Product Discovery Marty Cagan

Discovery – Feedback

I would be very surprised if there were any product people out there that do not already know that it’s critically important to seek critical feedback. 

Yet the reason for this note is because so very often I find product people actively avoiding this negative feedback. 

As Elon Musk says, “I think it is very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something people typically tend to avoid because it’s painful. But I think this is a very common mistake – to not actively seek out and listen to negative feedback.”

As much as I’m hooked on the data we collect and the quantitative insights we can learn from that, so far I haven’t found anything that can compare to the qualitative feedback we get when we sincerely try to figure out why a person won’t use or buy our product, or why they just cancelled their subscription, or why they have become inactive. 

I’ve made the argument many times, in many places, about how to collect this feedback, and why it’s so incredibly valuable and important.  Yet still I continue to meet people that find any excuse to avoid doing this.

So in this article, I’d like to call out the most common excuses I hear, and how I try to coach the product team to get past them.

“The Truth Hurts”

As Elon was alluding to, getting critical feedback can be painful.  Especially if you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the product you’re getting feedback on.  For many, it’s not really the product that’s getting the negative feedback, it’s the person that defined, designed or built the product.

It’s not hard to understand the root of this issue, and of course we want our people to care about their work.  But in terms of coaching, there are three points I try to drive home here:

First, it’s critically important to start getting critical feedback before you fall in love with the idea.  And related to this, if you’re going to fall in love, fall in love with the problem and not the solution.  This is why I so often push teams to get their idea in the form of a prototype as fast as possible, and then get this prototype in front of real users.

Second, if you really do want to create an amazing product, then far from this critical feedback being a setback, it’s a chance to find the insights we need to get this product to where it needs to be.  I coach teams to actively seek out this type of feedback and celebrate it when you get it.  The sooner the better, and the more the better.

Third, if you have set up a weekly cadence of testing your ideas qualitatively with users and customers, this feedback just becomes the normal rhythm of the team and the mindset of the team will quickly change once they’re hooked on the value of the learning.

“There’s No Time”

There’s a lot of talk today about outcomes over output, which I’m glad to see finally getting the attention it deserves.  While it’s not hard to see the appeal of this concept in theory, in practice, it’s not all that surprising that many times you’re faced with the choice of making a date, or spending more time to achieve the necessary outcome. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there are times where deadlines can be valuable and a galvanizing force for the product team, but there are quite a few people out there that are so date focused, they will literally shut down any discussion of anything at all that puts that date in jeopardy.  They would much rather have the effort deemed a failure than to live with missing the date.  Another hallmark of a feature team.

In this case, I try to explain the concept of an empty victory, and that they are being held to a higher standard.  I also talk about the concept of a high-integrity commitment for those cases where a date is truly critical, but it’s not enough just to ship output, we have to achieve a result.

“That’s Not My Customer”

Today most people are aware of confirmation bias, although I’m not sure that awareness has reduced its frequency very much, as it’s exceedingly common and deeply embedded.

Recently I was talking to a product team about some very negative feedback, and I realized during the discussion that they weren’t only avoiding critical feedback, they were explicitly seeking confirmation.  

Their reasoning was “there is no product that everyone loves, so we’re not interested in the people that don’t like our product – we’re looking to make sure that there are people that do appreciate what we have.”  So they were heavily discounting the negative feedback, and instead clinging to the few encouraging comments they heard as a positive signal that they were on the right track.

Coaching this problem involves going back to the basics of how and why we test our ideas, and explain that this qualitative feedback – positive or negative – isn’t meant to prove anything one way or another.  It is meant to help us gain insights into our customers and how they perceive our product, so we can improve the product. 

“I Don’t Care”

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that many times critical feedback is avoided because the product team just doesn’t GAF.  They feel little sense of ownership over the problem.  They don’t much care if customers like the product or not.  They often don’t like the product themselves.

This is an unfortunate consequence of a team of mercenaries, which is common in feature teams.  I don’t want to rehash here all the reasons why we need empowered product teams and not feature teams, but this is a clear example of why Jeff Bezos argues that “we need product teams that think like owners and not like employees.”

If you are not regularly (weekly) actively seeking critical negative feedback, then I hope you take a few minutes with your team at your next opportunity to discuss this.  Ask yourselves if you are willing to change that, at least as a test, and then discuss the best way to go about it.  

While your ego might get bruised a bit, I am fairly certain that you and your product will emerge much better for it.