No one comes to a product management job as a blank slate. Even if it’s an entry-level position, you must have done something beforehand to merit a company handing the fate of a feature or product over to you.
That means you’re experienced, whether it was leading product strategy for another firm, time in the trenches building a product, or working in the industry your new solution will serve. And while those experiences are why you were hired in the first place, they can also distort your view of the situation and negatively influence your outlook.
Humans are wired to prefer easy answers borne from our experiences; it’s familiar, it’s fast, and we “know” what the outcome will be. Deliberating and weighing different viewpoints and consequences while seeking additional sources of information is a lot harder; it feels slow and unnatural. That’s why it’s so tempting to “go with your gut” because that’s our instinctual response.
Our gut is what inspires us to change lanes on the highway when we sense that the car ahead may make an unpredictable move. It’s how we size up the checkout lines and pick the one we think will move faster. Basically, it’s what kept us from being eaten by lions.
But we’re seldom being chased by lions anymore, and as product managers, your decision- making must weigh multiple short-term and long-term ramifications. So while our experience might make it seem obvious that we should add a navigation menu here or create a specific workflow sequence there, it’s imperative that we don’t simply do what seems right based on what’s worked in the past.
Says Saurabh Gupta of Freshdesk, “Experience bias has an adverse effect on you, in that it kills those sparks of creativity that would have otherwise allowed your brain to reflect more deeply into the use cases, get into more user personas or look out for solutions that will truly push your product ahead,”
So how can we force ourselves to counter these natural tendencies to base our decisions on our experience? Here are six ways to reinforce objectivity:
1. Immerse Yourself in User Personas
You didn’t got through all of the trouble creating personas just so you had a caricature to match with a use case. Putting yourself in the shoes, apron, or office chair of a persona (vs. the generic “customer”) is one way to clear away the baggage you bring to the decision.
What’s important to them? Why are they doing this? What are they trying to accomplish? What are their concerns and preferences?
This internal role-playing lets you inhabit a use case and truly see things from a specific user’s perspective, instead of just deciding what the user wants based on your hunches.
2. Stick to the Facts: The Customer Data
Another tactic for minimizing experience bias is letting data dictate your decisions for you. Figure out what you know already, then go find out the rest. Research, interviews, surveys… all of these tools will either challenge or reinforce your starting position.
Not only will this data make you feel justified in making a particular decision, it can also help you influence others to agree with you. Instead of trying to win them over by saying “this is how we did it at my last company” or “this is a common practice in the industry,” you can base your positions in hard data and specific quotes from actual customers and prospects.
3. Involve Others in the Process
Product management can seem like a solitary journey at times, as you are the only person 100% focused on the fate of a particular product or feature. Incorporating more viewpoints into a decision establishes more confidence that it’s prudent and not just based on your own bias.
This doesn’t mean making product strategy a democracy where everyone gets a vote, nor that you only discuss things with stakeholders you consider your equals. Every input is another opinion and perspective driven by a combination of facts and experience, and many of them may be based on irrelevant or outdated experiences and unsubstantiated facts.
But every interaction is an opportunity to challenge your own current position, and having these interactions is far more valuable one-on-one or in small groups, where majority-rules groupthink doesn’t drown out the variety of voices in the crowd.
So check your ego and ask the database engineer whether he thinks a user would want a voice interface for your app. Throw caution to the wind and solicit the opinion of your UX designer on the importance of encryption. Get on a sales call and learn how potential customers react to your product value proposition.
I know — much of the input you receive might admittedly be useless — but you never know when someone will give you a new perspective you hadn’t yet considered.
4. Check in with Customers Early and Often
Assuming you’re not living in an underground bunker while building your product in total secrecy, you have a valuable resource you can bounce ideas off all of the time… your customers! This doesn’t mean you should call up your favorite customer every time you’re trying to decide what color a button should be, but there are plenty of opportunities to use them as a sounding board or quick source of instant feedback.
Once you have an idea for a new feature or change figured out enough that you can succinctly explain it, try it out on a customer and see what they think. Fire off a screenshot or wireframe to a few trusted and invested customers to gauge their reaction. Even when you’re still in the contemplative phase of defining the next big thing, you can contact a customer to validate your assumptions about how they use your product or what’s important to them.
Of course this requires building a stable of customers you can bug every now and then. Obviously a customer advisory board is a great source for these, as well as asking your account managers for suggestions on who might be a good candidate for a quick ping. But remember, all of your customers have their own experience bias they’re toting around, so be sure to mix up who you talk to and don’t just rely on a few friendly faces all of the time.
5. Question Yourself Regularly
Since experience bias is unavoidable, one way to keep it in check is to look for it retroactively. After you have made a decision or reached a conclusion, take a moment to think about how you got there.
Did you do your homework? Did the result come from solid, data-driven research? Did you talk to others to get varying opinions on the subject? Did you let it sit for a while and revisit it or just shoot from the hip?
If you realize that you were really just making an instinctual call or making a judgment on what you feel rather than what you know, now is your opportunity to revisit the topic with a more objective eye.
6. Notice When Others Exhibit Experience Bias, Too
While it’s essential you don’t let your own experiences distort your problem solving path, just as dangerous can be the biases other stakeholders may bring to the table. This often comes in the form of been-there-done-that attitudes of senior staff that have logged decades in the industry.
There’s much to be said for learning from history and not repeating the same mistakes of the past. But we also know that times and technology can change pretty darn quick and what was true decades, years, or even months ago may no longer be the case. So as you weigh the input from someone who’s been around the block a few times, try to break down their opinion into the specific set of assumptions it’s based on, then ascertain if each of those assumptions are still valid. And, of course, if you need to convince a biased executive of your product roadmap strategy, you should come armed with data.
Salespeople, too, are often guilty of experience bias, and since they’re a leading source of your market intelligence, this can then influence your own view of the marketplace you’re trying to serve.
“The biased salesperson assumes from a limited sample set of experiences and success, that all customers for his or her product have the same requirements, evaluate products the same way, make decisions in the same fashion and can be sold in the same manner,” says sales consultant Andy Paul. “The difficulty with sales biases is that they become molded into absolutes in the mind of the salesperson. As a result, even experienced salespeople stop truly listening and learning from their prospects and customers.”
7. Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater
While we just spent a lot of time discussing why and how you should fight the urge to let experience bias influence your decisions as a product manager, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your experience as an asset. Quite the opposite, our experiences make us who we are and make us valuable assets for our companies.
However, using the tactics above, you can validate that you’re not solely basing your strategy on the experience bias you have earned over the years, ensuring that it is but one ingredient you use to determine your product’s future.