"Talk to customers" is standard advice for Product Managers. But I've heard many plausible-sounding arguments for delaying it; outsourcing it or relying on alternative techniques to generate insights.
I'd like to outline why I believe it’s critical for their teams' success that Product Managers drive and conduct direct research.
Skilled user researchers can have a huge, positive impact on research quality in product organisations. UX researchers can also help source niche participants and ensure those in sensitive situations feel safe and comfortable - something I found extremely valuable in a healthcare context operating across multiple countries and languages.
However, problems occur when great user research is synthesised into reports and presented to Product Teams with the expectation they'll internalise it. Even the very best research reports convey only a fraction of the information gleaned from direct customer contact and synthesis. And from my experience presentations aren't effective at getting product team members to truly internalise research.
There's a form of magic that happens when a human being interacts with another human being. It's called empathy. Relying solely on reports and data analysis slows down the process of developing empathy. And without empathy, it's tough for Product Managers to develop solutions that are truly valuable for customers.
Nowadays, product teams with skilled designers user-test their prototypes regularly - helping to ensure people are able to use the solutions the team is developing. This is typically driven by the Designer and/or the User Researcher. Whilst important, user testing is sub-optimal for uncovering - or testing - value, one of the most common risks to product success.
If a product team is just doing usability studies, they're likely missing important insights into what customers need, will adopt, and pay for.
Whilst there are techniques for discovering what customers find valuable - such as analysing search data or feedback from your sales team - nothing comes close to the richness and quality-of-insight you can generate from direct, high quality customer interviewing and experiments.
If Product Managers aren't driving regular customer interviews to understand customers' wider context and problems the team will likely be missing key opportunities to create value.
If Product Managers aren't testing propositions with customers to see how valuable solutions are, whether they'll adopt them, and whether they'll pay for them - teams will likely spend time building features that don't deliver outcomes for customers or the business.
Paul Adams - SVP Product at Intercom - argues that one skill that distinguishes strong vs weak product people is product judgement, an uncanny ability to make better decisions based on what you've learned about customers and a domain over time.
As he puts it:
The more direct experiences you have with real customers doing real things, the faster your product judgment grows.
So, if you're a Product Manager and you aren't currently driving customer research, I hope you'll consider making it a part of your practice.
For practical tips on how to do this, I highly recommend Theresa Torres' blog.