What Listening Looks Like: A Product Perspective

 In Thinking

Listening takes on many forms in a workplace. Last month, Evive’s Director of Human Resources, Elisabeth Duncan, described how our senior leadership engages in intentional listening as a method of staying attuned to an evolving company culture. This method of survey and response is critical in tailoring benefits to an employee population and fostering a positive space for the everyday work to get done.

But it’s in that everyday work itself where we can observe even more nuanced forms of listening. Many are humble; most go unheralded. Still, it’s these routine good practices in listening that bring focus to our protect strategy, deliver value to our clients, and provide greater delight to our end users.

Once you start actively looking for masterful listening at play, it’s hard to stop identifying (and appreciating) where it makes a strong impact. What follows here are just a few snapshots of what that looks like at our offices as we work together to build solutions for our clients.

Taking time to ask questions

Our ideas come to life through a deep practice of co-innovation with our customers. This is a conversation in many parts and with many players. It starts with drawing out and taking in key insights from a client’s employee population, making a point to have similarly themed conversations with other clients, and then synthesizing any common insights into the shape of a single engagement opportunity. From there, we can take the idea down the product-research process of user interviewing, proof-of-concept design work, and user testing. This cycle reiterates until we have a concept that excites our clients and really works for users.

And it all happens before a single line of code is written.

From there, a new line of questioning opens up. This time, the “interviewing” is executed by our business analysts, the intrepid translators between the creative arm of our product team and its software developers. Business analysts may be the best listeners of all. From personal experience, I can vouch that they’ll listen to you talk about product goals and requirements until you’ve exhausted yourself. (They’ll also ask some questions throughout.) They’ll later return with a spreadsheet’s worth of new, incisive questions that put to test any tenuous assumptionsor outright contradictionsembedded in your great idea. They’re generous with their time in listening so that they can be just as generous with their time in asking. And without this generosity, products just wouldn’t look, feel, or act the way they were intended to in the idea stage.

Listening to what’s not said

Simplification is a critical part of product developmentit’s also probably one of the hardest parts of the process. In a zeal to offer features, options, and richness of experience, it can be tempting to clutter home screens, over-communicate, and heap on the opportunities for a user’s decision fatigue.

In order to keep a product from spiraling in this fashion, a product team must be aligned on what the product is not doing (at least, not right now). This often starts as a close conversation between the product manager, product owner, and designer: How do we agree to narrow down the brainstormand stick to that plan? During this negotiation, good listening skills are essential to fully take in varying points of view (business, technical, and creative) from other teammates and broker any differences of opinion into final decisions.

From there, a team in lockstep will view these decisions as strengths, not deficiencies, since they contribute to a clear definition of a deliverable. Products that are clearly defined can be brought to life more quickly and with greater veracity.

Listening again

And so too can these products, by virtue of Agile software development, be rapidly enhanced and even reimagined. To do this, we keep tabs on quantitative data: clicks, session durations, sentiment surveys, and other metrics that we’ve baked into the product to keep a continuous pulse on engagement. Once we have data on what’s working and what’s not, we can tease out more of the story by talking to new users or listening to them reason aloud as they navigate through a new prototype.

Here, as with the beginning of the process, it’s important to remain as impartial as possible. Confirmation bias (or “rigged decision-making”) is the temptation to seek out, or focus on, data and other feedback that supports your own bias. This human fallibility can manifest in a lot of ways throughout an otherwise well-intentioned listening process: skipping quickly ahead to solutionizing instead of problem-defining; engaging in a line of questioning to users that is leading or makes them want tell you what they think you’d like to hear. To combat this, our Product Copywriters and UI Designers closely collaborate to define the right line of questioning, written in the right way, to get the closest to the truth.

How it all pays off

Product development is iterative for a reason: there is no perfect product. With the benefits landscape and consumer expectations changing all the time, it pays to move swiftly and often.

Counterbalancing that speed is a conscientious practice of listening. It hones in, it simplifies, and it builds relationships along the way. But most importantly, it’s not a terminal skill. As we take action to improve our products over time, we put our listening skills into practice as well.

As they get better, so do we.

 

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