An interview with Laura Klein

By Ed Vinicombe on May 12th, 2016

I’m fascinated about your new book, Building better products. Could you give us a quick run through of the topics you might be covering and what sets this apart from similar online/offline reading material to help entrepreneurs build products?

I won’t lie. It’s a big book, and I cover a lot of things. The goal of the book is to provide an overall strategy for understanding your business needs, learning about your user needs, and combining them to create products that make customers happy and make your company more money.
The book also has a lot of hands-on activities that I’ve used in workshops and classes I’ve taught over the last few years. These activities are designed to help product teams work together, understand each other better, and produce more effective products. Instead of arguing about what customers might want or what feature to build next, you can use the activities in the book to work through what you know and what you need to learn in order to make better product decisions.

Building a great product is tough and one of the key elements i’ve found personally is timing. It takes great timing and a bit of luck to make a product a success. Would you agree?

It takes great timing and more than a bit of luck. It also takes an enormous amount of work and consideration to great UX practices. And even with all of those things, it can still fail for entirely different reasons. There are a huge number of reasons that products fail. I wish I could say that if you did everything in the book that you’d be guaranteed success! That would be great, and it would be an instant best seller. All I can say is that, if you do the things in the book, you’ll have a better chance of building something that people want to buy from you.

Do you think it becomes even tougher for entrepreneurs to look at their own product and judge it without bias? I think the reason products are run into the ground is because of people's’ obsession with not failing.

I think it’s really hard to hear that your baby is ugly. I see entrepreneurs ignore negative feedback all the time. The real problem is that sometimes they succeed in spite of it. We hear a lot of stories that go something like, “We were running out of money, and our biggest client had dumped us, and we couldn’t get more funding, but we stuck it out and now we’re all billionaires and telling this story while drinking champagne on our yachts. Yes, that’s right. We all have multiple champagne-filled yachts. Because we never gave up, and we kept believing in our Vision!”

It’s hard to know whether your vision is really visionary or if it’s more delusional. Getting feedback from others is critical to knowing whether you’re heading in the right direction. The one thing I’ll caution people about is that they need to make sure that they’re getting feedback from the right people. The best feedback you can get is from people who are paying to use your product or service. Those are the people who will be honest with you and give you the feedback you need to make your product better - not your friends or your family or your investors. If they’re not your users - and preferably your paying users - they’re going to give you all sorts of advice that may or may not help you to make your product better for the people who matter.

I wonder if you might be covering how new startup products might go about funding and what that process looks like? That is something I’ve read an incredible amount about and there doesn’t seem to be any solid information out there!?

Sorry, no. I’m the wrong person to talk about startup funding. I’m a huge fan of companies that raise money from their customers by selling them things they want. I do think there’s quite a bit more information about funding out there in the world than there used to be. Mattermark is doing some great work in demystifying the venture capital business, so I’d highly recommend reading their newsletter and blog.

Have all of your experiences in helping people build better products been success stories? Could you maybe share some examples of when this hasn’t gone quite to plan and why?

Oh, man. I wish they were all success stories. I can’t make all products successful. Nobody can.

The biggest mistake people make is to start thinking about this stuff too late. Often people come to me when they’re almost out of options (or money), and the only thing I can do is help them figure out if it’s worth going on at all. Generally, this happens because companies spent too much time focused on Just Building Things. They don’t start from, What business metric to do I want to improve and what user behavior can I change in order to improve that business metric? How will I know that I’ve been successful?” They start from, “Let’s build this cool new feature and ship it!” If you do that too many times in a row, you’re essentially gambling with your product. You might as well be playing roulette.

I can’t always get people to stop thinking about building products in terms of “shipping features” and start thinking about “changing user behavior and understanding what success looks like.” If I could, I think my success rate would be higher. I’m hoping the book helps with that.

One of the hardest points in my own product cycle at work is being given the time to conduct proper research and testing. There is always an impetus to get the work out there ASAP. Would you be able to give me any tips on how I can start to change this part of my team's’ culture?

User. Research. Saves. Time. I’m so so so tired of this, “We don’t have time to understand our users. We have to ship features to them!” How on earth are you supposed to know what to build? How do you know what problem you’re solving? Does it really save time to spend weeks building something that nobody wants? Stop running so fast in the wrong direction. Stop. Do some decent user research. Understand the people for whom you’re building and the context in which your product is likely to be used.

I’m not saying that you have to do a six week ethnographic study before you ship a bug fix. I’m also not saying that you should just ask people what they want and build that. Nobody says that. Nobody who knows anything about good user research thinks that’s the right thing to do. What I’m saying is that understanding your users better will prevent you from building things that nobody wants, and that will save you time in the long run. The short run too, honestly.

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