in our customers’ needs and behaviors and emotions — we should feel comfortable to trust our own instincts a little bit more.

With this kind of immersion comes an ability to channel our customers in a way that drastically reduces the additional benefit we might get from interviewing them about a specific issue or feature. When we not only have the knowledge of the domains we work in, but also a good understanding of how our customers navigate those domains, we end up with a powerful foundation to base our decisions on.

Does this mean we don’t need research? Of course not! But it means that maybe we don’t need to go out and interview users every time we make a product change or introduce a new feature. It means maybe we do usability testing on major changes to the site, but not when we fix something that we’ve lived and breathed with our customers for months or years.

Those are weird sentences to write. I am a big proponent of User-Centered Design, and obviously research is a central component of that. But what I’m advocating for isn’t less research. I’m saying that it’s possible to reduce the amount of structured research you do, if you have a culture of customer immersion in everything you do.

Customer immersion isn’t an easy culture to create, but it is very much worth it. As a start, everyone in the organization should be encouraged and empowered to talk to customers — whether that is through phone calls, support cases, conferences, or any other way you might be able to reach them. And since not everyone will be able to spend an equal amount of time with customers, it also means you have to listen to those who do spend a lot of time with them — and trust that they are acting as good conduits for customers’ needs.

Making the right choices about when to do structured research and when to trust your (informed) instincts will save you time and money — and make customers happy too. That’s not a bad combination of benefits.