Every so often I meet a product manager that tells me that they are not allowed to talk to their users or customers. Sometimes it’s because the sale reps want to control all access; or maybe it’s because marketing is supposed to be the interface with the customer; and occasionally there is literally a corporate policy restricting direct customer access because of worries about inappropriate statements or commitments. For whatever reason, if you work at a company where you’re told you can’t talk to your users, my advice is to first try hard to change this policy, but if that doesn’t work, dust off your resume and find a place where you can practice your craft and have a shot at creating great products.
I really don’t know how you can build products users will love without a deep understanding of those users, and you won’t get that without lots of direct communication, including face-to-face interactions.
Often, especially in larger companies, there are many different filters set up to try to “help” you as product manager understand the market. You’ll find marketing groups that commission surveys and focus groups that produce reports on what the users (think) they want, and sales organizations that will have someone like an SE (technical assistant to sales reps) designated to aggregate customer input and pass it along to the product manager, or customer service managers that are responsible for monthly reports on what the top issues are.
All that input is fine, but it is in no way a substitute for the product manager getting the direct interaction with users he needs to do his job.
To be very clear, I believe that the product manager should attend every user interview, every site visit, every usability test, and every customer advisory board/voice of the customer meeting that pertains directly to his product.
It is from getting to know enough of these people, and digging with each of them into their underlying needs, that we get the insights necessary to inspire great products. The insights won’t come from the surface level dialog of “I need to customize this page, and get a report with the time spent divided by the number of resources,” or, “72% of our users said they want higher resolution videos.”
By all means, leverage your organization. Many design organizations have user research capabilities that can be a huge help in facilitating and analyzing user interactions. Just make sure you’re there working with the researcher. It’s also fine to bring along a marketing person so they can start thinking about messaging and positioning. And I’m a fan of bringing along the lead engineer so he can start thinking about how these underlying issues might be solved.
But don’t abdicate your responsibility of understanding the user.
One final point. As you meet users, you’ll start to naturally find that some are much more useful to you than others in terms of fitting your target profile, or the level of insight they can provide. For these people, establish an ongoing relationship. Get their phone and e-mail and keep it handy in your office. As soon as you have a prototype, show it to them, and see how they react. When you’re in the middle of the project and a critical question comes up, give these people a quick call and chat about it. Make sure you always have 6-10 such user names handy. In addition to helping you to create a great product, if you play your cards right, these people will be great public references on the day you launch.