This article is based on a talk I gave recently at the Product Operations Summit organised by the Product-Led Alliance and looks at how we may apply user centered methodologies and mindset to Product Operations.
Who am I?
Before we get started, I wanted to share a bit of my background. I’m currently a Product Operations Principal at Farfetch, but more than that, I also see myself as a teacher, mentor, coach and facilitator.
Most importantly, I love solving problems and that’s why I feel naturally drawn to the area of Product Operations.
Now, I want to take you a bit further back in my journey to the very beginning. I was born in South Africa in 1979 and from an early age, design seemed to be the path for me. After completing my studies, I moved to Portugal in 1999 to start my design career.
As I built out my design career, I always felt like something was missing. Like there was something more, but I wasn’t sure what, so I kept searching.
Then it happened, around 2012, I found the world of user centered design and it was love at first sight. This was that piece I was missing, so I grabbed it with both hands.
Over the next few years I was suddenly looking at concepts like User Experience, Design Thinking and Service Design. During that time, I helped startups to grow, products to be born and public services to improve.
Ultimately, my focus was always on the people, so it was kind of natural that moving into an Ops role was again about the people for me.
- Empowering products
- Empowering teams
- Empowering people
Why all that background?
The reason that I went off on a tangent about my background is so that you understand why I’m going to try and convince you that Product Ops can and should be user centered.
In this article, I’m going to go through some of the principles we can pull from user centered methodologies and then how I’ve applied them to my work.
Hopefully you will find it useful and take away some things to apply to your own ProductOps practices.
The user centered layer
When we talk about product Ops, we often hear words like:
- Connective tissue
- Documentation procedures
All the keywords seem to focus on the process, the optimisation and the change.
Which seems kind of ironic when we consider that product people have become such strong advocates of users and their needs to build better products. However, being user focused can and will add an extra layer to every step of the process.
It’s about changing our focus to the people…
- … working on the team
- … adopting the changes and going through them
- … who need to develop and find their path within the org
- … who need to communicate with each other
- … who want to increase their capabilities
- … who want to enjoy work and be part of a community of practitioners
Now, if we look at a standard approach to ProductOps we may have the following 4 stages:
- Building understanding;
- Identifying opportunities;
We’re going to dig into each one of these steps and see how being user centered adds an extra layer to the ProductOps process.
1. Building understanding
At this stage, we need to understand the various aspects of the organisation, teams and people.
On an Ops level that may include the following activities and maybe some others depending on the org.
Adding a user layer:
- Building Empathy — by trying to understand the people, not just efficiency;
- Looking at the problems from the person’s perspective — How personal is it to them? How much are they advocates for that change?
- Identify advocates — we may identify front-runners or advocates to helps us;
- Understand the why — and then, it’s about really understanding the why behind the challenges and issues they are facing. A band-aid will fix the problem temporarily, but if we identify the route cause we can affect real, scalable change.
So what do we do once we’ve built our understanding?
2. Identifying opportunities
Once we’ve done the research, how many of us have sat in a room (now maybe a Miro board) and tried identifying the best opportunities for change?
On an Ops layer we may look to pinpoint those problem areas that we should focus on.
Adding a user layer:
- Understand the objectives and intended outcomes before moving towards the solution
- Identify the potential impact of those changes on the team. Things like health and efficiency
- And of course, using visual thinking we are able do pattern matching or sense making
Opportunities are great, but we need to think about how to seize those opportunities and affect change within the team.
At this stage, we need to come up with the right solutions to solve the challenges we’ve identified and that bring the most value.
On an Ops level, it’s about deciding on the right framework or approach to the problem.
It may be about pulling together all our knowledge and experience about processes such as SCRUM, Agile, Kanban, Lean etc.
Adding a user layer:
- Look at the best way to solve a problem based on the people, culture and structure.
- Focus on the right solution, rather than forcing the people to adapt to an expectation of a methodology.
- And lastly simplify complexity
This also helps us to mix and match existing methodologies and uncover new ways of approaching the work.
The last step in the process is about the actual implementation of the change we’ve decided upon. It’s about the adoption process and the plan.
On an Ops layer it’s about:
- Managing that change;
- Measuring the impact. Is it a big or small change? Does it get pushed all at once or should I break it down into smaller bits.
But anyone who has gone through this process, you’ll surely agree that even the most well laid plan or spanking new approach that will solve all problems, never goes smoothly.
We can run into sceptics or adoption can be more complex than expected. This is where the human factor helps us understand both the impact and identify issues in time to adapt.
Adding a user layer:
- Constant Learning and Iteration — the first solution will almost never be the best version of itself;
- Coaching and collaborating with the people on the team for them to feel comfortable and empowered with the change;
- Looking at the impact on team health and culture;
- And then constantly analysing the comfort and sentiment of those impacted by the change.
Hopefully you can see where that layer focused on the user actually enhances the changes and potential impact we can have on the teams.
There is something we need to remember when being user centered:
People are unpredictable and complex. Expecting that they are all the same is a fantasy. The sooner we accept that, the better the solutions we present.
But I guess the big question is, how can we keep the user top of mind and not lose ourselves in the optimisations and efficiency?
I’ve put together 4 simple tips to hopefully help you:
4 Tips to remain user centered
Tip #1: Relationships
- Building relationships with others in the team. This includes various stakeholders across the org such as (Eng, UXR, Design, Business Partners etc.);
- It helps putting a face to the people and how the change will impact them. We can even map out the different types of people and stakeholders and create persona types;
- Ultimately, if they feel comfortable with us, they will contribute and help. This is a great way to get advocates who will help drive the change with you.
Tip #2: Communication
- Be open and transparent about why you may be doing what you’re doing and what you expect from the team;
- Be clear about what you do and don’t know. If the team knows you’re unsure of something, they’re the best people to help you answer that question. But they can only do that if they are aware;
- And then it’s about identifying the right places and cadence to communicate for optimal interaction. Depending on the type of change, the channels and complexity of communications will need to change. We can’t assume that one size fits all situations.
Tip #3: Collaboration
- It’s important to bring others into the process. We are not a silo that throws solutions at the team. If they feel they own the solution, they become advocates;
- It also helps with adoption, because more people have context and thus we don’t have to take on everything ourselves and it becomes easier to scale;
- Which all connects to the first tip around creating relationships.
Tip #4: Think about the impact
I see this as potentially one of the most important tips and where being user centered can really be valuable.
- Whenever you think about a change, don’t just focus on the potential impact for the company and processes. Think about the impact on the team and their day-to-day;
- How much will it change their world? If we have a notion of the level of change for them, we can help mitigate uncertainty and discomfort;
- Will they ever obtain value from the change? If not, be clear about that. Don’t let them find out the hard way;
- And lastly, building on the previous point is it purely focused on the product? So not a change for the team? How will the team perceive that? Will it affect morale or create ambiguity?
Remember that the people on the team are an important part of the success of the product.
Their sentiments can influence such things as, health, culture, adoption, evolution, retention and so much more.
Without them, we will never succeed and that’s why I leave you with this final message:
Include the people in your process to really achieve incredible results
Don’t let your dreams be dreams and go out there and be user centered in your Product Ops work.
The rest of the team which has supported me throughout this journey always keeps pushing me to learn and evolve.