How do you learn about the people you’re designing for?

Who will use your product will probably have been determined by other people on your team: specifically your product management and user research. Your product manager thinks about the big picture – which segment of people you are specifically targeting, and the details about possible markets and business opportunities. User research shapes this as well, revealing the needs of the people you’re interested in and the the ways the product you’re proposing might speak to them.

What users themselves say is also important. If you are a designer for an existing product, user reviews or product reviews can give you a sense of how your product is perceived. There may be feedback links or customer support tickets that also yield direct questions from users and a sense of the most frequent issues they encounter. If the product team has set up ongoing relationships with users, there may also be an alpha team or other trusted users that you can consult at a moment’s notice.

That may feel like enough, but don’t stop there – you may overlook a whole team of people that are just as invested as you are in understanding your users. They make their living out of understanding your users, and are highly motivated to pinpoint their motivations, problems, and needs. They will spend the time to understand the deeper issues, and to advocate for solutions that will work for them. These are the people who sell and train users about your product.

Insights from client relationships

Any time there is a line of business that complements your product, you will find user advocates that can point out the possibilities for you. Great salespeople build ongoing relationships to understand the needs of their clients – not only the hopes and expectations they have, but the true picture of the competitive landscape seen by them, the switching costs, and the organizational pressures that promote or inhibit adoption of new products. They have a complete picture of an organization, and the ways personal and team choices influence each other. They have a strong incentive to understand the true value that an organization derives from your product as that will help make the case to renew or upgrade.

While designing for Photoshop and Illustrator, the salespeople were extremely helpful in arranging visits with big customers like Disney, Walmart, Pixar, Upper Deck, and Hallmark. We appreciated getting to talk with larger clients, and customers appreciated the extra attention from people on the product team too. I often visited along with user research or product managers, and these visits yielded useful conversations about the directions of the products.

At LinkedIn, I found that the Recruiter product was informed by a sizable team of salespeople – hundreds, worldwide.  I was fortunate to learn about the customers from George Seiters, the customer advocate who helped shaped the business. Later, the product marketing managers (Andrew Freed and Sankar Venkatraman) facilitated these relationships. The stories I learned from these stuck with me as I designed, and those relationships provided a way to get feedback during the process.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears

Sometimes knowing a product well can make it hard to remember what it’s like to be a new user. Trainers see nothing but this, and focus their attention on those new user challenges. At Adobe I got to know Patti Sokol, an experienced Creative Suite instructor who introduced me to the concepts that new users had the most difficulty understanding. Many of the challenges new users faced related to fundamental assumptions we can easily take for granted, such as the concept of layers. I took a number of her classes to see how she staged these concepts, and because she knew my role, she also highlighted particular issues along the way.

If your users gather at professional conferences, those can also provide insights about which topics are most interesting for your users to learn. If your product is big enough, there may even be a conference for it! (as I found for both Photoshop and Recruiter)  Conferences are a great way to hear what kinds of questions people have and also to meet the trainers and understand the particular opportunities each found. Trainers often have opinions about ways to improve your product based on what they’ve heard, and will be eager to share them with you.

Being aware of this feedback will not only round out your understanding of your users, it will also help you make good decisions about what kinds of changes could have the most leverage. It’s likely that feedback from your salespeople and trainers has been filtering back to your product manager already, so knowing about the nature of this feedback can be useful in understanding how new features can emerge and get prioritized, and open up the conversation about future directions.

Be an ally of your salespeople and trainers, and their uniquely immediate and pragmatic view can give you fresh insights about what matters most to your users.