The Laura Klein Hypothesis: The Illusion of Certainty Is a Problem

Laura Klein is the VP of Product at Business Talent Group, and the author of two books, UX for Lean Startups and Build Better Products. This week on the Product Science Podcast, we talk about her approach to working with an organization to develop a research-oriented mindset and how to avoid building to unnecessary or extraneous requirements.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Laura Klein Hypothesis: The Illusion of Certainty Is a ProblemWhat was the process like for Laura writing two books? What did she learning working with Eric Ries? How did her blog about combining quantitative and qualitative research grow into speaking and more? What was the tweet that lead her to write a book with O’Reilly Media? How did Louis Rosenfeld get her to write her second book?

What patterns does Laura see across big companies versus smaller organizations? Why do large companies more easily get siloed? How does strict scope get in the way of improving workflows? What are some of the biggest challenges Laura encounters in small businesses? Where do smaller companies tend to cut and why is it a big mistake?

What does Laura do when she gets asked for roadmaps? How can roadmaps be damaging to process? What are her priorities when her company secures a new contract with a large company? How does she respond to requests for a roadmap in order to land a big client?

What questions does Laura train salespeople to ask? How do you get past requested features to find out what the actual problems are? How do you learn to say no? What does Laura say instead? How do you get sales focused on discovery?

What is a “yacht problem?” Why is it important to build small first when you’re working with big companies? What tends to cause slowdowns? What does Laura do when she thinks something isn’t likely to work? How can building the wrong thing still have other benefits?

Why is product management about managing other peoples’ expectations? What separates new product managers from people with experience? What are the common errors that new product managers make? What are the dangers of collecting and managing requirements? Why is an optimistic product manager or designer dangerous? What exercise does Laura always bring out at workshops to make a point about the job?

How do you get large corporations to run experiments? How do you study longer-term use? How do you problem solve complicated manual processes without just turning it digital? Where does Laura look to make improvements? What is “CSI Product Management” or “forensic design?”

Quotes From This Episode

There are lots of user researchers who are much better than I am. But I still think that it's important for me to do quite a bit of it, because that's how I inform my design process. - Laura Klein Click To Tweet Small companies searching for product market fit end up skipping things like research, but if you do the research it actually all goes faster, because then you don't build a bunch of shit that nobody needs. - Laura Klein Click To Tweet It's hard to do really good research, it does take time, and it's not a thing that happens immediately. - Laura Klein Click To Tweet It's hard to both have a huge vision of what you want to build and also figure out how to build each little piece of it in a way that delivers value, but also builds to that grander vision. - Laura Klein Click To Tweet There is discomfort because things are unknown and unknowable. And things are going to change and lying to you about the fact that things are going to change isn't going to make things not change. - Laura Klein Click To Tweet


Holly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams, and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.

In this week’s episode, I had a conversation with Laura Klein. Laura fell in love with technology 20 years ago when she saw her first usability test since then. She’s been an engineer designer and product manager helping companies of all sizes, learn about their users so they can build better products. She’s the author of build better products and UX for lean startups. She rants with Kate Rutter about design product management startups and growth on a podcast called What is wrong with UX. Now, here’s our conversation.

Hi, Laura, welcome to the Product Science Podcast, super excited to have you here with us today. I always like to start by hearing a little bit about everybody and their sort of path to where they are now. Kind of take us back to the early days when you first got involved in tech or design, and how did that happen?

Laura: Yeah, hi. Thanks for having me. Well, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I started in tech, back in about the mid-90s. I started out at a sort of tech think tank, doing research and then took a little detour into being a programmer for a while. And then, switched back into what was at that point called interaction design, which included and does include research. From there have moved to be … right now, I sort of consider myself to be either a UX designer with a lot of product management duties or a product person who focuses on UX design, just depending on who I’m talking to. At the moment, I’m actually the vice president of a product for a company called Business Selling Group, where I built a lot of internal tools for folks and some external staff, simplifying big complicated processes to easier things.
Holly: Yeah. I love how fluid the definition or the title is. It’s like, there’s so many different titles for what we do and it depends on who you’re talking to.
Laura: And it depends on what I’m doing at any given time, I get bored very easily. And there are definitely times when I’m more of a designer than I am a product manager. And they’re definitely times when I’m more of a product manager than a designer and I kind of like moving back and forth, than I kind of like doing them both.
Holly: That’s awesome. So you mentioned that right now you’re VP of product, how did you end up with this particular role? How did you end up coming to this one?
Laura: The way that I come to a lot of them actually, I tend to … I’ve contracted for a long time, and I started my own sort of consulting contracting business back in 2009. And then I’ve sort of gone back and forth between full time and contracting. And I got a referral from an old client to a new client and I started working with them and kind of got brought on to help them move from a fairly analog process. They’ve got a great company, great business model. They’ve been in business for a while. And they really wanted to take this sort of big, clunky analog process. And I don’t want to call it a digital transformation because I think that’s a little bit of a loaded term. But they did want to move to be more digital but little more automated, get rid of some of the repeated tasks and streamline everything. And so I came on and I was doing some contracting for them. It’s a company so I stuck around.
Holly: That’s awesome. Well, I guess they’re lucky to have you. I know a lot of times good contractors are always being asked to stay and they must be good if you decided you would do it.
Laura: Like, that’s what I tell them every day. “You are lucky to have me.”
Holly: I’m sure they love that.
Laura: Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:03:47].
Holly: Well, one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is because I know that you wrote a book. And so I’d love to hear about how you got to the point where you were writing that book, and why that topic was a passion for you? And I know it’s UX for Lean Startups.
Laura: I’ve actually written two books. UX for Lean Startups was the first one.
Holly: Okay.
Laura: And Build Better Products just came out a couple years ago.
Holly: Awesome. Well, tell me about the book.
Laura: Yeah. UX for Lean Startups I wrote back in 2013. I had worked for Eric Ries, who started the Lean Startup, wrote the book, The Lean Startup. And I had worked for him at IMVU, which was sort of the original Lean Startup. And so after I left there I went … that’s when I went out on my own and started consulting and I started blogging about stuff. And I started writing about things like combining qualitative and quantitative research in order to make better product decisions, which not a lot of people were writing about it in 2009. But I had some experience doing it from IMVU and it was great. I started blogging about this stuff. And I started blogging about design in general and building products and the sort of the cross between engineering and design and products and all that stuff and so.
Laura: Based on that, I started doing a little bit of speaking. The actual beginning of the book was I was on Twitter, and I was screwing around and I said, I wrote a book called “Fucking Ship It Already” [inaudible 00:05:33]. And somebody wrote to me and said, “I know somebody at the O’Reilly, who maybe probably would even publish that book. But I think they read your blog, and they might want to talk to you about it.” And so, I talked to the people at O’Reilly and put together a book proposal and wrote the book. And then a few years later, I was talking to Louis Rosenfeld, and he convinced me to write a second book. I think there may have been threats involved. Or a lot of that. I will guarantee you that there was a lot of whining at least on my side. Because it was one of those things where I was sort of like, [inaudible 00:06:15].
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Books are a big commitment. I just, I in fact, my most recent broadcast is going to be about whether or not you should write a book.
Holly: There you go. Well, I mean, people have told me that they learn through the process, but then also that they whin and drink through the process.
Laura: Yeah. The biggest thing that you learned is that you make bad life choices.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: [inaudible] and the best part of it, the thing that I learned from writing the second book was that I do not learn from my bad life choices.
Holly: Even better. See, there you go. Yeah.
Laura: Good.
Holly: Well, tell us a little more about the second book. So what came about for? Why was there “build better products”?
Laura: So it was interesting because I came at it in a little bit of a different way. After I wrote the first one, I went out. And I started talking to sorry, after I wrote the first one, I went out and I started doing a lot of work with companies and doing projects for them, consulting projects. And what I found was that I was running these workshops, and I was drawing a lot of the same diagrams and pictures up on the whiteboard. And we were having a lot of the same conversations. And I started to create some activities and templates and things that I was using. And I realized that I was just doing the same thing over and over and over. I was like, well, I should really write this down because these seem like things that a lot of teams need.
Laura: And so the second book really came out of trying to apply some of these design principles and lean principles and research, trying to apply all of those to these teams and the teams tended to be … they weren’t necessarily a giant companies, although some of them were. I did some for very large companies, but they were they were less aimed at sort of the loan entrepreneur, which the first one really was. The first one was really kind of like, if you’re to startup and you like get to make all of your product decisions, this is how you do it. [inaudible 00:08:27]. Well, if you have a group of people, you need to make a lot of product decisions together, and they need to fulfill some existing company goals and all that. Here’s a way to approach that. And so that’s how that happened.
Laura: And so the second book is very much I mean, it’s almost … I almost wanted to write it like a workbook where there are just a ton of activities and things that you can try to do if you need something specific at a given time. If you need to do a specific amount of research, here’s how to figure out what kind of research to do. If you need to track certain hypotheses? Here’s what you might want to do. Those kind of things.
Holly: Yeah. That’s awesome. Personally, seems to me like when people write books with a bit more of that, well, this is what people were asking me, and I found myself saying the same thing again. It’s a bit more customer driven, right? And.
Laura: Yeah. The person was very much sort of, here’s been my experience doing all of this stuff. I thought it was valuable and people thought I was valuable and it worked. But it was very, like, if you tried to apply some of the stuffs in the first book, I think, to work at a larger company, it was maybe a little aspirational. I don’t think that folks who work on these teams necessarily get to make all the decisions that I was encouraging them to make in the first book.
Holly: Yeah. That’s fair. So you mentioned that you’ve worked with different sized companies and you’ve jumped back and forth. What are some of the patterns that you see across big companies versus little companies or-
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: -yeah those sorts of things?
Laura: Yeah. In the product and design, especially at large companies get so siloed. And it’s interesting because I like working on complicated processes and projects. And I like not constantly running away from the fear of going out of business which you sometimes get up a little tiny startups. But on the other hand, I not a huge fan of working at giant corporations because they tend like, they will have six different people doing what I consider to be sort of one job. It’s not necessarily one job, it’s probably more like two or three people. But they seem to be very rigidly siloed and there will be all of these arguments over, this is what a product manager does and this is what a designer does and this is what a researcher does and this is, and it’s just very … and if you do anything outside of that, I mean, basically, you’re not allowed to do anything outside of that.
Laura: So if you happen to be a designer who’s great at research, or who really thinks that research isn’t … that you’re doing the research is really important for your design process. [inaudible] you can have a look. And so, that doesn’t really work for somebody like me, because I’m, like I said, I started back in the mid 90s. So I’m really programed like I’m basically a generalist, which means that I’m not as good at all of these things as somebody who is a specialist is going to be. There are lots of user researchers who are much better user researchers than I am. But I still think that it’s important for me to do quite a bit of it, because that’s how I inform my design process.
Laura: And so that’s the biggest difference, honestly, that I see. I mean, there’s that and then there’s also that’s even within the silos where everybody’s got very specifically their job, sometimes at the very large corporations. Your job can be so limited, that you’re honestly … I’ve seen places where people are like, “Oh, I work on this specific widget on this particular product, in this particular business line in this sub-division.”
Laura: And I’m just like, “Oh my god, you spend all of your time on like a nav bar. And that’s it. Like that’s all you ever do, is you just move shit around on that nav bar.” And I’m just “Ah, it’s horrifying.” And I think it makes it really hard to get a real overview of what you’re actually contributing to the company and the product.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Anyway, that’s my sort of … I prefer obviously, sort of the smaller places that.
Holly: Yeah. So on the other side, when you’re working in those smaller places, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve come across there when it comes to whether your title is product or designer or research or whatever, but with what you’re trying to get done? What are the challenges that you come across?
Laura: There’s just so much of it. I mean, it’s the flip side, right? It’s the other problem. There’s just too damn much to get done. And not necessary. And sometimes you can’t really devote the kind of time and resources that you would need to get to do a particular thing really well. And I think a lot of times, especially at the very small companies that are searching for they’re really kind of searching for product market fit. Unfortunately, a lot of times they end up skipping things like research, which I’ve tried to explain that now if you do the research it actually all goes faster, because then you don’t build a bunch of shit that nobody needs. But that’s where they tend to cut. So that’s a big red flag for me at smaller companies. And it’s true. I mean, it’s hard to do really good research, it does take time, and it’s not a thing that happens immediately. And it doesn’t necessarily happen in parallel, if you’ve got a little tiny team.
Laura: So that can be really tricky to kind of balance things and make sure that all of the right things are happening and that they’re all happening at the right time. And that people are building things and experimenting and trying things and pushing things out. And also just finding that balance between building. It’s hard to both have a huge vision of what you want to build, which you still need to have even if you’re going to change it, and then also figure out how to build each little piece of it in a way that delivers value, but also builds to this grander vision that you’re hopefully moving toward.
Holly: Yeah, I come across that a lot too.
Laura: Yeah, it’s super tricky. Yeah. I wish it was like, oh, and here’s how you solve it. No.
Holly: I was waiting for that.
Laura: Yeah, no. It sucks.
Holly: Yeah. No it’s just rough. Yeah.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: Oh man, it is tough. And it’s such a balancing act trying to decide how far out in the future to make the vision, how big to make it or how little to make the next step. Then people will then sometimes, if you’re on like a team that has enough people for them to argue. Sometimes they then start arguing over those little details. And you’re like, “Look, it’s just so we understand the goal.”
Laura: Yeah, exactly. Like, you’re not there yet. I get asked for roadmaps a lot. And it’s great. I have finally trained the rest of the executive team at the company not to ask for Gantt charts anymore, because they know that they’re going to get yelled at.
Holly: That’s good.
Laura: But they still do it because they ask for roadmaps. And I’m like, And for like the year and I’m like, “Folks, come on. I don’t really want to lie to you.” And they’re like, “But roadmap.” But I’m like, “Yeah, I get it. But we don’t really know yet because we’re still at the stage where all kinds of things would change that.” They’re like, “But we just want to have some certainty.” And I’m like, “But you won’t have certainty you’ll have the illusion of certainty, which is a problem.” Because, I mean, basically and I get it, they’re asking because they want to be made more comfortable because they are uncomfortable with uncertainty because we all are uncomfortable with uncertainty. But I think it’s a really bad idea to make people comfortable with the process that they probably shouldn’t be comfortable with.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: There is discomfort because things are unknown and unknowable. And things are going to change and lying to you about the fact that things are going to change isn’t going to make things not change. And in fact, if it does make things not change, it makes you less likely to react and change in the moment. I think it’s damaging.
Holly: You could say that all again. I think that was, yeah, that’s exactly it, right? And they want to be more comfortable. But that’s just a lie.
Laura: Yeah. And I do get it and at some point we have to tell board something. Yeah. Okay. But we can tell the board generally what … like and I know generally what the goals are for the year. And I’ve told them generally what the goals are for the year, but I can’t give you the features. And we also have, since we work with very, very large clients, we have fortune 10 clients. These relationships take a long time to set up sometimes. And we suddenly close a new one, and they have different needs that we need to think about or incorporate. Or if we have a new partnership that we want to include, like, do we really want to say, we can’t do that because we promised this other thing six months ago, and is it more important still? No, but we can’t do both. So, yeah. Other stuff happens from outside and changes the roadmap. But that’s okay.
Holly: So have you ever had, somebody come to you and use that big client or that big case as an argument in the opposite direction? Like, I need you to commit to this roadmap, because I’ll never close this client unless I can tell them everything we’re planning to do for the next year.
Laura: Yeah, generally tell them to go after different clients who actually want the stuff that we have.
Holly: Yeah. How does that go?
Laura: Pretty well, honestly.
Holly: Good.
Laura: Well, you have to have a really good relationship. And again, it depends if you have a very large corporation, or a very large corporation, it can depend I have a fairly small company, I have a good relationship with the sales people. They’re not technically selling, what I build, I build stuff to help us sell the thing that we sell, which is consulting services. We basically have a marketplace of talent, where we help very large organizations find super high level project based talent. So if you need like a person who used to be a director at McKinsey, or something or a Senior Vice President of Marketing at a large corporation. And you need to come in and do a three month project for you. We find that sort of a person.
Laura: So I built tools that help us do that. Now, yeah, occasionally, we do have clients who come in and say, and this is how [inaudible] other companies too. We have clients that come and say, “Oh, but we need you to work through this way.” We generally will try to find a way to do what we need to do manually, that’s one option. Is there any way … and that obviously doesn’t work if you’re building the product that is being sold. So that’s tricky. But sometimes it does, right? Like soon as you say, well, we can do that manually for you, here are some other ways that you could solve that problem. I generally try whenever possible to train the sales people, to follow up and ask the question, why do you want that feature? What is that going to give you?
Laura: Because a lot of times what it comes down to is, the sales People are out there and people are asking them for stuff. And they’re like, “Yeah, we could totally do that.” Without sort of digging into. Why are you asking for that? What’s that actually going to deliver to you? Because so often, they’re just saying stuff off the top of their heads, the sort of wouldn’t it be cool if. And they’re never going to implement that shit. We need to sort of train your sales team to get out there and figure out what the problems are and not what the requested features are.
Holly: Yeah. So do you have any tips on how to do that? Have you had any particularly useful ways that you’ve helped the sales team start talking that way?
Laura: I thought of getting them drunk first helps. Yeah.
Holly: You know.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: I think if they know that every time they come to you and say, “Hey,” because it’s so funny though. I actually really liked sales before. I like working with sales people. I think they’re fun. But they’ll come “Really need this thing.” If they always know that I’m going to look at them and go, “Great, why?” And they’ll start asking that question so smart, because they know that [crosstalk]
Laura: Part of it is … and this is, again, that sort of big company versus smaller company thing. And it’s a little bit about building political capital within your organization, which I got to be honest, I am not great at large companies. If you are, yay, good for you. It’s really good skill to have. I strongly recommend that people be good at dealing with other humans. I just have never [crosstalk] that muscle. But yeah, I mean, you have to be able to have the political capital to say no. That’s what it comes down to. You have to be able to say, no. You don’t say it as no. You say it as, “Hey, let’s discuss what they actually want.” And then you have to be able to sort of send them back and do it. But when it really comes down to it, if you can’t say no, if you have to say yes, then they don’t have any reason to change what they’re doing.
Holly: Yeah. Absolutely. A lot of things in there, political capital.
Laura: Yes.
Holly: Working with other humans.
Laura: Yeah. But also giving them the tools to do it. They’re trying to close the deal. And sometimes giving them the tools to really dig in and understand what the needs of the user are, will help them close deals. Because, [crosstalk]
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Sell them for more stuff than the stuff we have right now.
Holly: Yeah, and I’ve started talking to more and more sales people. I’ve done a lot of B to Bs, so there’s always been a lot of sales people. But I’ve been talking to ones across different industries. And one of the things I’ve heard lately is the good ones do focus a lot on discovery and understanding the problems and if they have fallen into the right hands with the right sales coach, maybe that actually matches anyways.
Laura: Yeah, I would say that I’m currently very lucky in that. I think my sales team is good at what they do and to understand these sorts of things. The other thing that is fun to do and that I have done this job and at previous jobs is, sometimes you will hear a lot back from clients saying, “Oh, we’d really love to be able to do this. What we really want to be able to do is this.” And they’ll come back and they’ll be like, “Yeah, we’ve had five people say they really want this thing.” And I have in fact built little, the wizard of Oz projects, that are great. let’s … we’re going to build a very small version of that, it’s going to take us about a week. And we’re going to get something out there, just to see if people even login to it. See if people even start interacting with it. And I’ve literally built the exact like at a very high level. It’s not connected in the back end systems. It looks like it works perfectly, but it’s all running the back end by dribbles.[crosstalk 00:23:54]
Laura: And I’m just like, Look, if we have so many people using this, that it can’t stand up to the pressure, then that’ll be a what I like to call the yacht problem, which is a problem that we will solve on our yachts because we’ll all be so rich that it won’t matter. So that’s great. Let’s build a little thing and see if it becomes so overwhelmingly popular that we have to build the real thing. And often it isn’t. Often the thing that they say that they wanted, you give it to them, a little version of it, and they’re like, “Oh.” Like they never even login.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: And the great thing is when you’re doing b2b, especially these large companies, that’s when like, when they got and they start showing people this thing, that’s when you start hearing the, “That is amazing. This is awesome.” We’ve got to get a six month tech review on this thing that you hadn’t heard about before. Or, “Oh, this is fantastic, but we can’t access it at the company, because we’re only allowed to use these five products which I’ve literally heard.” So it’s like, “Okay, well great. Now we know that.”
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: I see. You uncover different constraints that they didn’t realize in the beginning, right?
Laura: That’s correct. Yeah, that’s just like, Oh, we built … those would have been great things before we built anything. Luckily, we only spent a week building this little things from which we could learn all of these things.
Holly: Yes. And that is the essence of great experimentation, right?
Laura: Yes, exactly. I just don’t want to spend six months doing[crosstalk 00:25:25].
Holly: Yeah. I mean, it’s not just six months. It’s like the developer and designer. It’s the whole team’s morale and excitement around and their trust in you as the person leading them.
Laura: Yeah. And I can sell … well, we wasted a week. I mean, it’s not waste, right? But like, well, we spent a week learning this stuff, and it’s not a waste, and it’s great. And aren’t we glad that we didn’t spend six months building the giant connected version of it. And they’re all thrilled with that. But if you do the big version, and it’s six months or sometimes, some of those stuff could take a year, I mean, especially when you have to do all those like tech review and all the, not tech reviews but the IT reviews things you know it?
Holly: Yeah. The security and what are our policies?
Laura: Yeah, exactly.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Yeah you got to get legally involved and yeah, you boy, you do one of those and it doesn’t sell. Yeah. Less thrilled with you let’s just[inaudible 00:26:20].
Holly: Yes.
Laura: With my understanding [inaudible 00:26:23].
Holly: There you go.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: Yeah. No. You put them through the earlier fire experience where they get it from you right away like, “Oh, so we’ll just do this. Oh, look what happened.”
Laura: Who could have predicted? [inaudible 00:26:40].
Holly: That’s awesome. I actually really liked that. I think I haven’t done as much like actually putting the sort of front end with the dribbles in the back together, when I thought something wasn’t likely to work. I usually have gone other routes of uncovering that. But I do think that sounds fantastic especially, because I’ve noticed that when you’re able to give somebody a small thing, they can do that invests them wholly in the approach to evaluation, then they are so much more okay with the outcome.
Laura: Oh, it is sometimes the only thing that people will believe.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: That’s the thing. I mean, because they will just keep coming back and just say, “But they are asking for this.”
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Yes. I realize what they’re asking for. And you either believe my 25 years of experience of having people ask me for shift that they don’t actually want or hear, or we can try this other thing and that’s fine.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: That’s good.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Honest to God. I should say this. I mean, I’m coming across like I always know their answer. I don’t. Sometimes all I hear like a liar or something and then melt down to think, “Customers are asking for that. That sounds extremely promising. Lets give it a try.” And sometimes there seams to have other benefits. Show the client that you can build stuff and they give the client an idea of what you do and they make the client more excited about your solution. That kind of stuff gives your sales people something to talk about with the clients that is concrete, and actually helps them get good feedback on what’s realistic. So, those things, those kinds of artifacts, I don’t want to call them artifacts, but those kinds of experiments can have all kinds of other benefits, including letting me know when I’m full of shit, and I’m just being my normal, pessimistic self, says no to everything.
Holly: Yeah, I’ve noticed that from your tweets.
Laura: [inaudible 00:28:44]Everything Yeah. I’m so negative like after a while, you kind of get that way. I mean, I started out that way, but I always laugh it like, 90% of what product managers do is manage other people’s expectations.
Holly: Oh my God, yes.
Laura: How about now? And it’s because it’s often not no, it’s often either not now or not instead of this other thing or sometimes it’s just no, that’s not for our client. But there is no end of great ideas that other people would like to share with you.
Holly: Yeah, there’s really not. That’s one of the things that always both amazes me and separates someone who’s new to this practice, from people who’ve been doing it. If they realize yet that it’s not all about that amazing sexy idea that if someone just hits on that idea and then that’s it. They’re going to be rich forever and like [inaudible 00:29:44].
Laura: Yeah. The most dangerous thing is an optimistic product manager or an unquestioning designer. Whenever you have somebody who hears an idea and goes, “Oh, yes.” And then they start building on it. What if we did this? And how about this? And it’s Like, “Okay, that’s great.” You’re building a lot of stuff on top of an unvalidated assumption.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: And let’s just take a minute and figure out if the underlying assumption is the correct approach. And honestly, I’m … There’s this thing that happens, I think a lot for new product managers especially, or product managers who don’t come out of a discipline of research, which is that, they think that their job is just to collect requirements and write them down and then manage them, which is not the job the product manager, the job of the product manager’s to figure out how the product works. And that is not a collection of features that they have gotten from other places.
Holly: Right.
Laura: It includes some ideas for features gotten from other places. Absolutely. But that is not what it is. It is a holistic vision of the thing that you want to deliver to users in order to deliver the specific value that you’re trying to deliver. And that’s tricky for a lot of folks, both product managers and designers. And it’s why I say that optimism is so dangerous. Because if all you’re doing is listening to other people’s ideas and going, “Yeah, that’s great. What if we also did this and this and this?” Then what you’re not doing is you’re not going out to customers, and actually understanding what their needs are and coming up with sort of an overall holistic approach to solving the problem that you are trying to solve. And then selecting … Having the features come out of that, right?
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: What’s the thing you’re trying to do for your users? What’s the thing that you’re trying to do for your company? What is the sort of subset, the smallest possible subset of features that we could create that would encourage users to do the thing that we want them to do? That they want to do? That’s a real different approach than, “Let’s gather up a whole bunch of features and put them on a backlog and then move them around periodically.”
Holly: Oh, yeah. Seen that so many times. Take it down, put it in the backlog, then start asking people how do you manage a backlog that has 500 tickets in it?
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: Who has tips? And you’re like-
Laura: “[inaudible 00:32:16]fucking put 500 things in your backlog.”
Holly: But it gets at this idea that, for me anyways has resonated a lot lately as the world has just exploded with all sorts of things is that, the really high performing, whether it’s products, leaders or other people in startups and growth companies, their job is simplifying. It’s like fight the complexity and bring it back to something, if you are providing focus and you get excited, you tell people it’s cool to get excited. Yay. And keep thinking about that. But focus at all on this one thing that we know we want to do for our users.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: We know our users want.
Laura: Yeah. I have an exercise, it’s in the book. And I do it at a lot of workshops. And I always think of this to sort of like the absolute basics of what a product manager should do. But again, done it to enough workshops and had people go, “Oh.” That I think it’s actually somewhat revolutionary, which is very strange. And so I’m going to say it and like half of the listeners are going to go, “Oh.” And the other half are going to go, “Oh yeah. That’s a [inaudible] damn job. Like, what are you doing?” Obviously. So if you’re one of those, I apologize, I’m not trying to pm splaying anybody.
Laura: But here’s what I do, is when somebody does come to me with a feature idea, which they do on the regular. When somebody comes to me with a feature idea, I try to walk them back to, “Okay, well, what do you think that’s going to do? What are you trying to get the user to do? What’s that going to let the user? What’s that’s going to help the user do?” And okay, what problem … if the user did more of that, how would that help the company? And the bottom line sort of at the holistic level? Not on the super short term, but like, what does that do for the user? And also, what does it do for us?” And then they say, “Well it’ll get the user to buy more things. And that’s obviously good for the company.”
Laura: “Okay, great. What are seven other things we could do that would achieve those same goals?” And they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know we can like.” Okay, what about this thing that we’re currently doing? Will it help people achieve those same goals? Why don’t we give that a try and see if that helps us achieve those same goals? And or the other thing that you can do is, once you’ve sort of gotten them back to the company goal, right? Well, it’s going to increase our acquisition numbers or it’s going to increase our conversion numbers. You can kind of look at that [inaudible 00:34:58]. Our conversion numbers are 98% or whatever they are. They are not over 98%. Okay, those numbers are unusually high.
Holly: What company do you work with?
Laura: Okay, fine. It’s not 98% but whatever the number is. x or x metric is 98%. Well, this other one is 4%. Why wouldn’t we be working [inaudible 00:35:18]. Because something can seem sort of cool the abstract.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: Actually sit down and think about, like, what does this do for us? You also have to ask the question, is there something we need done? Is that really our company’s biggest problem right now? And often the answer is, “No, not really.” Like, there’s literally no way that it will help us with our biggest problem.
Holly: And yeah, that is awesome. I think sometimes I’ve noticed especially as I’m watching different coaches and leaders put their work out there that it’s just the framework itself. Like even if half of the audience listen to that and it was like yeah of course, that’s what I do. Sometimes it’s nice just to have different models of like, okay, so ask this question and then that question and then that question. And you’ve coached them through the process until they get to the point where they’re like, “Alright. Okay, I’m going to go away now.”
Laura: Yeah, there’s a methodology. And in fact, if you do it the same way over and over and over, I will say that people do start like this is … it is probably my happiest moment at companies when people start coming to me with those questions already answered.
Holly: Yeah. And, I’ve seen that too. And it’s the kind of thing where you know that you’re sort of making an impression on what they think and how they think. And that’s so important.
Laura: It is. And then it’s at that point that you can have the discussion, that’s the second level of that discussion, which is, okay, great. Now, we know what you think this is going to do for the user and the company, right? It’s important. We need to do things that are good for the user and good for the company, and hopefully good for the world. That’s the bonus level.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: Like getting very into that lesson lately. But that’s what that’s going to do for our user and our company and that’s how it’s going to benefit both of us. And then here are all these other things that we could also do that we think they would also achieve that. And so then we can have that conversation. And then we’re going to have the also important conversation of, what evidence do we have that one of these is better than the other? Like, if we had to choose one, because PS, we have to choose one, even if we decide this is the most important thing at the company, right? This is the the other O the OKR, right? That we [inaudible] have to know. Why do you think that’s better than this other thing? It might be? What evidence do you have? What evidence do we have? What evidence could we gather? What could we do to figure out if it’s better to go this way or that way? And the answer, by the way, is never sitting in a room and having a debate.
Holly: Yeah. I usually try and stop people. Like we should go out and get evidence. Why don’t we come back to this question next week? I’m that person who kind of like raises their hand and goes, “Excuse me.”
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: “We’re just wasting time let’s go ask real people.”
Laura: I know. What I now understand is that you think this thing and you think this other thing, and I have no reason to think that either review is more correct?
Holly: Yes, exactly.
Laura: Yeah. I’m sure both of you are very smart people and you have different opinions and so let’s figure out a way to see what the truth is.
Holly: Yeah. And it’s not just opinions. I mean, it is. But it’s also completely different sets of experiences and viewpoints from within that organization and from their past that influence why they think one thing versus the other. And undoubtedly, there’s a whole set of useful knowledge that sit inside whatever room that is. And so you got to figure out which things do you have to actually find? What evidence do you need?
Laura: Yeah. Who are you going to listen to? Who’s got the most information on that thing? And if we don’t have the right information, how do we get that information? That’s what I think you get down to the things like I was talking about with building the little wizard of Oz product or building a little experiment or trying a little thing. And sometimes that can be very hard at large corporations. But sometimes it’s really … even just like having a little demo of something that you can take out and share with people.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Just get [inaudible] … just to move it beyond the … but I think, no but I think like I don’t actually care what you think.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: We’re going with what people think that I get to make the decision. That’s how it works.
Holly: It’s awesome. I hope our listeners are able to feel a yes to that. But I imagine some of them are like, “No.”
Laura: No. To be perfectly honest it’s rarely true for me either but I find it that if you say it with a bit of authority, you get away with it like you know 20% of the time.
Holly: That’s awesome, well and people just keep inviting you back because you’re fun.
Laura: Yeah. Just tell them that you get to decide. See what they say. See what happens.
Holly: Yeah, no. So I really love the concept about finding the evidence and running the experiments and stepping back to what’s … If this is the company problem we’re trying to solve which of these things is going to do it better? Do you have I mean, you mentioned Wizard of Oz, and what are the other sort of go to test or experiments that you tend to use or have found useful?
Laura: Oh, God, everything. Concierge I also like and the big difference there is that with concierge, you’re doing it by hand or you’re doing things manually and people know that you’re doing them manually and that’s fine. And it’s just you’re actually going out and solving somebody’s problem but you’re doing it without any training and any code yet, or God forbid as a hardware product. So you’re doing things much more manually to begin with. So I love that just general user research, diary studies for things that are kind of a longer term use to understand actual behavior, observe as much close observation as you can do to see … and it’s so tricky because, especially since I tend to work on a lot of tools for process change, I run into this issue a lot, where I’m watching people do these very complicated manual processes. And my goal is to simplify this complicated manual processes. And it’s tricky, because I need to observe what they’re doing. But I need to not then take what they’re doing. And just turn it into a digital version of exactly what they’re doing.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: I need to take what they’re doing, understand why they’re doing it. Not loose the important bits of that. But simplify the parts that are being enforced because of the environment, if that makes sense. Oh, it’s the we have to make this report in triplicate that may not be true if it’s a digital form. We don’t want to zoom in.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: We’re out the trip a bit, but the report in triplicate. But why were you putting it out in triplicate? Oh, because it has this specific workflow and it needs to go to these three people. And okay, well, is there a sort of workflow process that we can implement it? Oh, why does it need to go to those three people? Oh, because we need to have legal sign off at this stage. Well, okay, are there times like, do you always have to do that? Or do you only summarize have to do that? And then it’ll come up like, Oh, well, we only sometimes have to do it. But it’s just easier for us to always have the same process because otherwise people forget the step. It’s like, well, computers aren’t going to forget the step. Computers are going to be able to remember that in these particular cases, you do this a different way. So suddenly, you’ve simplified the process.
Laura: You’re not printing out three copies and like sending them to people. You’re doing this in this entirely different way where you’re being smart about process and you figured out what the right workflow is in different sort of branches of the process. And that’s tricky because you have to really understand what people are doing. And at this holistic level, where your understanding what a lot of people are doing, understanding why all of them are doing it and why it works the way it does, which can feel very much like you know, CSI product management.
Holly: Yes.
Laura: It’s forensic product management as a forensic design as I like to call it, where you’re going through and trying to unearth all the reasons that things happened. And there are often great reasons that things happened. And the people who set up those processes in the first place, they’re going to push back like hell on you changing any of them. Which is another good thing to know. But you still [inaudible 00:43:53].
Holly: Yeah. They often will. But then I think that’s something I’ve seen a lot with different companies where somebody asks for that feature. And they say, we need to do this, this and this and then you realize that they’re just trying to take the analog and make it digital. And that’s all.
Laura: This is … I have to say, I feel like there’s an entire industry that there about to just make fun of an entire industry. And I apologize. I feel like there is an entire industry that is based around implementing software packages, various sorts. So for example like I’ve done a tiny bit of work in healthcare. And so I became fascinated by electronic health records. And a lot of hospitals have a package called epic, and some of them have a different one. But it’s one of those like, really highly customizable software packages. So like if you have epic at a particular hospital, it may work entirely differently than it does someplace else. But it’s still not like you’re not building an electronic health record from scratch. You’re not like building the software, you’re taking the existing software and customizing it. And there’s this whole industry that is set up around going through and like taking analog processes like actual binders of health records, and digitizing them and turning that process into a digital process. And I’ve found that too often, they wildly over complicate things.
Laura: Both because it is a complicated thing, like there are a lot of different things that could happen in a hospital and you have to take care for all of them. And you’re not going to get it done by one button, dead or alive. But you have to figure out the whole thing and get it into a digital system. And you have to simplify it in the meantime, and I feel like it’s that simplification stuff that often does not happen. And it’s true when you’re building stuff yourself. Two things just get wildly over complicated, because you’re never stepping back and saying, what the hell are we trying to do? And why are we trying to do it?
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. So this industry.
Laura: Yes.
Holly: It’s the one, that works to implement and customize those packages. Yeah.
Laura: Yeah. But like I said, even like if you’re a product manager, especially on a thing that already exists in the world, and you see your job as adding features to it, and not understanding the user and making it easier for the user to meet their goals and make their lives better. I think we can just be as guilty of it, right? We’re just adding on features were just automating existing processes without saying, “What are they trying to do? And how do I help them do a better?” Right?
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Which is what they should be doing. That’s, what do you want? And how can I help you get it? Is I think … not even like what do you want? But like what do you want from software? But what are you trying to do? And how can I help you do it better? Is I think a better way to approach it, than what features do you need? Or what is your … like I said, I think that what we do is the whole thing, just bring it back around and say I’ve rambled on, at length. The idea here is that we often have to go out and observe people in their natural habitats going through these processes. But the goal is not to take the processes and recreate them. The goal is to understand the why and help people get to the why more easily.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s the … sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I sometimes I’m amazed by how many times it feels like Groundhog Day when I’m constantly explaining like what is good product management and why do we do it? And at the end of the day, a lot of times what I end up seeing is like, well, great product management is being able to understand that, like the what is someone trying to do and what value does it bring to them? And then actually being able to connect it with what can technology do?
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: And how can we make that better with technology? And then of course.
Laura: And then turn that [crosstalk] into the thing?
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: And it’s interesting because I think sometimes the swing that I am seeing currently, especially with a lot of design thinking stuff, which I think can be extremely helpful, but I think can also be extremely damaging when done poorly.
Holly: Thought you said about everything.
Laura: Yes,[inaudible 00:48:59] I think that what I’m seeing is this swing to the other thing where everybody gets this very sort of high level, how might we and how do I help you like, what are your actual goals? Like people are getting better about understanding that, but they’re still not necessarily great at translating that into like, Oh, no, no, now we actually do have to translate it into a feature. And we do have to figure out what goes into that feature and how that feature is going to work. And we have to do that detailed design work to make that thing happen. So I mean, I love the whole outcomes over output. But also there’s output. We shouldn’t be judging products based on how many features they have. But at some point, like you might have to add a new feature and you still have to do that and design it and build it and all of that stuff.
Laura: And I think sometimes I kind of lost in the ideation maze of everything where everything is at a very high level. And it’s like now there’s actually a huge number of just really tedious goddamn details that go into.[inaudible 00:50:08].
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: Oh, somebody’s got to write all of the error messages.
Holly: Yeah, exactly. And people are like, “Oh, and it should be a mobile app and the desktop.” And I’m like.
Laura: Of course it should.[crosstalk 00:50:21]. What error cases are we going to handle?
Holly: Yeah. And then we’ll have it in Facebook Messenger.
Laura: Sure, yes. Absolutely. No question.
Holly: All the interfaces you can imagine. Now it needs to be conversational. And it’s like, Okay.
Laura: Right.
Holly: But [crosstalk 00:50:38].
Laura: I’ve used radio buttons [inaudible] I mean, like, you still have to make those decisions, right? Like, great how’s that [inaudible] actually going to work.
Holly: Yeah.
Laura: What is the coffee say? And I think that that can get kind of lost. And honestly, I think a lot of times product managers don’t like making those little detail decisions because they’re really tedious. I get it. But do it anyway. Because that’s what makes it a good use. Like that’s actually, I think the other part of what makes it a good user experiences is that you’ve thought about all of the ways somebody could actually use this in the real world. And you’ve accounted for that. And you’ve thought about the ways that people are going to screw it up and you hopefully prevented most of them or you’d recover gracefully, if it falls over. Like all of those things are also super important.
Holly: Absolutely. Well, listen, this has been fantastic. We are about out of time. So I wanted to ask you, what is it sort of your final last piece of advice you would give to a growing startup team’s product managers or product leaders? And what would you tell them to reach success?
Laura: Oh man. I used to joke that you could pretty much replace me with a box with a button on it that when you hit the button, it just say talk to your users. I changed that slightly to, it should say listen to your users or observe your users. And so what I will say is that you’re probably not in contact with your users enough, you’re probably building stuff based on really faulty assumptions. Try to figure out what the smallest possible thing that you can build is to deliver value and get feedback. And or help, I would settle for deliver value or get feedback. But [inaudible] feedback, and constantly try to deliver some value and see how it goes. So, but yeah.
Holly: Yeah. That’s awesome. Okay, now I’m imagining pushing the button.
Laura: Push the button, observe your users.
Holly: There you go. Perfect.
Laura: It’s a ringtone. I don’t care just, Yeah.
Holly: We’re going to start selling that.
Laura: Yeah.
Holly: I like it. Get Laurie saying, “Observe your users.”
Laura: Observe your users.
Holly: Awesome. Alright, well thank you so much, Laurie. This was fantastic and great fun. And I’m really glad you’re out there spreading the word, and can’t wait to share this with our audience.
Laura: Thanks so much for having me. It was great talking to you.
Holly: Well I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Laura as much as I did. If you’d like to find Laura online. You can find her @lauraklein on Twitter. Product science podcast is brought to you by H2R product science. We teach startup founders and products leaders how to use the product science methods to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams and businesses. Learn more at enjoying this episode. Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss next week’s episode. I also encourage you to visit us at to sign up for more information and resources from me and our guests. If you love the show, a rating and review would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.