When I write or speak about continuous discovery, I worry that people are enamored with this way of working, but aren’t doing the work to put it into practice.
It’s easy to read about a continuous discovery habit and think, “That could never work for my team. Our industry is too old. Our company is too set in its ways.”
It’s easy to read about a continuous discovery habit and think, ‘That could never work for my team. Our industry is too old. Our company is too set in its ways.’ That’s why case studies are so valuable. – Tweet This
Our brains are remarkably good at telling us why we don’t need to change. It’s easier to think that only consumer companies can do continuous discovery than to ask, “How might this work for an enterprise company?”
It’s easier to assume Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix can do this, but my boss will never let me do that here.
Every day, I hear from product managers who want to know who the good discovery companies are. This is the wrong question. Any product team at any company can be a good discovery team.
This is why I’m really excited to share today’s case study with you.
Farm Credit Services of America (FCSAmerica) is a lending company serving farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Kansas. FCSAmerica is one of 70 Farm Credit associations in the country, but unique in the fact that they are one of only a few that have a technology shop and build their own tools.
For the mainstream, they aren’t exactly who comes to mind when you think leading-edge tech company. However, they are committed to doing continuous discovery well.
I worked with a cross-section of FCSAmerica employees: Brian Wohlers, VP of Applications Development, Carl Horne, VP of Customer Solutions, Bryan Trogdon, VP of User Experience, Eric Sommers, IT Business Analyst, and Carlyn Porter, User Experience Designer.
This team stood out to me from the very beginning. It was clear that they, like many Product Talk readers, worked closely with their customers and cared deeply about providing excellent service. However, while they spent time with their customers, they didn’t always know how to translate that experience into valuable product insights.
I see over and over again that it’s not just about doing the right discovery activities (i.e. spending time with your customers), but also learning how to use those activities to inform your product decisions. I had a blast helping this team connect the dots between their strong customer focus and the product decisions they needed to make.
Melissa Suzuno, my blog editor, interviewed Brian Wohlers, VP of Applications Development at FCSAmerica.
Tell me a little about your team. What are you working on? What are you trying to accomplish?
We’re at the very beginning of our product journey, and about to start a new project. Our team was tasked with moving a part of our existing services online. Through the discovery process with Teresa, we learned that our customers value talking to someone on the phone, thus it might be harder to find which things a customer would be interested in doing online.
What was your life like before coaching with Teresa? How did you decide what to build?
The decision on what to build would be determined through our business owners (product owners). The business owner and the development team would sketch ideas, collaborate on what features the customer would want, and then we would work together to create an effective, user-friendly solution. We were starting with a solution in mind based on our assumption of the customer needs, but we weren’t always explicit about what those needs were.
How often did you talk to customers?
I would talk with customers when out on a visit to our retail offices or on a farm visit to learn, in general, about a customer’s operations. Working with Teresa helped us think about how to approach our customer conversations more strategically.
What did you think about conducting customer interviews?
We’ve always wanted to get a closer connection with our customers, but if we were to do that, it could be challenging to go through the right channels. Talking with the customer is a very protected thing because we like to ensure that our financial officers, the customer’s key partners, are always a part of the relationship. At one time there was a group of customers that would demo new products and give feedback as new digital products were created, but we don’t always have an easy way for the product team to reach out to customers directly.
How often did you run product experiments?
The way that we got feedback was through our business owners by hosting demos or by collaborating with them as a team is finishing up a story. There have been some moderated usability tests, but these were looking specifically at the design of the solution and missed validation to ensure whether the solution was what a customer really needs.
What was the process of working with Teresa like?
I really liked working with Teresa. She helped ground us as we were figuring out what we should be building. As we were working through the process, she did a great job of collaborating with us and reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves by making assumptions for what should be created.
Teresa gave us the opportunity to try something different and the encouragement to know that it was okay to approach things in a new way. One example of this was Teresa helping us see, very clearly, the work needed to get feedback and metrics. We had been talking about how we could validate that a customer would use a specific feature, and we were going through all the detail to put metrics around this. Teresa quickly reeled us in asking why we would do so much work to prove this out, and she reminded us that there are other ways. She encouraged us to take a much simpler view and get feedback with a lo-fi model by showing it to 5–10 customers. Having her experience gave us the right to not do things the way we always had before.
Teresa gave us the opportunity to try something different and the encouragement to know that it was okay to approach things in a new way. – Tweet This
What were some moments that stood out to you?
During our coaching, we were working on opportunities and defining what we had heard from our surveys, but we were so far down the path with solutions, we weren’t catching the actual needs of the customer.
One of the first steps was conducting interviews with our customers. When we started down that path, it became very evident that customers care about having online tools, but what they value the most is what we add to their operation as a business partner. Using Teresa’s coaching to guide our customer interviews, we started to see that the tools we were creating were a little off from what a customer might want from digitization.
The value of getting out and talking to our customers is really big, and we see the need to develop that further. The value we got in the first few interviews we did through our coaching with Teresa made us realize we’ve been missing out on something significant.
The value of getting out and talking to our customers is really big, and we see the need to develop that. – Tweet This
I think our biggest “aha” was two-fold: We are really good at jumping straight to solutions and “knowing” what the customer wants, and thinking in our terms (what our processes need, not what the customer needs).
Any time that we were building our solution tree and looking at options, our attitude was that we knew exactly what our customers wanted, but we didn’t have the data to “prove” that or validate those assumptions. Similarly, we tend to believe that we know exactly what we should build and we don’t have metrics to support that knowledge.
What are things like for you now? What are you doing differently that you weren’t doing before? How has this impacted your work?
We’re now building just enough of a solution, so we can get feedback to know if we’re on the right track. We’re starting to see where putting those experiments in place and talking to customers is what will drive our understanding of what we build. Internally, we’re also noticing new processes, like customer interviews, are bleeding into other teams’ work and changing how they gather information/customer insights.
We’re starting to see where putting experiments in place and talking to customers is what will drive our understanding of what we build. – Tweet This
We are in the very initial stages, but we are leveraging frameworks to put better measurement into the work we are doing. Understanding the need for data helps us get very specific about how we would define success in our experiments, so that as we get feedback or ask questions to our customers, we have defined what we consider success, where more research is needed, or when something should be abandoned.
Understanding the need for data helps us get very specific about how we would define success in our experiments. – Tweet This
What would you say to another team who was considering working with Teresa? Why should they do it? What should they know?
Teresa is great to work with. She provides an unbiased look at the work you go through as a team to understand what a product needs. She is quick to see where we can improve and to cut to the chase on how we gather information—not everything has to be a lot of work or in high-def detail.