Editor’s note: In our Steering the Ship series, we chat with product leaders in various industries. Today, we’re sharing a conversation between Alex Fedorov, VP of Design at ADK Group, and Om Suthar, founder of Personify.
In this post, you’ll learn some tactics and strategies for designers in the digital product space, courtesy of design-leader and entrepreneur Om Suthar. You’ll gain insight into
- his user research philosophy,
- the tools he uses to manage the evolution of a digital product,
- user onboarding tactics, and more.
By day, Om Suthar is the Director of Design at Ellucian, which makes enterprise software for running higher ed institutions. In his off-hours, he’s building a product called Personify.
Personify makes the data you get from user research more actionable and accessible – so it’s a tool for designers to design better, designed and built by a Director of Design.
Like many entrepreneurs, Om is building the solution to a specific and persistent pain he experienced in his day job – you may recognize it.
The biggest pain points of digital product management
In Suthar’s opinion, the biggest pain points lie not in the execution of digital products, but in expectation management. There will always be gaps between what you think, what you say, and what the other party hears. But as an industry, Suthar urges all of us to get better at managing expectations through better documentation.
In particular, design intent documentation.
At this point, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of the myriad different shiny tools out there – whether that’s Google Docs, Notion, Confluence, AirTable or any other document editor.
Instead, Suthar clarifies, “It’s really more about…your mental model or page structure for organizing research to design intent to then product feature documentation, and how [you’re] engaging your cross-functional team members to make sure that that’s all aligning.”
Activating user research data
The other major pain point from Suthar’s perspective is ensuring that all the data uncovered from user research is actually used.
Too often the results of user research get turned into a presentation, shared, and then all of that hard work just sits in a folder. Sometimes that will be surfaced later, but understanding the contextual value and background information is nearly impossible.
With the rise of remote and asynchronous work, those insights are more important than ever, but also more static than ever.
Better design intent & research documentation
For Suthar, the solution to the aforementioned pain points lies in a shared, dynamic knowledge base.
The nuance is that these often risk becoming data dumps – where designers store the raw data instead of the refined insights that product managers are often looking for.
Of course, going from planning user research to synthesizing insights is a multi-step process.
Looking for a repository that could help him manage the user research process and make the outcomes shareable and actionable Suthar found plenty of tools, but they were all prohibitively expensive.
So he decided to build one for his team himself. And thus Personify, a tool to quickly organize, build, and share use research data, was born.
Why devote so many resources to user research?
Suthar obviously puts a premium on user research. It’s at the center of his work at Ellucian and was the impetus for creating his startup.
What drove this focus? Why invest so much into user research? Should you?
The answer lies in part of the second question: the why.
While Suthar appreciates the value of quantitative research (another muscle he thinks designers should strengthen), it’s only half of the story. It addresses what happened, but you don’t know why that happened. The motivations, the needs, and the context are all missing.
That extra information also allows you to begin to forecast into the future, whereas the “what” only exists in the past and the present.
How do you think about qualitative and quantitative research? Is one more valuable than the other to you?
Suthar also cites the nearly limitless potential of qualitative research, depending on how you tap into it. On one hand, you have traditional ethnographic research methods like customer interviews.
“But,” Suthar says, “there are also a multitude of guerilla tactics emerging.” These guerilla use research tactics give you fresh angles into behavior.
Guerilla user research
For an example of guerilla user research tactics, Suthar says to look at the video game industry. Thanks to the popularity of streaming on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, you have access to countless hours of gamers narrating their behavior while playing a video game. So not only is this a relatively normalized behavior that you can take advantage of, but there also exists a relatively quick, free library of thousands of users’ thoughts and experiences.
While there are drawbacks, guerilla user research has the advantages of more flexibility. You can collect data without worrying about up front scheduling. You can also reduce the burden of identifying the right audience, since these users are self-identifying through the activities they’re already doing.
A benefit of user research you may be overlooking
Ironically, some of the most well thought out experiences end up being the most ignored. So much work has gone into making them natural and effortless that users quickly take them for granted.
But rest assured, your users will hone in on the experiences that you don’t have fully figured out. In these scenarios, Suthar recommends leaning even harder into user research.
“Well, what’s amazing is when you don’t have something figured out and you invite your customers…to come in and participate in building it with you for them, something magical happens,” he says.
That magical moment is your users telling you exactly what they expect. If you’ve picked the right audience for your user research, and they’re representative of your customers, then according to Suthar you’ve struck gold. Your customers are telling you (though maybe not exactly or explicitly) what they’re willing to pay you more for.
Of course, anyone working directly with users knows that building for a single customer is almost never a good idea. And thanks to biases and other quirks of psychology, your users may not actually be good at telling you what they actually want.
How do you work to increase the ratio of signal to noise in customer feedback?
Understanding trade-offs in user research
One of Suthar’s tricks to help the customers you’re interviewing better help him is to encourage perspective shifts.
Yes, this is about empathy. Though it’s not only the empathy user researchers have for their customers. It’s also encouraging empathy to flow in the opposite direction: from customer to researcher.
He helps the customer step into his shoes by saying something like, “If you were leading the team and you had to pick between building this feature for two weeks or building this feature for six weeks, which one would you do first?”
This helps them internalize the concept and importance of trade-offs in product development, instead of you having to convince them directly yourself.
Naturally, with all these layers of user research – from traditional methods, to guerilla tactics, to involving users more explicitly in the creative process – you’re going to generate a ton of material. All that feedback has to be managed if it’s going to be useful, and it has to be useful if it’s actually going to improve the evolution of your product.
From research to roadmap
One of the keys to the success of Suthar’s products is his focus on the operations of both the inputs of user research and the outputs.
Tools to manage qualitative feedback collection and data
As Suthar’s teams conduct user research in service of evolving their product they’re amassing huge amounts of data, all of which needs to be well documented.
To do so, Suthar created a repository in Airtable where he can look back at the raw data–all of which is indexed. Later on, he looks at the same data in Personify to help him turn the user research data into actionable insights. He finds that AirTable and Personify work especially well when used together, though these aren’t the only tools he uses.
To provide this system with more user feedback, Suthar’s team doesn’t just rely on the guerilla tactics mentioned previously. They also use Typeform for surveying, as well as a tool called VideoAsk by Typeform. VideoAsk allows Suthar to conduct interviews asynchronously, which makes it easy to complete interviews without having to schedule time to connect. Suthar records himself asking interview questions, then participants will respond via video, voice, or text. Suthar has found that the rate of completion tends to be much higher than traditional interview methods, as it can be difficult to coordinate a time to meet in a synchronous setting.
Tools to translate insights into a roadmap
Suthar employs an issue-tracking tool called Linear (it’s similar to Jira) to communicate with the development team. Each feature that the team builds is tied to their product roadmap in Notion, which houses a configurable Gantt chart where the team can add scheduled dates and boundaries around the feature. This allows the team to have a roadmap and a list of items they need to accomplish before the next release. This roadmap then links back to their research in Airtable and Personify HQ so that all of the contextual information is easily accessible.
What about quantitative research?
Suthar isn’t just singularly focused on qualitative customer feedback. He also strongly supports designers building up their analytics muscles. He notes that designers should understand foundational elements including Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, and how search engine optimization (SEO) works. It’s also important to understand your general user behavior and your ultimate acquisition goals.
Building a foundational understanding of analytics doesn’t have to cost hundreds of dollars — all it takes is some time and motivation.
Suthar’s secret weapon? Google’s free academy for Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.
Tools for tracking web app analytics
Suthar and his team use Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics, and Pendo to track lead conversion from the website visitor phase all the way through to becoming a registered user. These tools allow the team to figure out what types of users are signing up, how long it takes a user to complete each phase, where people are getting stuck during the process, and where there are opportunities to improve the product.
The team evaluates user behavior at key stages in the process, from a website visitor, to a registered user, to a registered user that made their first persona, to a registered user that made their first persona and invited a team member and created a bookmark to all the way to the end where they’ve reached their research goal and validated a persona.
Using EPAGs to optimize the design of your onboarding experience
Suthar uses a growth marketing idea called endpoint acquisition goals, or EPAGs. This concept helps you answer, “What is the next thing you want the user to do?” Following this principle, the team thinks of onboarding as guiding the user from step zero to one, one to two, and so on, rather than thinking of onboarding as getting the user through steps one through five.
By thinking of the process in this way, it helps the team understand what success looks like and what the expectations are. Essentially, they’re thinking of the process as a conversion funnel, which lines up neatly with how they measure the analytics behind the onboarding process.
User onboarding is one of the most important parts of your product, and nailing it usually requires a multi-disciplinary team. Success requires experts from product and marketing working together in service of getting new users to value as quickly as possible. If you’re having issues with user onboarding, let us know! We’d love to help out.
Tools to improve user onboarding
Suthar noted that Notion, Pendo, and Drift are all heavily relied on by their team. With Notion, for example, the team is able to host their self-paced course curriculum content on Notion and do a custom domain redirect. This allows the team to have the flexibility to easily change the content as needed. Pendo allows them to build first-time user experiences and have the flexibility to experiment, without necessarily needing to implement code every time. The team also uses Drift as a chatbot that interacts with users and answers questions for them directly on the webpage.
Should I build or buy my tools?
For Suthar’s team, it made more sense to pay for these tools than to build them because it provided the team more freedom to experiment with their onboarding process, especially because they didn’t have to hard code the platforms themselves. If there are specific platforms your team is considering implementing, Suthar recommends selecting a free tier level to start if you can, because it will help you build an understanding of what your needs are in terms of build vs. buy.
Parting advice for anyone starting work on digital products
Suthar recommends making sure you really get to know your company, your product, and their value in the industry. To gain a strong foundational understanding of all of this, he suggests telescoping and learning more about the user story and industry story. Then, determine where your company fits into these stories and where it aspires to be.
We’re always on the lookout for the unsung heroes of product strategy. If you’re interested in sharing some hard-earned lessons, set up a conversation with Alex Fedorov, our VP of Design by reaching out here.
Om Suthar is the Director of Design at Ellucian by day, and the founder and Product Leader at Personify by night. Personify is a tool for co-creating personas that help you design for your user and solve for their customer needs. Suthar studied automotive design and is experienced in UX design, design management, and innovation and entrepreneurship.