Product Feedback (Is Not About You)

I think that most of us show a product to potential users whilst in the same frame of mind as a kid bringing a painting home from school. It’s that “Look at what I made!” moment when we reveal our creation and hope that it will not only be liked, but showered with praise. Beyond the age of 7, this probably isn’t a great way to approach things.

We pour so much of ourselves into developing a product, even just an early MVP, that it’s natural to feel like this. But the search for acceptance masks what we really need from the situation… a discussion about the product.

Lately, I’ve been managing to turn those situations into discussions about whether the product fits, whether it appeals, if it’s useful to that person or their company and, if not, why not. That discussion won’t necessarily always lead to me hearing what I want to hear, but it should point me in the direction of a product that this person, this user, might actually want to use. Whether or not they like it right now it is slightly less relevant, so long as I can turn their reaction into a discussion about why they like/dislike it, or would/wouldn’t use it, and how to mould it into something that would fit their needs better.

Rather than heading away from, I’ve learned to head towards the uncomfortable topics such as whether they would buy it at a certain price and in the way I’m proposing charging for it. “Would you pay for it?” is a tough question, and it often completely colours how they perceive the product. There is a temptation to avoid it, but then that’s a wasted discussion if I plan to charge anyway.

The flipside of making the discussion about the product is that I’ve learned to listen to all feedback, but only act upon it in aggregate. Not every suggestion or comment will necessarily lead to a change in the product, unless the aggregate of the feedback I receive suggests there is value for a significant portion of potential users. Remembering this makes it easier to hear suggestions for crazy features, scattergun feedback on 1001 aspects, ideas for how this product should be an entirely different product (usually in a market I’m not interested in), and other tangential topics. Rather than getting disheartened by this, I can use these as ways to mark the boundary of the product I’m proposing, and to understand why this person either misunderstood what I’m proposing or, more likely, would prefer a completely different product. It isn’t a rejection of the work to-date. Again, it’s a discussion about how to get to something that would actually sell, and that necessarily includes discussing things slightly outside the scope of the product from time to time. Sometimes, those tangential topics even become the product.

So I’ve learned the valuable lesson that it isn’t useful to enter these meetings with my heart on my sleeve and a “Look at what I made!” attitude, difficult though that is. Far better to come out of each meeting with a better idea of what the product should be, and another viewpoint to combine with the ones I already have.

It’s a discussion about the product, not a search for acceptance. And it is absolutely never about me.

Why Generating Ideas Is Hard

Lately, I’ve been following James Altucher’s advice to write down 10 new ideas every day. The assumption is that our idea generating ability is like a muscle and, unsurprisingly, it’s a muscle that we’ve been taught not to use, so it atrophies. The ideas I am generating are mainly for software products or businesses, but occasionally I try other topics too.

Why am I trying to generate ideas? Let me explain…

Anyone who grew up in the past 80 or so years (that’ll be us then) was educated by a system that groomed us for work in factories or, more recently, large corporations where our career path and options would be dictated by preordained lines. Those jobs usually involved being handed a piece of work that had reached a certain stage, using our skills to take it to the next stage (as defined in our job spec) and then handing it on, or back to the person/team that gave it to us. Even professional roles, such as engineering were well-defined and limited by job specs. Management roles also tended to involve governing a pre-agreed territory, team or function, with defined lines between us and the adjacent manager’s responsibility. Or, they involved handling a specific aspect of a company’s activities, such as HR, legal, public relations or security.

Wherever we looked, it’s like the lines were already drawn. No chance to skid off the rails and almost an implied encouragement not to think outside the box. A world in which structure was provided, and our ability to work within that structure was educated into us.

But the world isn’t like that anymore. Those well-defined jobs, particularly in the software industry, are increasingly poorly paid, over-pressurised by attempts to squeeze out the last drops of productivity, and dwindling in their numbers. More and more people are either working in smaller companies and start-ups, with very little of that structure, or taking their own show on the road by choosing to freelance and market their services as an individual or small group, often back to those very same organisations that previously employed them.

As a software engineer, the ultimate expression of this new found freedom — one that, in my view, will become the only way of working, and hence an obligation, for most professionals quite soon — is to found your own company, build your own idea, find a market and make money that way.

This new way of working, at start-ups but particularly for ourselves, involves a skill that has been bred out of us: Generating ideas. Hence, I’m trying to rediscover my own idea generating muscle. And it has certainly atrophied over the years. If, in-fact, I’ve ever used it to its full potential yet.

The first thing I experienced when I started listing 10 ideas on my notepad, as James suggests… was that I ground to a halt pretty quickly. After 2 ideas in-fact; the two I already had in my head before I began. Not only did I halt, but I stopped dead. All new avenues of thought dried up. It’s as though I was idea intolerant. There were no boundaries or guidelines and so I couldn’t proceed. My mind, having been educated for a predefined role, needed structure where no structure existed.

So I went for a walk, with my notepad and pen, to get some inspiration. The first few times I did this, I returned home unfulfilled and with no new ideas.

But then last week something interesting happened: Slowly, I began adding one or two ideas to that list. One a day, initially, but now I seem to be up to 4-5 new ideas a day before I hit the same old block again.

I think it’s like pull-ups. If you’ve never done a pull-up, your first attempt will probably result in the realisation that you can’t do a single pull-up. Not even one. Seriously, lifting your own body weight is unexpectedly hard. It takes regular persistence to achieve your first few. But beyond that, you can gradually increase if you keep up the regular habit of exercising the muscles that the activity has developed. Stop that regular activity, and the muscles atrophy again.

I will keep this up and see if I can turn my 5 daily ideas into 10. The list of each day’s ideas is certainly inspiring and, as James says, ideas breed. Perhaps that’s why improvement is possible: Your previous ideas cause you to notice new and interesting things in the world, which sparks further ideas and, if you’re looking for them and writing them down, the cycle continues.

Whether any of these ideas will prove useful is another thing entirely. But generating them, when I’ve clearly been educated not to be capable of it, is probably a worthwhile self-development activity in itself.