Turn It Up or Turn It Down.

An issue I’ve been talking through with people recently is when to do certain activities. Or how often. Or how many people to involve.

“How long should discovery take?”, “When do we start and stop interviewing?”, “How many people should we talk to?”, “Hope many usability tests should we do?”, “How many prototypes should we build?”, “How many A/B tests before we decide?”, and so on.

These are usually the wrong questions to ask.

They’re usually wrong because they’re being asked in the context of a timeline or some kind of sequential stage-gated process. Folk want to know when they can stop doing one thing (like talking to customers) and start doing the next thing (like building some software).

Folk are still in the mindset that these are one-off activities. We can discover truth, map out the one-true-timeline, and then be confident of our next steps.

This is, of course, a lie.

User research & product management activities do not deliver truth. They delivers information with some level of risk and confidence. Which helps the organisation make informed bets based on that information.

This means we need to be listening for new information. We need to understand whether our bets are paying off (or not) and steer accordingly.

Which is why one of the biggest lies is the “discovery phase” or the “research phase”. It encourages organisations to think about activities as one-off. Something done once and never revisited.

This mindset cripples the organisation’s ability to make smart decisions when the world changes, or the research turns out to be over general, or over specific, or just plain wrong.

Instead I encourage teams to look for and articulate the cues that let you know when you should start doing more (or less) of something.

Rather than asking when things should start and stop, or how long they should take, ask what value that activity is providing and why we’re doing it.

Think about it like a volume knob — not a stage or switch.

Ask when you should turn an activity up, or turn it down.

Take interviewing customers for example. Let’s say we’re a startup looking for problem-solution fit and we’re talking to customers every day about how their using our new service:

  • Do we hear the same thing from every customer we talk to? Probably time to turn it down. Move back from daily interviews to weekly.
  • Does we hear different things from every customer? Probably time to turn it up. Do more interviews. Spot that different market segment we didn’t really understand before. Turn it down on the segment we do understand. Turn it up on the segment we don’t.
  • Do we see customers behaving differently from the customer journeys and mental models we built from our discovery work? Time to turn up the interviewing up again to explore that issue.
  • … and so on.

Look for the triggers. Help socialise:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What do we expect to see when it’s working well?
  • What do we expect to see when it’s working poorly?
  • What do we see if we need to do more of something?
  • What do we see if we need to do less of something?

TL;DR: Instead of selling an activity, sell the triggers and cues that show the need for that activity. Help the organisation see when they need to turn it up. Or turn it down.


Published: May 21, 2024
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