Product Marty Cagan

Shared Learning

One of the tenets of Product Discovery, Lean UX and Lean Startup methodology in general, is to try and avoid or reduce waste.  Mostly that means tackling the situation where we design, build, test and deploy a solution that fails to meet its objectives.  However, in this article I wanted to focus on another form of waste, one I find particularly frustrating, one that I’ve seen in countless teams, and one that I believe is completely avoidable.

I am referring to the waste that happens when one member of a team goes off and learns something important about our customers or our product, and that learning is wasted because it is not acted on or internalized or grokked by the rest of the team.

The most common form of this waste I see is when the user researcher goes off and does some in-depth contextual inquiry, or a round of customer visits.  In my experience when this happens there are usually three common results.  The first is that the user researcher actually gains some very valuable insights – sometimes insights that could and should change the course of the product.  The second is that the user researcher typically delivers his or her learnings in the form of a report or a presentation to the team.  The third result is that the team may or may not read the report, or listen to the presentation, but in any case they usually view the findings as mildly interesting but just another of many forms of input.  And all too often this learning and opportunity is largely wasted.

Sometimes it is the product manager that does this independent learning and then can’t understand when he or she can’t seem to convey the importance and significance of the findings to the rest of the team.

It could actually be anyone on the team.  I’ve seen it be a product designer, or one of the engineers.  The result is all too often wasted learning and lost opportunity.

I am on record as being a very strong advocate for user researchers on product teams because of the amazing learning they can facilitate. However, many organizations have abandoned this role.  This is a shame but I understand it.  If the results are not actually utilized it’s hard to justify.

After seeing this problem so much, I have started to take a much harder line with teams on this.  My view at this point is that if you can’t do this learning together, it’s just not worth doing.

So I am pushing on user researchers to ensure that the product manager, designer and engineers are able to directly experience the learning. In fact, their real value to the company is not to deliver learnings but rather to enable this direct learning by the people on the team that will need to actually correct the problems or pursue the newly found opportunities.

This practice of shared learning is implied by most interpretations of Lean UX, but I want to try to argue for it to be explicit.  The learnings that come from engaging deeply with our users and customers are simply too valuable to be wasted.