UX24/7 Product leadership interview with Marcus Smet

Paul Blunden: Hello, I’m. Paul Blunden, founder of UX24/7, and we help product owners, designers and researchers deliver high performing products and services.

Today’s interview is in my series with product owners and leaders, and would be finding out about the key challenges facing them in their role. How their role has changed in recent times, and also what influence AI is having on them.

Let’s meet my guest today.

Paul Blunden: hi, Marcus, and thank you for giving up your time to speak to me today. Can I ask you for the benefit of the audience to introduce yourself?

Markus Smet: Yeah, thanks, Paul, for inviting me also.

I’m Marcus Smet. I’ve been an interim product leader for something like 10 years working at the boardroom level, and prior to that, for the 10 years before I did a mixture of user experience and products leadership product management work.

I’m: currently working as a contractor. I specifically focus on human shaped concepts. So my a company is called human shaped, I believe building in human shape. Cultures leads to more human shaped products. So that’s my thinking behind. That

Paul Blunden: sounds good, and that’s right, right, top my particular street, obviously because in the human sort of centered stuff for a long time, and I mean, we we’ve known each other for a long time. Haven’t. We been discussing it again for a long time. But what attracted you to sort of get involved in more the product end of things.

Markus Smet: Yeah, I I’ve been working product for 20 years overall. I’ve actually, as you can probably see. I’ve been actually working for 30 years, and I started off in marketing and marketing communications. I enjoyed that because it had a very clear customer focus when you’re working in marketing communications and I transitioned across to what you might call in general terms, modern work. So it was a user centered design project that I got off of my boss, luckily, and she gave that to me, and I just found it so illuminating.

It was like seeing for the first time. You know it was brilliant, you know, looking at the customer perspective and getting that customer focus. And from that point forward I just thought, I need to get out of the this business and marketing side and move into user experience.

Paul Blunden: And how does that relate sort of to product? Because I mean, obviously, I believe the customer should be involved all the time. But I don’t always see that.

Do you see the connection very clearly?

Markus Smet: Yeah. I mean It’s so obvious. It’s almost to me. I  think there are certain situations where you know, if you’re looking at a very technical challenge, and I know that there are teams that are not focused strongly on the user but rather using multivariate testing methods. And you know there is technology available that allows you to navigate without actually having to engage with the user.

But I always feel that you lose empathy for the people that you’re making stuff for. If you don’t, at least occasionally sit down with them and understand what’s going on in their types, and why their work is challenging. So to me that kind of human aspect is integral to what motivates me, and I’ve noticed also that the best teams tend to be motivated when they know who the people are. At least at some abstract level that they’re doing all this hard work for.

Paul Blunden: That’s really interesting, and it feels like it talking to the product owners. We work with that? The role has changed quite a lot, particularly in recent time. What’s your sort of perspective on that?

Markus Smet: Yeah, I mean. So I think it was about 9 years ago that Marty Kagan came over to Spreadsheet, where I was working, and trained me and my team. So that was fantastic. You know we had him for a few days, and he was able to very clearly explain to us what good product management was and I think what’s changed increasingly, is that there’s more emphasis on, and there are more questions being raised about. Okay, great. You can tell me and train me on how I should be doing it. But then my reality is very different.

and I think there are people like Antonia Landy, who is concentrating on product operations and product operations as a discipline is inherently about how you do product. Not just doing good product is rather how you get there. And then you have prior leaders like David Perera, who take, I think. quite a clear view of what good is, but they blend it with, and this is your reality. So let’s talk about that, and how we break that down. In fact, he’s thinking of writing a book so people to keep an eye on, I think, and I think that making product more understandable is something that’s really evolving.

I sometimes find in social media. When I think about products, i’m. I’m kind of overwhelmed. I feel quite divided by social media, because on the one hand, it always provides a template and an action, and a 1 2 3 4 5 formula.

But I think, on the other hand, of course, it provides you the ability to connect with people and to share ideas which I think, is absolutely brilliant. Feedback is much stronger, I think, on a general sense. Every organization I’ve worked in over the last 10 years. Feedback has become increasingly important.

And I personally find that very helpful because it helps to be reflective. If you’re going to be in product, you need to be able to take inputs that Don’t necessarily always chime with your views at that point, right? And I think I would also say one of the things that concerns me. not specifically, if you like to product, but rather to products. And you X. Because I’ve been managing product and Ux for some 15 years.

I think is that user experience, it feels to me at least, is becoming a bit more diluted as a discipline and very focused on formulas and cookie cutters. And the strategic view of why is again, it goes back to my point earlier, you know. Why are we doing this and understanding it from the customer’s perspective, and they don’t see. you know, 5 different agile teams working on different parts of the problem. They just see the whole. and that perspective is just, I think getting lost. Sometimes it bothers me.

Yeah, what else I think? And the last point I would say big point for me is the idea of empowered teams. I think a lot of companies are just not there yet. I think data can be very reinterpret it, depending on who’s understanding it and what agenda they have. So the idea of data beats opinion. Isn’t as pure as it sounds, and I think that causes problems. My opinion is that if teams spent more time with their fellow human users. they’re gonna be able to always argue more clearly why they get it from a customer perspective. And I think that always gives a certain authority to a team that that they can get quite easily, and the other people in the organization would always find hard to gain. So yeah, I think there’s quite a lot that’s changed for good and bad.

Paul Blunden: Yes, yeah, that chimes with the with what we’ve been hearing, and I mean that it also sort of leads to the accountabilities for product owners. And what has that changed? What do you think the key accountabilities are.

Markus Smet: I mean I do think that the fundamentals have not changed. Perhaps to me the fundamentals is a good product owner is about being able to prioritize right. and I’ve seen good product owners 10 years ago, and I’ve seen good ones and bad ones in the last years. You know it varies.

And what defines a good product owner is, in my view, their ability to facilitate or enable the triumph that you see around the user business and technology. It was the kind of classic it started off as a user centered Venn diagram right? You’d have to use a business and technology and ux or user-centered design kind of plot themselves in the middle. And then product came along and kind of put their flag in the middle of the same thing.

and I do kind of feel that that is a natural evolution. That sort of makes sense, and is at the center of what a good product leader does, regardless of call them product, owner, call them product manager in the end, if they’re not enabling that triumphant, it’s not. It’s not working.

I think the other thing is providing, or are being able to build a cohesive strategic picture. Now, that’s easy to say, and really hard to do. I failed numerous times, but I think it is something that a product owner should always be striving for. What’s my vision? And what’s my roadmap for at least being able to chunk your roadmap out for the next 6 months is really important.

and the other thing is the using and keeping stakeholders in sync with the team’s activities, because drift that will cause no end of pain for the team. It’s stakeholders that they feel like they know what’s going on the empowerment Isn’t going to happen.

So yeah, I think those are the kind of key accountabilities simplified. And at an abstract level.

Paul Blunden: Yeah, that that’s really interesting, particularly the points about the product owner sort of sticking their flag in the middle of the vendor diagram, because, to understand looking at the way the role of the function is evolved. It seems to have become just more important lately, and that I think in capital encapsulate that really.

Markus Smet: Yeah, I haven’t thought about it that way. I kind of did initially sort of feel a little bit indignant about it. But then I moved into product.

And you know, if it’s going well, you X still have a very important strategic role, and it should allow whoever is doing the user experience piece to really focus on the customer and worry less about. Obviously, the execution. Or is this fulfilling the business needs? Although I would expect, and every good U. X. I ever work with. They always care about those things, too. So if you can get that great pairing, I also don’t think that in the best teams the boundaries between the roles are particularly hard.

Yeah, people help each other, and they give each other a leg up. But the core competence and the belief in my ability to know what the business priorities are or a user experience designer’s ability to know. This is what the user really needs. So this is the problem that we’re really solving those tension points should exist. But at the same time there should also be a willingness.

I think to and put an all around each other and sometimes help each other out.

Paul Blunden: I mean in your role you’ve obviously got, You know a lot of influence or interest in a lot of different organizations. So i’m really interested to understand from you about the sort of toolkit and tech organizations use that you’ve experienced in so development stages or in measuring how the products perform. What can you say on that


Markus Smet: I was sort of slap off the top of my head. I wrote down a list of things a short while back an hour ago, just thinking about this one, and I don’t think my list is comprehensive, but contextual study and understanding context has always been for me. Personally I needed a grounding, a foundation about Why am I here. and that tended to give that to me in varying degrees. But it’s expensive, and time consuming. So in a lot of places you don’t get the chance.

Then this kind of classic user testing I mean, a team should be able to put their product in front of people ideally in every I mean if you’re sprinting, or every iteration, let’s say. and they should have the base skills to be able to do that, because then they can understand qualitatively, is this roughly in the right place. and then quantitatively. you’ve got a variety of business intelligence tools. The one that I noticed because it felt the easiest to work with was tableau.

It seemed like you could get good data out of it from across the organization. There are others, though, and i’m not particularly concerned about the tool, but rather, you know, the most of the work was actually working with the business intelligence analysts to find out what are the most important metrics that the teams need to be concerned with. You know. If you were on the marketplace versus in the checkout as a team, you care about different things.

We you have used hot jar, and I’ve always. I was always quite impressed when I was a sky. They were using telium, and it was the one time where we really leverage session recording and combined it with user research to then go and validate what Helium was hinting at. and I thought that was really good. I’ve introduced voice of customer initiatives as well on 2 occasions, and you do get quite strategic insights, and you can track improvements over time it’s a bit abstract again. It’s quite difficult to make it tangible for everybody, and I think it’s almost a philosophy that needs to become normalized within. Does everybody in the organization care about the net promoter? Score or not?

It’s a mindset. You can put the school there, but if people don’t care about actioning anything off the back of it. It’s so high, level and abstracted it. It’s a question of how valuable it is, and then things like market research data as you’d expect a. It was interesting that that was actually led by the graphic design team and the branding team. They did a lot of the market research there. So yeah, various sources, various data points, some of it qualitative, some of the quantitative. But that gives you a flavor.

Paul Blunden: Yeah, no, that’s a really good flavor. Yeah, very, very interesting. And I remember the session recording stuff we used to testing a sky when we supported you as a customer back in that what? The early nurses, I think i’d like to build a picture, and I think you already alluding to them. But I, but I would like to build a picture of what are the key problems that are dealing with. We can go beyond this. But could you share your top 3 challenges, or the ones that you think gain the most attention?

Markus Smet: Yeah, I mean, I think, missing leadership and support and understanding of how to empower product teams for me is a really big one. If yeah it it’s very, very difficult. If your leadership Don’t, create the space for you to be empowered. Of course you have to be able to step up into that space, and that’s the other flip side of the coin. It’s a very difficult negotiation.

I think the second one is, as I’ve mentioned already, drifting away from the human. You know who we doing this for is not a number. and I think impatience is another thing in the end. It takes time. If you’re gonna make a company more customer centered or an industry. It takes time to make products and deliver it, using modern work techniques and iterations. These things Don’t happen in 3 months, and I I find that there is this sort of tension sometimes to just change and to not understand why change takes time. I think it also comes with getting older and experience, and there’s nothing you can do about that that takes 10 years before you understand. The world might not move at that speed. So I think these sorts of things for me. These are the 3 problems that i’m seeing from you know through my eyes.

Paul Blunden: Hmm. And I was going to ask you about how important, involving the customer in the process product development processes. But you talked about that all already, do you? Do you feel I mean it? You just sort of said you organizations trying to become more user centered. Is that something you think organizations are trying to do, or at least the ones you you’ve experienced.

Markus Smet: Oh, God, yeah. I mean. I think my understanding is that yes, they’re becoming more user centered from a data-driven perspective. There are some amazing tools, and I think I can’t remember the name of the tool that we were using. where it is increasingly possible to recognize as you release incremental value to your customers where that value is achieving your business goals best right? I mean. You’ve got the kind of classic tools like optimizely, but it wasn’t optimized. It was another company, and I think the all of these are essential if you’re doing very, very small increments of delivery in a digital environment.

But I mean as sky. I was also working on hardware products. So it wasn’t just a piece of software. It was an integral service software that supported sales. Software, the supported customer services, physical products. And I, I kind of think if you, if you were forced to work with a physical product, a lot of these shortcuts that we have available to us in the digital space that they’re not so easy to execute. They take longer. And you really have to be a bit more strategic about how you solve the problem and ask any industrial designer, and they know this, and they have to execute different practice. That’s Why, I think industrial designers make such good user experience designers.

Yeah. And so on the one hand, I think yes, we are more user focused. But I I would say a more tactical level, and i’m not sure that that’s necessarily beneficial, because then the team aren’t really learning in my book they’re gambling. You know, they might get closer to the business goal, but they don’t really know why they’re doing their work from the point of view of those who are actually using their stuff.

They just know that they went for an a, B, C, D. Gamble and B one. But if you’re going to put the customer at the center. You get an anchor, and it means you can investigate. Well, why did the B variation actually win the race? In the end? You can give it context. and by involving the customer, then I think you’re learning and not gambling, and to me that is the difference. Now, I would say that’s what I mean by in some ways I don’t think we are more user centered. We’re losing the human in our work, and it’s you know it. I it makes me feel quite sad. Actually, I think it’s a real loss, for a lot of people are doing this work.

Paul Blunden: Hmm. Interesting. And I mean to that sort of broader scale. How customer, centric all the brands, all the sectors that you have experienced

Markus Smet: short answer here, I think, is I worked in the maritime industry and port terminals last year virtually 0. But the I think the appetite could be there in commerce. Very customer centered at the data level.

So 2 ends of the scale. Really, when I was at sky it was a mixed but sometimes remarkably customer centered, I mean, beautifully. Customer centered. I’ll elaborate on that. Maybe another time, or a bit later, I don’t know. But yeah, a variation.

Paul Blunden: Yeah, it still feels like in my my experience in the last 20 years that it’s as much down to an individual in an organization. It is as it is down to the organization as to whether they’re you know, more customer centered or or not, beyond the sort of what they need to do to get the stuff out there. Yeah, it could be right.

And what do you think the greatest challenges the brands and product owners face when undertaking ux research or bringing it in?

Markus Smet: I think, taking a big enough step back to solve the problem strategically from a customer perspective.

I think often leaders are seeking arm system more specific on error questions and that makes it difficult for the team to say, yeah, I hear you. But we’re actually in. Take a bigger step back like you say that comes down to the individual as well within the team. Who are they empowered to do that?

And the other aspect, I think, is. if you do a big step back on research. I really think don’t do it unless it’s directly connected to. How do we get this thing shipped and delivered as quickly as we can. So those first iterations, moving them as close as you can. The team doing the delivery should be integrated, and really the team doing the research. Now. They might need a bit of extra help to get that. But they should be very. It should be very integral. They should be it, you know they shouldn’t be a kind of like, okay, we’ve done the research. Now let’s stop and let’s hand it over. It should be right. We learned these things in the research. How do we get them out there as quickly as we possibly can to then start getting the data that we need to validate those insights that we’ve actually generated. And I think that’s another. I think challenge is this sort of connection between research and deliverable.

Paul Blunden: Yeah, that that’s really interesting, and I love the idea of the question of how big a step back you take. I think that’s yeah, really, relevant. And now what i’d love to hear about. Perhaps the thing you’re talking about earlier that might be a product related success. You’re particularly proud of. Yeah, you know. I mean. And before we met a sky there was actually

Markus Smet: so. I think we were working on check our related topics, which was a lot of fun and the team were absolutely brilliant in the 6 months before that we worked on sky broadband, and we were lucky in that the business started that project with the golden.

Well, the thing that everybody wants, which is an outcome. And they just said, right? Well, look! We want you to reduce the number of inbound calls to our call center by 20. That was 40,000 calls a week. So it was quite a big ask.

They had a hypothesis. They thought the problem was the CD. In the box and we but we were actually allowed to change everything. Or perhaps we weren’t allowed to. But hooking into your point earlier. Sometimes it’s about the individual in the team. I just presumed that we were going to change everything. It was a lot of fun, and we were able to find out that the problem really wasn’t with the CD. So whilst we were going to fix the CD. Because that was what the business wanted.

It was actually, for example, a problem with understanding about installation dates that was driving calls into the call center. So you don’t solve that problem in the CD. You solve that problem by putting a label on the box that says your install day, your go, live date for your broadband connection is, I don’t know the tenth of April when today is the first of April, because then people leave everything in the box until the tenth, and they don’t phone up and go. Why isn’t it working? So doing these sorts of things, and particularly being allowed to do them because the business team were. it’s so open minded and supportive. and that goes back to my point about like leadership.

That was a role where they didn’t take the hand off the tiller. They knew the outcome they wanted, but they listen to the evidence, and they thought you know what it might cost us a bit more to put labels on those boxes. but we totally get why, that in the end that’s actually going to help us achieve our goal rather than just spending more money on the CD. And to me this is the the this, this this sort of really summarizes the nature of some of the challenges that we have in product and the inability to take a more strategic view about what we’re doing. So i’m very proud of that, and I love doing that piece of work. It was so much fun.

Paul Blunden: Yeah, it sounds like it. And that yeah, the the way it operates it is. So it’s a wonderful case study.

And finally, Marcus. I wanted to ask you everybody’s talking. I can’t open my inbox without reading about AI. At the moment I wondered if you had any sort of thoughts on how AI might affect the role or the world of product owners.

Markus Smet: Yeah, I mean, I do have the view that I think there’s an obvious thing here is we all know it’s going to have a big impact. And I thought, right. Okay, what examples have I got? And at the moment. from my time in the maritime industry, one of the topics is Ocr, a male passing. And because there’s a lot of manual data processing done by people and spreadsheets.

And if you could just point your messy email data at a thing. What’s happening at the moment, of course, is that AI is making it possible to pass that data increasingly, intelligently. It’s not. It’s more machine learning, type stuff. But the point that I guess I want to make here is that the potential for improvement in Ocr and being able to recognize semi-structed or unstructured data is on a big growth curve.

The introduction of AI over the next 2 to 3 years is going to massively increase the ability of this technology to solve problems that today it probably can’t to the level of accuracy that’s needed.

And I think as a product owner. you need to be looking for these trajectories that are happening and try and integrate those ideas into your product and your roadmap and say. Actually, I think we could approach these problems differently and obviously work with your technology people, your engineering manager or your engineering lead in your team to identify. Where, Where are these opportunities that are near to my product and then integrate and start integrating them into your thinking and exploring them and investigating them, which is what I’ve been doing with Ocr. For example, I think it’s a fascinating area.

Indeed, yeah, I think the whole area is really fascinating. How it’s gonna help, and so much of it, I think we’ll be in the back office, you know, almost the boring processes, and it just freeing so much. Absolutely. Yeah. Automation as well. I mean, this is just huge, huge potential, and it’s just setting it into the context of your product. That’s where my thinking is at the moment. There’s probably other angles on this, but that’s where I am

Paul Blunden: brilliant. Well, thanks so much for spending the time to speak to me. It’s been really interesting. Hearing your thoughts on such a range of subjects around a product ownership, and particularly, as you always do, speak, from sort of the strategic to the really granular. And I think that’s really valuable for people watching.

Markus Smet: Thanks very much for your time. You’re very welcome, Paul. Thanks for inviting me and asking such thoughtful questions

Paul Blunden: I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Hearing Marcus speak to such a wide range of issues around product ownership. I think his thoughts on AI are really interesting as well, and I love the idea of how big a step back you take in terms of bringing research in with product. I think that that really resonates with me.

Thanks again for watching. I’m. Paul Blunden on founder of UX24/7. We help product owners, deliver high performing products and services, and if you want to find out more about what we do, visit our website. That’s ux247.com, or find me on linkedin and feel free to message me there. And of course please subscribe to this channel, and there’ll be more interviews coming along soon.

Thanks for watching.