At first, I thought this question was lame. Why not just ask them what they want and then build that?
One of my earlier blog posts was entitled Stop Listening to Your Customers. The point was not that you should ignore your customers, but that simply asking them what you shoudl build in the next version of the product is counter-productive. Customers suck at telling you product requirements: they quickly get confused between the problem space and the solution space, and ideas for how their needs can be met without considering the 10 new problems they create along the way.
Requirements gathering is all about forcing your audience to tell you what's actually important based on what they're actually knowledgeable about. Here are 10 successful methods to gather requirements - and note that they are not all based on direct interviews of customers.
- Attend a usability study. Watch actual users actually use your product. Have them say what they're thinking as they use it. There's no substitute.
- Play the Product Box "Innovation Game", pioneered by Luke Hohmann. Luke knows what he's talking about. In this exercise, you ask a would-be customer to create a box for an on-the-shelf version of your product and then have them present an infomercial back to you. Pay attention to what your customers do and don't say.
- Rank the essentials. Once you have a working (and successful) product, don't ignore the essential components - you'll need to keep investing in them. Doing so would be the equivalent of an auto manufacturer ignoring the engine and focusing exclusively on new exterior paint colors and body shapes. Don't know what the essential elements are? Ask yourself what parts of the product, if broken, would have the most detrimental impact on the business. Then, make those better. I learned this one from Leonard Speiser.
- Analyze your losses. Too many product managers focus on the needs of their existing users or clients. You existing customers already selected you, and by talking to them, you'r just drinking the Kool Aid. To get more customers, talk to the ones who decided not to buy/use your product. Find out their rationale for why they didn't, then address those problems.
- Compare features. Offer your customers an option between two features and have them select which is more important. But don't stop there. Ask them why they would choose one feature over the other. It's the answer to the question of "why" that tells you everything you need to know.
- Role-play with the Sales team. If you're selling into enterprises, have a salesperson on your team sell an idealized version of the product to you. They get to pretend that the product does everything they wish it did. Now, you play the role of the naysayer at the prospective client, and then take notes on how the salesperson attempts to address your concerns. Whatever the salesperson fabricates is what you need to build.
- Innovate upstream. Engage the Engineering and BD teams. Find out what data, algorithms, relationships, technology, etc. you have that your competitors don't. Then identify ways to exploit the hell out of them. Finally run them through a filter of business sensibility, and choose the best opportunities.
- Interview yourself. Pretend you (or the Marketing head) is on CNN Money 3 years from now being interviewed about how your company made it so big so fast. What would you answer be? What's the story of how you parlayed one accomplishment into another to achieve market dominance? Great, now you have your marketing requirement set. Thanks to Ogi Kavazovic for this one.
- Trade one solution for another. Ask each person who gives you a requirement what they'd be willing to sacrifice it for. For example, assume an internal customer requests a bug fix for a tool that is used to set a manual configuration. Ask what they'd rather have R&D do than make the bug fix. They may recommend automating the manual process. Now, you can take the conversation from there.
- Get an outside perspective. Customers tend to be bad at suggesting specific product enhancements. Other Product Managers tend to be good at it. Take strong Product minds from your network out to dinner. Bring an iPad. Describe your challenge to them and see what ideas they come up with. Then run with their ideas: validate recommendations with your customers. You'd be amazed how an outside perspective can make all the difference.
I'm sure there are even better ideas out there for identifying requirements and priorities. What are yours?