Wendy Johansson on Placing the User at the Center of Product Development

Videos, Product Management, PM Confessions

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Wizeline's Director of Product and UX Wendy Johansson sat down with Matt to share her thoughts on product, getting in front of customers, "drinking our own champagne," and more.

Before joining Wizeline, Wendy was Head of UX at Ooyala and built a team of user-first UX designers at AppNexus. Her user experience and design background lends to a unique perspective on product management and development — one that places the user as the primary focus of everything she does.

Watch Part 1 of our 3-part interview to learn:

  • Wendy’s 'go-to' discovery question: What is the problem for the user?
  • Why engaging with prospects and customers is essential for product managers
  • How to effectively partner Product and Engineering teams to help developers hear and understand the voice of the customer

For more, check out Part 2 and Part 3!

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Matt Pasienski: You want to get started? Joe-hansson or Yo-hansson?

Wendy Johansson: Yo-hansson, please.

Matt Pasienski: That's the authentic.

Wendy Johansson: Thank you. I'll send it to my in-laws later, they'll be so proud.

Matt Pasienski: All right, I'm here with Wendy Johansson who is the Head of Product... Camera's rolling. This is expensive. Don't waste film. Celluloid.

Matt Pasienski: I'm here with Wendy Johansson, who is the Head of Product & UX at Wizeline. I've worked with Wendy for many years going back to her days as Head of UX at Ooyala, you worked at AppNexus, Loopt. You worked at lots of places, but most of the time, you've worked from the UX side of product management. A lot of product managers come from the engineering side. I think what's really going to be interesting to talk to you today is that different perspective where you're really coming from the user and not as much focusing on the technology as the starting point, but the user which is probably, in my opinion, a better place to start. How did this path evolve for you? You started with computer interaction, and then you've come through UX. What is it like coming to product and how do you see yourself as different from the average product who, from our experience, is generally coming from like "I used to be a programmer"?

Wendy Johansson: Yeah, I think in the valley a lot of product managers that I've worked with have been with a technical background or they've actually been straight-up CPMs.

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: I think with the user focus here, coming from UX, I really like to ask the question of "what is the problem for the user?" not "what is the problem in the system?"

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: That's really helped us focus more on speaking to our customers, being able to engage with prospects, people who are free-trialers, people who are enterprise customers, and wanting to learn all the things that they're trying to accomplish with Wizeline itself. One of the bigger things that I think we like to focus on in terms of this UX focus and customer-first focus is really validating what we're building. When we actually come up with a solution that we think is feasible for something that we want to build, we go out and we actually talk to customers. There's the typical usability validation user testing, but we're actually trying to validate more of a scientific hypotheses. We're really trying to say, "Look, this is the problem you came in with. This is the work flow towards the solution. Is that a good solution for that problem you had? As this scales, you're problems are going to shift and change. What do you see those things as so we make sure that we're building the right solution that's scalable in the longer term."

Matt Pasienski: So the user's problem is what you focus on and that's your fixed point, and then you have the engineering team build towards that rather than building something and seeing like, "Hey, is this good?" I think that's-

Wendy Johansson: Yeah.

Matt Pasienski: That's a great approach, but how does that change, and you've obviously seen a lot of project managers work through your job and through your past experience. How does that change how you interact with the engineering team? How do you lead an engineering team as a product manager when you're leaving more of the technical decisions to them and really focusing on the customer? What is the type of things that you do with your team to support them and get them involved in the user side of the equation as an engineering team?

Wendy Johansson: I would like to say that we don't "lead" the engineering team as a product and UX organization. We partner with them.

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: Even from the very beginning of designing the solutions that we have, we are literally designing those user experience solutions, but as we're coming up with our initial concepts and sketches and iterations, we're sitting side-by-side with whether it be engineering lead or the whole engineering team on a project and saying, "This is what we're expecting to happen here. We're going to load so much data. We're hoping that part of this user experience means it's going to be quick and [performant 03:42], and being able to search and filter through all this data."

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: That's where the engineering team can come in and say, "Well, it depends how we load the data. We might have these constraints." We may think about loading certain things in another way so that it's much more performant and the system overall works better for the user. User experience we understand, and the product side is not just literally the UI. It's also how quickly things load, how do you take your error messages, how do you understand whether you've done something right or wrong.

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: I think that kind of partnership with engineering has helped us have just a better team in general where our engineers, I knew a lot of them when they began, especially, and our Mexico office said, "Oh, design. You guys are just going to make it pretty, right?"

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: Now they understand that true value of actually partnering up with user experience and understanding that customer voice.

Matt Pasienski: Yeah, I think it's those two ... and you bring it up. The engineering team comes up with something and hands it to the designers and say, "Please make this pretty", which is not going to totally result in a great result. On the other hand, you have a fully spec-ed out pixel-perfect design and you just hand it off to the engineers and say, "Hey, work with this." Instead, you say you're bringing people around maybe a couple pizzas in a room and saying, "Let's start this from scratch."

Wendy Johansson: Yeah.

Matt Pasienski: I've also heard you talk a lot about the trinity, and I think this is a common understanding in product managing. Can you tell us what your approach to that is, and what are the three parts you're bringing together in that early process?

Wendy Johansson: I've given a lot of talks about leading UX and how that would work inside a product organization and what we like to call the "trifecta", you were calling it the "trinity" there-

Matt Pasienski: Oh sorry, trifecta.

Wendy Johansson: The trifecta would be the perfect team with your product owner, your engineering lead, and your UX lead. At any given time, kicking off the project, making major decisions, we really want that trifecta to be in the room because they're looking at it from the business perspective, the user's perspective, and then finally the technical perspective. Having all those voices any time you make a decision, it's going to make a more well-rounded decision where you understand the impacts across all those aspects of the business.

Matt Pasienski: So you don't get six months down the line and realize "hey, no one wants this" or "oh, this is unusable" or "oh, this is not scalable". You have each one of those components knocked down from the beginning and then you grow from there.

Wendy Johansson: Yeah. Just like a UX concept, you don't want to be a designer designing in a silo where you're sitting in a room, you say, "Okay, I'm going to think about this problem. Here's only one solution", and I leave the room and hand it off. You want to work with a group and talk about all the problems that knead around that design.

Matt Pasienski: Okay, so now you have your trifecta. Sorry, and sorry to the Catholic church or whatever. You have your trifecta. How do you get your team involved with the customer? What do you think is the right way? You could have the ability to maybe have a sit-down with three customers or fly in and get on-site with the customer, or you have things like big data, and you have things like intercom or analytics, or things like that. Where in your experience have you had success and what's the appropriate place for each of those styles of interacting with the user?

Wendy Johansson: I think they really come together in trying to help you define what you're trying to find out.

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: I could, for example, start with that data and find out what are people using the least in our system.

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: Then let's go talk to some of those users who actually do use it, find out the value for them. Then talk to some users who don't use it, find out why they're not using it. Maybe it's just we don't service it or there's bad marketing around it and they don't understand what it's for. What we need to do in understand from the data how that either inform or drive your decision about what you're doing next. It's a good mix of the qualitative and the quantitative. One is "what are people doing?" and the second is "why are people doing it?" I think both are very important together to make a good decision.

Matt Pasienski: I've heard many different conceptions of what a product manager is. Some people, CEO, some people say you wear a lot of hats. One thing that I think, especially since you've been at a lot of companies early on and grown them, you've dealt with a lot of just straight-up customer's success where they'll send the design team or the product manager and just say, "Hey, this customer's not happy. Solve it", and it might be any number of things. How do you think a product manager needs to own that CSM role and interact with the CSM team as you get bigger?

Wendy Johansson: Actually here at Wizeline, I have a unique role which spans UX, product, and CSM right now-

Matt Pasienski: Right, exactly.

Wendy Johansson: And if you think about those in this order, product is really dealing with the pre-sale process, helping us close these deals and understand what the market's asking for, what we should be building towards in the future.

Matt Pasienski: Future-oriented.

Wendy Johansson: Yeah, and then UX is really around that customer engagement of, "Well, now that you're on the system, how can we get you more engaged? How can we get you to be using this a lot more? How can we get you to invite more users into Wizeline?" CSM sits between those two perfectly because it's that onboarding the user, it's getting the user to understand the value to be able to build up their data and road maps into that value of Wizeline. With that information, we're able to see across basically the whole user lifecycle in Wizeline and understand what it is people think they're looking for, the problems that they have when they come in and start looking for that thing within our system, and then how we continue to engage them with that thing or other things that we [crosstalk 08:56]

Matt Pasienski: Yeah, I think a common theme you're pointing out is that when you have silos, and definitely when you have a technically-focused product manager, obviously you're going to make a lot of great choices. We've seen people like Brett, or someone just nail it because they understand the technology so well. On the other hand, you do have the risk of creating these silos where people are separated from all aspects of the design process or all aspects of the user lifecycle.

Wendy Johansson: Yeah.

Matt Pasienski: They don't get as deep into these things as they would otherwise.

Wendy Johansson: Yeah, I think a perfect example of that is actually one of our favorite customers and neighbors, Yahoo. Earlier on, actually you were the first product manager with Yahoo-

Matt Pasienski: Yeah.

Wendy Johansson: You came to us and you said, "Hey, Yahoo needs these things around Aplus management." We're all just kind of like, "Okay, that's interesting and completely different, Matt. What should we do with this?" It wasn't until we actually got speaking to Yahoo to understand the problem and the processes they had in place, a bunch of spreadsheets, to gather requests from hundreds of sales users and funnel that down into top ten lists of what they should build in their product engineering areas next that we were able to say, "Oh okay, so this is how we can help funnel down this four to six-week process into something that's a little more automated, isn't just literally once a quarter, and something that people can really use to track and trace, 'Okay, where are these requests coming from?'" When their product team is actually going to sit down and start building these products, they can say, "Well, let me trace back and see the customers that asked for that-

Matt Pasienski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wendy Johansson: "Let's see some research, let's see some validation, let's put out betas to these guys", and be able to really trace that back and have all that information available to them at any given time.

Luisa Posted by Luisa on Thursday, March 24, 2016.

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Apr 28, 2017

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