Best Practices

5 Ways to Escape the Product Echo Chamber

Published Jul 28, 2021

A few years ago, an experienced product colleague introduced me to the NIHITO principle. It’s the idea that “Nothing Important Happens Inside The Office.”

I was taken aback! Was this an attack on our hard-working engineering, quality, and support teams? No, instead of burning collegial bridges, NIHITO alludes to the critical importance of getting real feedback from real people. Behind closed doors, we expect our users to behave a certain way. But when we see our products getting used in the wild? Results may vary.

Tunnel vision is a key issue for the builders among us to overcome. We are so passionate about perfecting designs and writing beautiful code that we can lose sight of the bigger picture—the “why” that keeps our users happy and coming back for more. Without a member of the team responsible for keeping us on the “solving client problems” track, we may find ourselves on the “going out of business” track instead. Getting insights from users keeps us in check and helps build solutions with both form and function.

So, where do these seemingly magical insights come from? Here are some effective and time-tested sources and methods:

Customer Advisory Boards/Client Councils

CABs/CCs are regular workshops with small groups of client stakeholders. The stakeholders are typically senior, and conversation is centered around market direction and problems. These will be fruitful when held quarterly and roadmaps are discussed.

Pros: High levels of participant engagement, forms deep ongoing relationships, and helps us validate that we are solving the right problems.

Cons: Especially for enterprise B2B products, senior stakeholders/buyers may be 4+ levels removed from end-users. This can skew conversations towards the vision of tomorrow rather than the reality of today. Strong personalities require well-run sessions and well-chosen attendees.

Win/Loss Interviews

One of the most powerful tools in any PM’s toolkit, these involve calling individuals who have recently come through your sales pipeline. As the name suggests, it was either successful or unsuccessful for all involved. In either case, you will gain unique perspectives from asking the “whys”—covering pain-points, features, pricing models, and the decision-making process.

Pros: You hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. These businesses chose to work with you, your competitor, or none of the above—and you get to hear exactly why. Maybe competitor XYZ has released a new feature. Or competitor ABC has slashed their pricing. Or your case studies don’t speak to the true need of their segment. This is never a sales call, but sales-relevant information will emerge.

Cons: While far from impossible, it can be tough to get non-buyers on the phone. Resulting data can skew towards wins, so be aware of Survivorship Bias.

Sampling Current Users

Your users are a goldmine of information. Many have deep knowledge of your product and use it frequently. They know their way around certain features better than you and have strong opinions. Your client-facing colleagues (account management, customer success, support) can help you pick out those most forth-coming and willing to share experiences.

Pros: After talking to five to 10 current users, you’ll soon learn where your offerings shine and where a little TLC is urgently needed. The ongoing relationships you build through these conversations will be invaluable for future enhancements and releases.

Cons: Watch out for squeaky wheels receiving too much oil. Depending on your sources, selection bias can play a role. Dig for underlying problems, not only proposed solutions.

Usability Testing

We take the leap from “tell me” to “show me” with usability testing. Providing users with clickable prototypes, beta solutions, or live products and having them perform desired tasks yields fascinating results. Our design peers can teach us a lot here when it comes to best practice. If budget allows, we can even use tools like Pendo to run usability testing for end-users in production (bonus points for A/B Testing).

Pros: Effective usability testing quickly highlights incorrect workflow assumptions, unclear tutorials, or missed onboarding opportunities. Designers are excellent at leading these sessions, and product teams can observe and probe as necessary.

Cons: Strong facilitation required to prevent too many “make this button blue” suggestions.

Quantitative Data Analysis

An avenue not to be overlooked is quantitative data. Every business is becoming a data business, and the accessibility of data visualisation tools allows us to splice, sort, and filter to our hearts’ content. The possibilities here are endless—ARRPC by segment, NPS/CES/CSAT, churn-rate by client-industry, number of support tickets, quarterly user surveys, Salesforce reporting, etc.

Pros: A relatively low-effort way to get broad and representative data. Helps with drawing statistically significant conclusions.

Cons: Quantitative data often lacks rich context and doesn’t allow for open-ended questions. You can’t ask a spreadsheet “why?” Without context, misinterpretation is more likely. It can be tempting to use this data as the single source of truth, but please do supplement it with other techniques.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who works in Product knows that time is precious. At any one time we have two dozen smoldering fires, and if we don’t douse correctly, we’ll get burnt. Therefore, when applying the above be guided by your specific needs. Prioritize based on the benefits compared to your current problems. And whatever you choose, get outside the office (even if only virtually!).

Bonus: Pragmatic Institute has a great webinar on NIHITO which can be found here.