Thinking out loud about the other F word

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Nope, not feminism.


I have been working in Silicon Valley as a product manager for less than two years now, but I already know that talking about “feelings” is met with awkward silences and throat clearing from executives.

Because, you cannot measure feelings, they say. It’s too “up in the air”, followed by some tongue clicking and “Women!”.

But you CAN measure feelings. Anyone that’s spoken to even 15 developers will be able to qualitatively measure their sentiments about a product they use. By the way, I have proof:

I interviewed 15 developers about a developer tool. 12/15 used the words “It sucks”.

Question: So, what do you think about tool A?

“I don’t use it because it sucks.”

“Oh man! It sucks.

It sucks, so I just let my team use it heheand so on.

Frustration. Disgust.

Those are feelings right? What would happen if we measured the tool’s traffic alone? We would draw several conclusions from it, but the human feeling of disgust and frustration will not be evident. The same emotions that I personally feel when I see a rotten banana, worms or push a “Pull” door.

These interviews helped me and my team acquire a shared vision for our redesign:

People should not feel frustrated or disgusted when they use tool A.

We want them to feel accomplished and happy.

Measuring feelings is important especially in the world of developer tools, developer experience, infrastructure and platforms. In this space, we tend to let the brilliance of our technical solutions cloud the understanding of the underlying human problems.

The human motivations and goals.

The human feelings of disgust.

Yes, I continue to write user stories for developer tools where I say things like

As a developer, I want to do X, so that I feel sense of accomplishment.

So that I am happy

So that I can go back to my husband and kids

Now, designers and product managers already do quantitative research and usability studies where they capture users’ emotions. I still don’t see this happening in the ERP tools/dev tools space.

I feel like sometimes we forget we are building software for people. We as product managers, often create something new in this world, that could potentially outlive us.

Do we want to build crap that satisfies executives, or do we want to build something useful and beautiful — a solution to human problems?

We need to start using people-language and people-concepts because corporate speak could go out of style soon (it already has, I hope).

Here are two simple ways to measure feelings, in the context of product development

1. Talk (or even better — listen) to your customers

Spend two hours every week talking to customers. During these two or more hours, ensure that you are NOT selling your product, but are simply listening. Listen to the lives your customers have and how they use tools to accomplish something.

Afterwards, think about how any tool you may build will fit into their lives.

One amazing product manager I know (I interviewed for a position on her team), taught me to put aside my profession, and think as a human being. This advice, while SO simple and obvious, I realized, was not really being followed by tech companies.

Reducing customers to “funnels” does not help you think of human problems deeply, and often does not drive the right behavior.

2. Instrument in-product surveys (that are short and delightful)

Net promoter scores or CSAT scores have a ton of pitfalls. They are, by no means, perfect product metrics, especially if your tool/product does not get sufficient traffic.

However, allowing customers to leave comments on your product, at natural points of “success” (for example: when they have successfully made an API call, successfully deployed an app to production etc.), will give you a sense for

a. how they “feel” when they accomplish something using your tool

b. if/where they struggled

A survey can be as simple and non-intrusive as the one on Stripe’s docs. I personally love this because it is so simple, and hitting “yes” or “no” prompts no further questions. Docs are either helpful or unhelpful.

a simple survey on Stripe’s docs
a simple survey on Stripe’s docs
A simple survey within Stripe’s API docs

I also love Lyft’s in-app survey: “How was your pickup?”. As a rider, I feel good when Lyft cares about how I feel about my pickup (I usually feel frustrated about the detours when using Lyft Line). The survey is beautifully designed, and allows me to vent my frustration to Lyft through a simple interface. As a bonus, there is a sweet animation of a rabbit hopping over traffic cones, when I do give feedback! Even if it has no impact on the detours themselves, I feel like I’m being heard. That’s powerful.

As a product manager, remember to legitimize “happiness” as a product success metric.

It is. Don’t let eye rolls prevent you from talking about your customers’ feelings!

I'm a product manager living in San Francisco with a heart that refuses to leave Chennai! I enjoy writing about product management, technology, and food.

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