Moving from user research to product

Work profile of Sarah Brooks, listing her job as product manager within CDCTP.

After observing my first usability testing session in a lab in 2014, I was certain I wanted to be a User Researcher (UR). I loved the idea of combining human psychology with my passion for digital. The idea of meeting new people and building rapport to get valuable insights really excited me. I wanted to be the voice of the user, and influence the way products and services are built.

Although I have a human science degree, I hadn’t practiced any social research for a good few years. I’d had a number of digital roles, and had led accessibility research whilst I was Web Improvement Manager at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), but I knew I’d need to broaden my experience.

I reached out to a well established researcher, Jonathan Porton; and asked for advice on the best way to gain more experience in the area. He was very helpful as always, but said the best advice he could give was to get out there and start talking to people – so that’s exactly what I did!

I left ONS to work as a Web Manager for the Welsh Government, and was responsible for managing two of their websites. I threw myself into the role, undertaking various projects to improve the user experience. I learned about various research methods such as in-depth interviewing, usability testing and card sorting exercises. I insisted a ‘users first’ approach to deliver a complex content migration as well as a new website for the Ireland Wales Programme. After two years I was lucky enough to secure the role of User Researcher (UR) back at the ONS.

Life as a User Researcher

I worked on some really exciting products and services as a UR. I travelled the country, speaking to different businesses about how they collect data and their experience of completing our electronic questionnaire (eQ) forms. One of my most memorable experiences was speaking to an owner of a pheasant shooting business in a farm in the middle of the country. The property was surrounded by pheasants as we were driving in. Dogs and young children were running in and out of the home office during our session. Ethnographic research at its best!

The more you learn about the user research, the more you realise there is to know. There are so many research techniques and human factors to consider, there are endless opportunities to sharpen your skills.

So, why product?

I worked closely with some inspiring leaders during my time at eQ who were truly passionate about delivering user centric products. I really enjoyed coming back to the office with my findings, having in depth discussions and collaboratively creating solutions to problems. Product Managers really drive the success of the team, lead the vision, and manage stakeholder relationships. I was also undertaking a year long Women in Leadership programme which encourages you to step out of your comfort zone. My confidence grew and product seemed like a natural next step in my career path.

I mentioned to my Product Manager at the time I was interested in developing my skills as a PM. Not long after that, she asked if I wanted to manage four graduates to develop a dashboard. This gave me a good grounding for creating a backlog from scratch and delivering a Minimum viable Product (MVP). When the opportunity arose to take the lead as Product Manager (PM) for Author, a product which allows users to build online questionnaires with no coding experience,  I jumped at the chance. It was the perfect ‘try before you buy’ where I could undertake the role in its entirety before applying for the role on a more permanent basis.

I loved being a UR and I was apprehensive to leave something behind that I’d worked so hard to get to. What I’ve come to realise though, is that the skills and experience I’ve had as a UR have shaped the way in which I manage products. Now I’m a permanent PM, I’ve come to realise that I haven’t left UR behind. It’s something I continue to work close to every day.

Five things I’ve learned

1. Sufficient quality is good enough

When representing users as a UR, my sole purpose was to learn about their needs, wants, pain points and assess their experience using the service. After a usability testing session I would feedback what went well; and what didn’t go so well. I was dedicated to creating the perfect feature before releasing.

My role as a PM is different. Although I’m still committed to creating quality products and championing users, I’m not interested in perfection. I want to deliver value early and often, and ensure there are enough stories of sufficient quality to pass through to the development team.

Sometimes I have to make the difficult decision whether to release something that hasn’t been tested as well as I’d hoped. After three or four iterations, I feel it’s better to deliver a feature that provides some value, than to hold off until it’s perfect. That way we can collect more insight when it’s being used by a wider audience, and improve on it in future sprints if necessarily.

2. Leadership not management

As a researcher, my objective was to create a narrative for the team so they could empathise with users. My PM was busy, so I knew I had limited time to get my main points across in order for her action my findings in the most effective way; sometimes that would mean highlighting three main points for action.

Leadership is integral to the role of being a PM. I lead the team on a daily basis by communicating priorities, setting the vision for each sprint, and providing context for tasks. This has been a big change for me, and one I’m still learning about each day. What I’ve learned so far is that it’s about building strong interpersonal relationships with the team, getting the best out of people and empowering them to make decisions.

3. Learning to speak tech

I haven’t got a technical background so the most daunting thing about starting as PM was managing and prioritising technical tasks. As a researcher my eyes would glaze over during standups when we discussed technical debt. Now I pretty much understand everything on the backlog to some degree. If there’s anything I’m not sure about, I’ve got a super helpful Tech Lead who explains things in a way I can understand so I can assess the value effectively.

I think it definitely helps to have a grounding of the infrastructure and the tools the team use, but having high level knowledge seems to be working OK for me at the moment. This might depend on the product of course, as we’re delivering primarily a front end app. It feels more about understanding what benefit that technical task will deliver and asking the right questions.

4. Communication is key

I’ve learned that effective communication motivates the team when they understand the vision of the product and where it’s heading. It also encourages the uptake of the product and creates excitement around it. I use various communication tools to do this with stakeholders such as roadmaps, feature maps and capability spreadsheets.

I’m always looking for ways for the whole team can engage with users. As a UR I streamed live usability sessions with participants if they were willing. This allows the whole team to view pain points for users, which helps the team understand why they’re working towards a specific goal. I’ve recently set up a show and tell for our users as PM, so they can come along and meet different members of the team. This gives us a chance to showcase our latest release, and collect feedback on how the current implementation is being used.

5. Knowing your product

To successfully lead a product, you have to know it inside out. I’ve learned that you should never assume someone knows the detail. This means writing effective user stories with detailed acceptance criteria. I run a weekly refinement session with the team so everyone knows the scope of the task. I also give the analysis, research and design element of the team goals to work towards. Transferring this knowledge ensures the team is self sufficient.

Knowing your product helps shape conversations with wider stakeholders. I’m able to explain what features the product has to offer, and also to suggest alternative solutions if there’s something we don’t currently have. It allows you to make informed decisions about the priority of work when considering the users, business and technical limitations.

Transitioning from user research to product management has been challenging, but extremely rewarding. I can honestly say I love my job, and I find it extremely humbling working with an amazing team and watching our product take shape. The skills I developed as a UR have, I hope, made me a better PM which will continue to grow as I become more experienced.