Paul Blunden: Hi, I’m Paul Blunden. I’m 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 will be finding out how the role has changed over the last few years. What are the key challenges they face? How customer centric their organizations are, and even how AI is starting to play a role.
So let’s meet my guest.
Paul Blunden: Hi, Rob, and thank you very much for giving up your time to speak with me today. for the benefit of the people who don’t know you can ask you to start by introducing yourself.
Rob: Yeah. Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a senior product manager money supermarket. So I specifically work on a cash back business called Quidco which was acquired by money supermarket. Just so for 18 months
Previously I was Tesco and and Avios, so varied experience of small and large kind of organizations doing and doing product development, product management.
Paul Blunden: And how long have you been in this sort of product area overall? And what attracted you to
Rob: So I’ve been product for about 5 years. and I must admit I fell into it. so I should make a conscious decision to working product. I made a very conscious decision to work in a team that I’ve used to have. That was focused a lot more on digital innovation. And looking at how emerging a new technology could really solve business customer problems.
Rob: I think it’s fair to say we spent a lot of time doing things with tech looking for problems rather than looking at our customers problems and how we could solve them. and we had a change of direction. at a we focus more on the latter. so kind of it was a you think you do this when you go? And so it was a. It was very much a yeah, I fell into it. And to kind of grown and navigated my way through product just from that initial experience, really, and haven’t felt the need to go and do something different.
Paul Blunden: In the last 5 years it feels to me I’m not on very much on this sort of outside looking in, but it does feel like the role and function of product has changed quite a bit. have you noticed it. It’s sort of evolved over that period.
Rob: I think for me. I’ve noticed it change, but more around how the organizations that I have been in has changed rather than seeing the trend in the market change. So I think you know when I think about some of the transformation that I’ve your Ig loyalty has been on, we getting to a position where actually, we’re looking more holistically at what the customer wants and how we focus on every touch point that the customer interacts with whether that’s marketing and pricing and the physical product that someone is interacting with.
And then all the accountabilities that go with it. So almost you’re getting into that state of a Mini CEO, who’s got a a revenue line, a cost line and controls a you know. It’s almost like the King golf something versus there are sort of bigger corporate. Another corporate who are working in a very different way, where, you know, sometimes product is very much leading on just what the customer interact with and doesn’t touch anything else.
Or actually, you know, it’s more focused on, how do I make the day to day delivery work. And how do I ensure that the customer is protected within that delivery rather than necessarily starting with what does the customer need and want and then drive what’s happening. So I think we’ve reached a bit of a funny pointers as product people, because we’re trying to do everything you can see there, just across those 3 different experiences, is a real range of skills that that people need. And I think every organization is kind of really interpreting what it wants product to be based on the people that they have and the skills that are available rather than necessarily the nature of the job changing more structurally.
But that’s just how I have seen it. And certainly a lot of my peers are sort of feeling that that change as you move across the organizations is different rather than necessarily, the market always changing to be in a different place.
Paul Blunden: Yeah, that’s a really interesting perspective and kind of mirrors. What I think I’m seeing is this potentially elevation of products, you know, and certainly in some organizations. And I love the analogy of sort of the Mini CEO of kind, of everything. I guess. Therefore the accountabilities for product owners are changing as well. I mean, what do you. Do you see that the sort of key accountability is the product should own?
Rob: I think, from my perspective, you know what it should always be accountable to the customer. And that’s the key point. Right? So we’re trying to make sure that everything that the customer touches and they interact with is something that meets their need and product is doing that. That prioritization and that internal trade-off conversation between.
We need to do something as a business which is going to equal moving a particular metric or a particular driver to increase whatever that metric is, but it can’t be done at the expense of the customer. So everyone in an organization needs to be customer focus. But product is right at the front there in terms of being accountable that everything that the customer touches is something that adds value or doesn’t add friction to what they need.
And I think you know, the second part of that is being the voice of the customer within an organization is being really, really focused on making sure that if you if you’re treating your customer right, you will get the growth that you want, and you will see where things move and flow into the right direction. For me. That is, that is the core accountability for someone in product. As you added the functions, you will obviously get different accountability. So if you’re accountable for if if you’ve if you’ve got P. And L. Accountability. Then, of course, you’re going to be held accountable for that. But you have. You have to.
You have to keep to that that kind of really true perspective of. I’m here doing what I should do for the customer, and doing what’s right by the customer, and that will drive my revenue numbers. And you know, really, really focusing on keeping the customer core and at the center of what the organization is is doing.
Paul Blunden: And in your view. Then I take it you, you think you know it is. It’s really important to have customer in the product development process. It’s not just an accountability. Is that right?
Rob: Where do I start my roadmap. What all the problems that my customer has? Do I understand them? Can I identify them. Can I validate them? I can use data to do that. I can use research to do that. I can use interviews that I can just talk to the people in my contact center who talk to our customers day in, day out, that that customer closeness doesn’t mean that I have to be physically with the customer every time, but they need to be there in every part of the of the process, and they need to be thought about at every every stage of the of the software development cycle interesting. And do you face any challenges for making that happen?
I think the challenges that I see are the extremes of research. If I’m honest. So where you struggle, or I have seen the struggle with getting customers into that process is a misunderstanding at senior and exact level about? When does research come? And when does research deliver? And normally, you see, someone who’s been burned by a trying to do a multi year program with multi year research as attached to it rather than an understanding. I can do something really quick and dirty by standing in the street and asking 15 people a question. This this kind of perception of I don’t have time to wait for research. I don’t have time to wait to find out what the customer wants. And actually, that’s the mindset that you have to try and change and show.
Well, I’ve just to this data, which is 15,000 customers that use our product yesterday. This is how they behaved with it, because I can see the right analytics, or I was able to go out and talk to just 10 customers, which is enough to give us what we need, and we ask them 5 questions. Here’s what they said that will give us a really good steer. And that doesn’t need to be a really complicated every piece of research that happens. It just needs to be that sense of talking to the right type of person really quickly, to kind of bring in that that steer and that that understanding.
So I think that’s where the challenge really comes is having some involvement with the customer in a way that allows you to get to that value and understand the right problem quickly rather than saying, I’ve got to set up a full. But instead of a full Cs, I need to go and do an Rfp on 3 different research organizations. You, then it takes 6 months to contract and get it all set up. I don’t think that’s where the challenge comes.
When you see the best success where leaders understand the I know that I can get quick and dirty insight back to just validate whether it’s the right thing, and it might come back. It seems inclusive. So it then becomes a a product conversation that will. Actually, I can get it, live and get more data about it fast so that we can then join those 2 together and go. What this, the right thing? Is it going to work? Should we? Should we build this out properly.
Paul Blunden: and how customer-centric are the brands that that you’ve worked with?
Rob: I think they are. They all customer centric in a different way. So if you look at what we’re doing money supermarket at the moment we know where our customer challenges. I think we’re doing a good job at really identifying them more through data and being able to really drive up where our opportunities based that I think we’re a little bit scared of talking to our customers. If I’m honest and kind of adding that verbatim and more qualitative research over the top to really understand. Okay, I can see that customers aren’t using the products frequently as we want. Why is that I can see in? I can see in date that you don’t come to our product very frequently. But why? That? Why is never really easily answered.
I think I look at Tesco. They are a hundred percent focused on. How do I get the right thing to the customer at the right time. They’ve got a huge global operation. that is, looking at every part of the supply chain. They’re looking at every interaction that a customer has. They have so much data, they have so much research that is ongoing. And actually the challenge there is.
Which customer are we talking about? And how are we identifying them? How are we talking about them? And if I think about to sort of Ig loyal to the things we were doing around the obvious program there. Actually, we started a lot more with, why?
Why was it real problem for us around understanding the mindset and the mentality, and then being able to work out what we should do and then use the data to back, fill our understanding of did we get the? Did we understand the why and are we then getting the incremental success that we need to have? So I think brands generally are quite customer centric and quite customer focused. But the way that they identify and talk to their customer and use that information within the development life cycle and building out products is all very different, and there are different challenges in different organizations around. How you do that?
Paul Blunden: Hmm, that you’ve covered quite a number of challenges there. And I’m trying to build a a sort of picture of the key problems product owners are dealing with. Do you have a sort of top 3 things that product owners sort of struggle with.
Rob: I think the first one is is is always capacity. so I think you would have seen. And I’m sure you’ll find this talking to the other product. So this the role is different everywhere, and the expectation is different everywhere. So you’re constantly being pulled into specializing in different areas in different organizations which just takes up the bandwidth. So in certain organizations, you’ll find product managers who are a lot more strategic. They’re thinking big picture broad stroke. They tend to be the types of proteins. You can really get into the detail around.
So you know those areas, you’ll find they just focus on the delivery which gives them very little space to think about anything else. I think the first challenge really is that is that that capacity are out to be able to do the things that one make you a good 360 product owner product manager.
I think this this the second, the second challenge, really is that navigating? What role should they play? So what is the role of products? I think if you ask every product I do in a any organization, they would say to you, I’m not doing product because they’ve got a different experience from somewhere else, and as a as an industry we have. It’s not the same as finance. You don’t go and get a qualification that says, you know, I can do product. You get some decision. You can do software delivery, which is different to product. and it’s about your role within that software development life cycle rather than there’s a really clear like seem equivalent that we go.
That’s the standard for a product manager, because every organization treats products slightly differently. So there isn’t that consistency there? for parts of finding that role, that you can play? What are you? Where you stretching the boundaries where you doing? The things are more interesting to you personally, but maybe don’t fit the organization. I think there’s always some of that challenge.
And I think the third one actually is is access and availability of data. Now most product managers will tell you that they have. They have access to data. But what they’ve got is those pipes of analytics. What they don’t have is the ability to really easily synthesize down and focus on what are the metrics that I need to to move. And I can measure them really easily myself. So we take something like some of the stuff that is some stuff that comes out of the box. Right? Google analytics. It will give you so much data about a user, but actually them being able to distill it down into the things that are really important.
And the things you need to move is a challenge. As we continue to build products, we generate more data. So there is a challenge around navigating all of the data that we have. You then add in. And I do load the research and joining on top like how I join all of that together to then create a consistent and coherent story, something that I see product manager still struggling with every day is, I’ve got all of this today. So how do I make sense of it? How do I choose? What I’m going to measure? Which metrics I choose to look at and I move is is a really key area that that we see struggles with.
Paul Blunden: That’s really interesting. And I think a couple of those link neatly to something I wanted to ask about, which is what? What is the sort of product owners, toolkit or the tech that’s being used because feels like there’s opportunities there with, you know, people being short of time or difficult to prioritize or get the inside they need or data they need. Is there a tech stack that’s emerging, or how does it work? In your experience?
Rob: I think the pandemic has changed things a little bit. and so I would have said to you, pre pandemic, the best toolkit that a product to it has is time and a set of posting notes and some pens, because that’s where you tend to drive out the right conversation. You can bring people together. You can do that kind of okay. I mean, stick you in a roof half an hour, or an hour, or whatever half a day, 2 days, 5 days, whatever it takes to work out. What is it that we need to do and then actually do it.
That’s now shifted into a lot more of an online world. And so every product only works with some mirror mural equivalent of. Now it’s got endless boards with. It’s got my Kanban in the corner. I’ve got user journey flows everywhere. We we’re starting to kind of bring all of that together. So some of that stuff which would have meant, you know you got. If you’re not in the room you weren’t present. Some of that is taken away. But you lose the context. You lose the ability to spark ideas off feature that you get with screen fatigue.
People can’t sit for can’t sit for a whole day on on zoom and use a mirror board. It’s not. It’s not like exciting. Your brain will disappear it. No, nothing is a good, so it’s not as good a substitute of, you know sticky people in a room, lock in the door and going. You’ve got lunch in in an hour if we can get through this if we can get through this this, this problem. I think there’s loads of good. There’s lots of good like, tooling that’s appearing, you know, things like hot jar and user zoom are really giving us access to what we need. For in a simple and easy way. for talking to customers. And then you’ve got the traditional stuck foundation analytics with some really cool tools that, starting to bring more of more data together. whether that’s actual analytics and research data together, they’re starting to up here. But they’re not as mature as I think organizations need them to be to be confident, to move away from the adobe and the Googles of this world to be able to say, Yeah, we’re definitely going to use some of this, a lot more product, focus to be able to, to do, to allow product people to do the job. They want to do
Paul Blunden: That’s giving me a sense that you know I mean, I’m very aware of my age, of how young the industry still is. relatively speaking, and I getting a real sense where you talk about sort of the lack of maturity, and some of the technology that that. That’s a real challenge. And I wanted to ask you about what thoughts you have about AI, because that’s another one of, though I’s been around for a while. Generative AI, you know, really hitting home now, and I wonder whether you had any thoughts on how that might affect your impact product owners.
Rob: I think there are. I mean, if I talk for my day to day experience today, it’s acting as a really great shortcut for some of the work that I might want to do. So. you know, if we think about or people need to generate, at least keep engineering teams moving right? So no one wants to sit and right acceptance criteria like Chat Gpt can write acceptance criteria to give you a baseline, provide you with the scope and the user story you want to change. That is a time saving job.
You removed some of that cognitive overload of taking some of the the processing. There, that’s just like writing stuff out can be done quite easily. so I think there’s definitely a, there’s definitely an efficiency play from a product perspective. Also, I have generated some research questions that of Chat Gpt as well, giving it. These are the things I want to find out. What questions would you be asking? It didn’t do a bad job. We still needing me as a human being to then fines it. But it it is. It is certainly possible to achieve.
I think the other opportunity areas for us really around, how does how can AI bring together that qualitative known and that quantitative node? And where today we have we we all struggle with, have we got access to the right data to do have the right data skills? Can I get a data on a list? Actually, there’s some real opportunities, I think, over time that will come of how can I put my data set and my known customer problems, or challenges or opportunities together to actually get something like Chat Gpt, or some of the other models to stop pulling out. These are the insights and the trends that I’m seeing in your in your data and actually delivering more packaged insight. So it becomes a lot more sort of writing, a research, brief or a data brief, to try and capture all of the pieces that you want, actually get something that’s more served to you, which you can then start to have a conversation with it back. I want to understand this a bit more. Understand that a bit more.
But I think we’re away from that in terms of organizations wanting their data to go into the hands of somebody else potentially But also that quality, I mean, a lot of organizations will talk to you about what they always need, someone in a transaction integrity or a business intelligence integrity to look at whatever insight gets generated, because we have nuances within our data more and more organizations will need to clean their data and get it into a single place.
So those organizations that haven’t caught up and haven’t got themselves into a place where they’ve got clean quantitative data in a car platform. This is a really good structure. I’m never going to be in a position where they can use that. So those legacy tech stacks are going to have to catch up to be able to get to that. And I think we may see some leap probing over time around how you can join those 2 things together. But I think I think that’s probably where I see the initial opportunity areas is.
I can be a bit more efficient and allow us to do more and focus where our human value is needed on decisions and trade offs which I I can’t do because it doesn’t understand the context. But equally, then, how can you generate insight? How could help us to answer the questions that we need to understand, based on the information that we’ve got on our fingertips, knowing that we’re generating more and more data every single day.
Paul Blunden: Hmm! It’s a, it’s really interesting perspective of you pick up two things there that I think are really interesting about generative AI. One is this whole privacy thing about. Well, do you give it your data? And if you do, a more terms, and the other is about the sort of bias inherent in the data, because there’s such a mass of data. How do you get yours both clean and in there, in a way that you get out what you need? And we are we a little way away from that? But I I’m with you. Actually, I I think it is coming and it’s got an exciting time.
And I wanted to ask you about perhaps a product related success you’re particularly proud of. And what you could talk a little about that.
Rob: Yeah, I think. Yeah, it’s a couple of things I would I would. I would point but I I think for me the the biggest one with so many of the it loyalty which is looking at. How do we get value back to our customers faster? How do we get their aviation to them in a quick way, knowing that we’ve got a lot of historical reasons why we don’t do that. And actually, as a product function, not just being left with the how do you implement this feature?
But actually taking it from scratches? I know we need to understand all of our data, which no one in that business did. They didn’t understand. Payment flows, and it’s done the risk. It was just a this is too difficult and actually really starting to break that down into. No, this is how our data works. This is why we shouldn’t be worried about changing these things is how we can do the risk mitigation and actually seeing the impact of that going live in terms of we thought that it would really help us in terms of having increased speed on people getting their balance is changing would allow us to have a more regular conversation with our customers, because they’re seeing that in and out flow, and it would drive them back to the product.
Actually, it didn’t do that. We didn’t. You didn’t get any success in one way. It’s a failure in that. He didn’t. He didn’t do what we thought it was going to do. But actually, what it taught is from a product perspective is for us to be able to take more control over our product. We need to understand everything that sits underneath it. We need to understand the data. We need to understand the payment flows.
We need to understand the financials and actually first stops liberating because it meant that we were able to have a really easy conversation internally, then to go they got these people who are managing this product over here from a commercial perspective, or they’re over here from a finance to remarks. They don’t really understand how this stuff stitches together. We can do that. We know how it stitches together so we can be that we can be that we can be the advocate for the customer here.
But equally we can be the advocate internally, because we know what drives, what we have, this really good understanding of what pressing a button here does over there on our commercial model, etc. So really, really proud of our of our efforts there, and everything that the team did to kind of got that feature out quite quickly, but equally all the work that happened on from an engineering perspective, a data, engineering perspective and kind of our partners who helped us understand what the crazy world affiliate marketing is, and how all the payment flows and things work.
Paul Blunden: Well, yes, definitely a crazy world in in affiliate And finally, what is your biggest learning since you’ve been working in the product area
Rob: That agile is A is a framework, is there to be played with? It’s not a textbook. I think a lot of people start out in products, and they go and do a. They go and do a scrum product on a course, and they get told. Scrummy is the only agile methodology that works, and you should apply it principally as it is in the textbook.
And actually the more you work with it, the more organizations that work in you find. It’s the principles that see behind the manifesto are the things that you need to embody, not the methodology of scrum or Kanban, or safe like those things are great, but they rarely work when you apply the textbook example, because there’s nuance within an organization, and the framework doesn’t account for that. So I think a lot of people go into this space thinking I need to understand it. I need to take the textbook. So I need to read every book that’s out there. And actually, they’re a great thought provoker, but they are, in my experience, very rarely applied in that uniform way to give success to an organization. So I’d say that was my biggest learning.
Paul Blunden: Hmm! So much of what you’ve said actually sort of points to that which is all about the organization and the culture and the roles, and how do you fit things into that as much as anything can pay attention to.
Rob, it’s been fascinating talking to you and hearing your views. Thank you so much for spending your time. I think people are going to be really interested in what you’ve got to say, and best of luck in in your continuing role in product and representing the customer.
Rob: Great. Thank you. Cool.
Paul Blunden: Well, I hope you enjoyed listening to Rob as much as I did his views to speak so clearly about product and the role, and how culture and the individuals in it affected. the challenges that organizations and individuals face. And I think his thoughts on AI are also, very relevant, very topical, and, and, in my view, very accurate.
Anyway. my name is Paul Blunden, and I’m founder of UX24/7, and we help product owners, researchers and designers deliver high performing products and services. If you want to find out more about what we do. You can visit our website. That’s ux247.com.
Or find me on Linkedin. And of course, please subscribe to this channel. There’ll be another interview coming along soon.
Thanks very much for watching.