Cindy Alvarez is the author of Lean Customer Development: How to Build Products Your Customers Will Buy. It’s a highly practical, hands-on guide to effectively talk to customers, and it’s actively used by tiny startups to massive global enterprises.
You might think you understand customer development, but Cindy is taking things to a whole new level with evolutionary customer development.
→ She is the Director of User-Centered Services at Yammer
→ She manages a team of product designers, researchers, and copywriters who work on the product
→ Her role involves bringing together information and setting goals for the team
→ She acts as a sounding board for the team and keeps them focused on having a lean approach to their work
→ She helps them avoid waste by encouraging them to quickly test their ideas and get feedback
→ What is her primary reason for writing a book and what compelled her
→ How does she define customer development
→ How the dots connect between UX and customer development
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV, Bronson Taylor. And today I have Cindy Alvarez with us. Cindy, thanks for coming on the program.
Cindy: Thank you for having me.
Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. Now, Cindy, you are the director of UCS at Yammer, a little company that some of us have heard of. And you’re also the author of a new book called Lean Customer Development. So let’s do this. Let’s start with the AMA. Talk about your role there and then we’ll kind of get into your new book and we’ll talk about kind of how the two relate. So yammer when you actually yammer to the director of it. What is your day to day actually look like? What do you do?
Cindy: It’s a good question. I like to say that I hire really smart people and get the hell out of their way. That’s good. That is a lot of it. Basically, I have reporting to me product designers and researchers and copywriters, all who work on the product and Yammer works in a very autonomous way. So what I don’t do is check people’s work and tell them This is good enough, it’s not good enough or do this. What I do is bring together a lot of information and kind of say, Here are our goals. This is what we’re going for. Yeah, I act as a sounding board a lot and I also try and keep people’s focus on having their day to day work be very lean because it’s everyone who builds things. It’s our focus to want to kind of go heads down. And, you know, whether we’re exploring a new design concept or asking a research question, it’s usually people’s instinct to say, I’m going to go away and do all this work and then I’m going to come back and see if it’s right. And so there’s a lot of focus on, okay, that’s a hypothesis. We can do it quickly. You can sketch up this little thing and get some feedback. We can build a really quick paper prototype and get feedback. So a lot of times I’m just kind of, you know, saving people from waste.
Bronson: I gotcha. So you’re actually telling them to hurry up, rush a little bit. We’ll figure it out as we go. You don’t have everything perfect. And then have somebody check your work like we’re in high school again.
Cindy: Exactly. Because, you know, when you have that initial buy in from people on other teams, then everyone is supportive of you kind of going in and digging deep and doing a great job. But it’s really demoralizing to do, to say mock up an entire concept and bring it to a product review and have product managers say, Well, for this variety of reasons, it just won’t work. It’s like you’ve just wasted three days and it feels more like a personal attack. Yeah, it’s a, you know, a smaller idea. So things can go very quickly and it helps people feel more collaborative. Yeah.
Bronson: So you’re not against heads down going and doing the hard work for periods of time, but you have the buy in, you have some data to go off of. You have something that’s giving you the permission to go and get heads down. Is that right?
Cindy: Absolutely. Because we’re wrong a lot of the time. That’s one of the things that’s kind of astounding. Yammer We release only about half of the things we build. If you talk to other product managers at other companies, this isn’t super widely popularized, publicized, but, you know, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Google had the same kind of numbers. They say we test things and half the time it doesn’t work out and we roll it back. Mm hmm. So even things that we were sure would work.
Bronson: So, of course, if we’re not even sure they’re going to work, there’s even less percentage chance that it will if it’s just one person going to doing their own thing. Right now, that makes a lot of sense. So you say that you have these people, you know, that you’re that directly report to you. You mentioned a copywriter. What were some of the other roles that you mentioned there?
Cindy: Product designer, both visual interaction design and then user researchers.
Bronson: All right. So when they come to you and you’re, you know, you’re looking at what they’re doing, you’re giving them, you know, kind of goals and focuses. What are you looking for in their work? Are you looking at it from the user’s point of view, or do you look at copywriting, you know, from an author point of view, like, what is your take on their work? What kind of lens are you looking through to judge if it’s good or not? You know what I mean?
Cindy: Right. So it’s a very simple one. It’s do people use the product more and get more value out of it? Mm hmm. And so, you know, you mentioned copy and the author perspective. It’s kind of interesting because a lot of companies will talk about wanting to develop a corporate voice and they’ll have extensive style guides. You know, we want I don’t want to always use language like this. And one of the things we found when we run a lot of copy AB tests around concepts and we found that copy is often as important or more important as a feature change and it can be something very simple, like a couple of words that change a meaning, a change a connotation are hugely important. And so, you know, I think it would be silly for us to try and have a corporate voice guideline because we might be shooting ourselves in the foot and we take guesses on what approach will work. And when I say copy B test, I don’t mean we’re testing whether the word, you know, the or them, but you know, this is more formal, this is more informal. This just kind of says, do this and it’ll work. This one says, do this, and here’s why. And depending on the the setup in the application, sometimes one concept tests better than others. And again, we’re not always that good at predicting.
Bronson: Yeah, no, that’s great. I knew if I mentioned the word author and looking at copy like an author, it would probably get you going. Because, you know, initially we come to things like that thinking, Oh, it’s about the art of it and it’s not. It’s about the success of it, which is different than the. Part of it, and I’ve had to grapple with that as a designer that sometimes it’s not about what is the artistically best design. That’s not what’s relevant sometimes. And it’s really hard when you want to do good work in an artistic way. But sometimes it doesn’t matter.
Cindy: Yeah, it’s absolutely hard. And it’s, you know, there’s there’s plenty of like, you know, BuzzFeed articles about like the 21 things that drive designers nuts. And the funny thing is, you can show an article like that to someone who’s not visually oriented, and they they just shrug. They’re like, I don’t get it. Mm hmm. You know, I’ve got a similar thing. My husband has an audio file, and it drives him nuts that I can’t tell the difference between his awesome speakers and my MP three. I just can’t. That’s not that’s not where I am. And things are fine for me. And that’s the way most of the world is about design. It has to be credible, it has to be inviting. But, you know, some of the finer points that we love aren’t really going to drive usage or of even value for people. That’s a story.
Bronson: That is such a great point. You know, we’re worried about the 1% marginal, you know, things on the outside. And that’s not what is keeping entertaining users is end of the day. I say let me ask you this. You know, you’ve been working with the users of Yammer. You’ve done research. You’ve interacted with them firsthand. And what has surprised you about them in terms of what they need or want or what tendencies they have? What’s kind of it’s been like, wow, I wasn’t expecting that because maybe it’ll give us some ideas on some things. Maybe our users are thinking or doing that we’re not expecting.
Cindy: Sure thing. So one of the things that people always say to us, including our customers, is to assume that Yammer is going to be adopted and used primarily by millennials and by very tech savvy people. You know, it’s a social network that seems very new to us, surely, you know, and people say, you know, we’re very conservative, workplace people aren’t going to use this. And while it’s true that that the younger folks adopt Yammer more quickly, we found time and time again that the people who are really passionate about Yammer, who are driving usage, who are driving the community are older workers. They are people who aren’t particularly tech savvy. And I think it comes down to sort of the the lean startup aspect of solving a problem for these people. This is a first outlet. You know, if you are a millennial and you’re used to having a lot of tools and you used to using apps, you’re used to getting your voice out. So that’s not a huge pain point that you need to solve if you’re a, you know, say, 60 something worker in the middle of the country and a decidedly non-technical company. You’ve probably never had access to telling people about your ideas or finding out what people in other departments are thinking or realizing. You’re not the only one who keeps having the same problem. And that is phenomenally empowering. And so it’s these people who who are not super tech savvy, who are main users.
Bronson: Yeah. And I can even imagine you can tell me if I’m wrong that insights like that that you get from really thinking through UX could change how you sell Yammer. It could change, you know, how you actually have a strategy of Now we don’t have to go to the young people in organization and go bottom up. I mean, we can go top down and still get adoption and I mean, does it change things like that?
Cindy: Yeah. And one of the things that you know, another thing that surprises a little bit is how Yammer started with a bottom up adoption strategy. We still very much love that companies can take advantage of us without having CEO buy in. Yeah, but one thing we found is that one of the most important factors on how much people will use Yammer and how much value they will get is if their manager is on Yammer. Yeah. So, you know, it’s ultimately even if the CEO is like Yammer is awesome for most people, they have no contact with the CEO, you know, a 10,000 person company. You’ve probably never met the CEO, but your boss can determine a lot about your day to day happiness. Right. So, you know, we really tried to explore things like how can we get how can we kind of let middle managers know that they’re this gatekeeper and they should give permission? Because usually people are like, I want my team to use this and I don’t understand why they’re not. And we say, Well, have you ever said explicitly, I would love for you to use this? Like this is a valuable input of your time? Yeah. And just that little bit can help. And, you know, we think that, we think that middle, middle out in both directions is actually the strategy where we’re going to see the most growth going forward.
Bronson: No. And I love the idea that we’re talking about how to get usage up, but we’re talking about in the context of the social relationships within the organization, not we need to push out a new feature every week. It’s it’s about the social connections that people have, not just the feature list sometimes. And I think that’s kind of a good thing to add to the discussion. You know.
Cindy: Absolutely. I think the decisions that people make around using and buying have so much more to do outside the product. Hmm. You know, you think about something like a wearable. It’s not what it does. It’s. How do you look? I mean, think of all the people who are like, Oh, I never wear Google Glass because I look like a tool. Like, it doesn’t matter what it does for you if your friends are going to, you know, so you look like a dork or like waiters are going to not want to serve you, that’s going to make your decision. You know, people in households make decisions based on what their spouse might think about her, what their kids might think about it. People in the workplace are looking to their. Years and their managers. And these are things that are outside your control, but you can understand them by talking to people and figure out, is there some way we can mitigate this? Like, if we send our emails in this certain way, will it make it easier for people to spread it to their coworkers?
Bronson: Yeah. Sort of like you because it makes adoption and retention and things like that. Not necessarily a technology problem first. Technology can be the fix sometimes, but there’s some underlying insight that probably has very little to do with technology on why a technology will be adopted or won’t be adopted. So I think I think that’s what your work kind of adds to the discussion on a lot of these things. Now, you know, you’re the director of U.S. and to me, that seems like a role that you would find at a consumer facing company. You know, Yammer is B2B, and yet you have a director of UX and you have these people worrying about the, you know, the consumer ability of the product. You think there’s still a lot of growth potential for just making B2B software for real humans? Is that still an open gap? Because I remember.
Cindy: Oh, absolutely.
Bronson: It seems like a year ago. It’s huge. So I’m just worried. But the opportunity is still there.
Cindy: Oh, yeah. If you look at most most enterprise software is still terrible. And the thing that we have now is in the past, software was terrible and there really you had no choice. You came to work. Your boss would be like, use this or you get fired. And for a lot of people, everything involving technology was sort of equally hard. And if you think ten, 15 years ago, your average user getting their email was hard, you know, looking for something on the Web was hard. So if there, you know, whatever supply chain software was hard, it’s not that it really stood out to you. You’re like, this is just technology is hard, period. And, you know, that’s why they call it work. And I just have to suffer through it. But now you have these people, you know, that same 60 something year old who works in a non-technical company has an iPhone in her pocket. And even if she’s not sure how everything works, she’s got the app store, you know, she’s got some apps. Even if her kids put them on there for her, she knows how they work. They they’re intuitive. If they update, she still knows how they work. Yeah, they provide this value and it’s kind of you look at the iPhone and then you come in to work and immediately it just you have the shift and everything is hard. And I think for a lot of workers, they’re saying, wait, why is this? And then you have younger workers saying, well, I don’t you know, I don’t want to do this. And you get this sort of mutiny, you know, of workers of all ages where you have people say using Dropbox, even though they have a corporate approved file solution because Dropbox is easy. Yeah. So people do that. People use Gmail outside because exchange goes down all the time at my company as a as a microsoft employee, I shouldn’t say that, but. Yeah, right. Well, people do things like this, right? And so companies are starting to realize, hey, we could if we don’t do something, we’re just going to have this mutiny, which is far worse. Like any IT department would rather have an under control deployment of a tool than just have everyone using 20 different tools, some of which are going to be, you know, not like Dropbox, which is secure, but something that actually is shady. Yeah. So there’s a huge is a huge opportunity for this. Yeah. I think with Yammer, Yammer has historically been a very data driven company. We have a very strong analytics department that’s been going way before I came, but for a product that is built on data, fundamentally this is a decision to use. It is all about user comfort, you know? Do I feel okay about posting this? Do I feel comfortable enough to, you know, kind of let my work be seen before it’s polished? And so a lot of it is getting at the psychology. And so we wouldn’t we wouldn’t be as successful as we were without having insights into that. Yeah.
Bronson: No, I love what you said about, you know, the pain that people experience at work because it really shows us why there’s an opportunity to, you know, make these things more user friendly in the workplace because used to there was no pain. We’re now we feel the pain because it’s different. And we always talk about there’s opportunity and pain. And now when they feel it, there’s something that can be done about that. So I think that a lot.
Cindy: It’s not just, you know, to jump in on that. It’s not just user pain in terms of you have an employee who’s unhappy, it’s the inability to be competitive. Now, if you’re in a big company in, you know, hard to use software, information flows incredibly slowly. It goes traditionally information went up to your manager and then up and then up. And at every step there’s a gatekeeper who might decide that this insight was useless and not pass it on. And it might go up and up and up and over and over and over and then down. And by then someone is eating your lunch. Yeah. You know, we have we’ve had great stories about customers of ours. 7-Eleven has a great anecdote of someone in a college town, 7-Eleven, who set up a store display of ping pong balls and red solo.
Cindy: Sold them out, posted it on Yammer. And basically every other 7-Eleven with a college campus nearby is like, This is brilliant, I’m going to copy it. And of course, all the other 7-Eleven is like, we don’t get it when it comes to connection problems.
Bronson: I don’t understand.
Cindy: Like this? Never. There’s never going to be a corporate edict to say create a beer pong display. Yeah, but to the end, workers who are in coming in contact with customers every day, that’s like a great insight and little things like that can spread sideways. Now you can have, you know, a store manager here and a store manager there who are separated by 500 miles, have immediate contact, and that never would have happened before.
Bronson: Now, that makes a lot of sense. It allows big companies to be agile despite their size. Right. Usually it’s the reason they’re going to die eventually or now it’s like they can, you know, as long as the communication and the data flows, you know, they can overcome that to some degree. Now, let’s talk about your new book a little bit, Lean Customer Development. I think it came out in May. Is that right?
Cindy: It’s the early e-book versions. Been out for a little while. And June I think June 8th, I think was the official.
Bronson: So it’s just now getting released.
Cindy: Just now.
Bronson: So people can go buy it. It’s fresh off the presses. What was the primary reason for writing this book? What compelled you?
Cindy: Well, you know, I’ve been working a lot with startups and larger companies with a lot of lean startup stuff. I was lucky enough to have Eric Reese’s, our advisor, when I worked for KISSmetrics a few years ago. And what I’ve seen is that a lot of the Lean methodology has been furiously adopted among tech companies, with the exception of customer development. That seems to be lagging. So people are very big on agile development, are very big on experiments, they’re big on learning, but not the talking to customers part. And, you know, I realized that because it’s messy, it involves humans. And the other thing is that it’s not something you can set up once and forget. You actually have to understand why it’s working in order to feel confident practicing it. Because people would come to me and they say, I don’t believe this works. Like this just sounds on the face of it, ridiculous. You think I can go to people? I don’t have a product. I don’t even necessarily have any credibility. And I can ask them questions and they’ll answer them like, This sounds ridiculous. And we think of things like, you know, Jehovah’s Witnesses or, you know, spammers or telemarketers or like, we hate those people. I don’t want to be one of those people. And yet somehow, if you know, it’s not, that’s not the way it works. If you find people have a problem, they’re really desperate to talk to you, in fact. Yeah. And they really feel gratified. And so I wanted to explain to people, here’s why this is different. Here’s why when you ask people things, they really will talk. And here’s the difference between you could ask it in this way and get a flood of insights, and you could ask it in another way and get kind of blank stares or very generic answers. And I think there’s a certain element of improv to it. And once you kind of know what the steps are, it’s not that hard for someone to just pick it up. You don’t need any background in marketing or psychology or research. You just kind of figure out some of these things and you can adapt yourself and have these conversations that aren’t very pre coordinated, but they get you a lot of insights.
Bronson: Yeah. So tell me kind of in a nutshell, how do you define customer development? Let’s kind of start there. You’ve given us kind of an anecdote of, you know, some of the ways it could be used, you just mentioned, but how do you define it?
Cindy: So customer development is an analog to product development. It’s building up the customer base. Who’s going to use your company or feature or product. So you’re building something at the same time, you want to make sure there’s people who are going to use it or buy it at the time that it’s done. I mean, ideally you should be doing them in parallel. So once you have a product, you also have customers.
Bronson: Okay. So it’s not customer acquisition, though, it’s just priming the pump so there can be customer acquisition. Is that the right way to think about it?
Cindy: Yeah. Priming the pump is a great way of thinking about it. So it’s like first you want to make sure that there are customers. That’s kind of the the lowest bar. There’s a cares at all about this thing. Mm hmm. And then that next step, which is really the critical one where a lot of people get stuck, is do they care enough to change behavior, invest time, invest money. And for them to care enough, it has to be a big enough problem. It has to be a solution that aligns with the constraints they have in their life. It has to be something that will sort of scaffold off of their natural behavior. So most people are not going to do a 180 and completely change behavior. That’s just unrealistic. But if you can find their problem and find behaviors that they’re already doing, then it’s not that hard to say. Okay, we can solve this problem with just a small change. Yeah. And as you talk to customers along the way, the more you talk to them, the more they become your your allies. They become part of your team. And so they’re they’re pointing out when you do things wrong, they’re also saying things like, hey, you should talk to this other person, or I had this idea. And so they’re actually sort of part of your extended team. And then when you release it, you know, no one is more helpful than the people who have been there all along, you know, watching you develop. Absolutely.
Bronson: Now, you said that it’s an ongoing process. And yet when I think of priming the pump, once the pump is primed and you acquire them as customers, then you’re done with them. Right. So how is an ongoing process like. Walk me through. You know. Yeah. You. Develop your customers and then you acquired them as customers when the product was done being developed. And now why do you go back to them? What does that look like? You know what I mean?
Cindy: Sure. So, I mean, if you if you think of like the Jeffrey Moore technology adoption curve, what you did in the beginning is you basically got the people at this end of the curve, this tail, and so you landed the early adopters. Great. That’s good, because they will put up with your early product and they will evangelize it and that’s awesome. But the further you go up that curve, the better your solution has to be. And so a lot of times, you know, again, as a designer, I’ll say for your very earliest customers, sometimes it doesn’t matter what design looks like, your design can be totally crappy. It’s okay because these people have so much pain, they don’t care. But as you come over, you start getting to people who are like, Wait, that looks crappy. I don’t want to use it. Yeah. So there’s, there’s, first of all, I have to keep going back and figure out, you know, how much design is enough design because you don’t want to over design, you know, you never want to over engineer in any direction. And you want to say like, okay, for this person who maybe has 80% of the pain, is this still compelling enough for them to use? As you go further over, you’re going to get people who have less technical ability. That’s a that’s a nexus we talk about a lot. But there’s also other things like just people who are less adventurous, people who have less ability to change, who have less time to learn things. Yeah, all of those things can impact. So you have to kind of keep going back and make sure that you’re still getting it. Yeah. Now, you know, there’s other customers, other competitors out there. So as soon as you’ve launched something that works, someone else is going to try and copy what you did and that race. The only way you can win that race is to understand why things worked, and that’s why you need the continuous customer development, because otherwise, you know, someone can play catch up. A lot of firms, especially small, nimble companies, they can play catch up almost as fast as you can release.
Bronson: Yeah, but if they don’t know the why, they can’t innovate ahead of you. If they don’t have the process in place to know, you know, as Wayne Gretzky said, where the puck is going, not where it was.
Bronson: Yeah. So when you do customer development, you know, I think for lean startups it clicks in the beginning, right? Like I get, you know, day one, there is no product and you talk to people. That’s the part that makes the most sense. When I already have the early adopters, that first part of the curve. Now I’m going after that second segment, whatever it might be. Right? Do I then have to kind of recreate the ideal customer? Okay, now the ideal customer looks like this. The old ideal customer was that we already have them. Now we’re going after this group. Let’s talk to them. Let’s figure out what they need. And so in a sense, you re prime the pump and reacquire them. And it’s almost like you’re literally doing it in tandem with the with the complications of the product.
Cindy: Yes, absolutely. In fact, KISSmetrics, we had a very clear path. I mean, probably clearer than than you normally get, which is our very earliest adopters were like CTOs. They’re very technical. They cared a lot about their company and their products. They were willing to do a lot of different things. They didn’t care as much about it being pretty. They weren’t they didn’t care about API documentation that could hack through it themselves. And then it very clearly we started hearing from people who wanted to use the product who were more what I would call semi technical product managers. People are more like me, like we know just enough to be dangerous, but we can’t write a lot of code. And those people had very different, they wanted to do different things. Um, they wanted to be large and they wanted to be independent of engineering because engineers didn’t want to bother with this. And they said, I just want something I can do on my own, even if it takes longer or cost a little more, that’s okay. And so they had there were different ways that we sort of marketed to them and taught them. And then after all, we started getting marketers like completely non technical marketers, but who were doing things like AB testing campaigns. They wanted a lot more attribution information, they wanted a lot of tools, but they also didn’t have the ability to tweak things under the hood. So each time I would go back and talk to people, you would have them exhibiting different behaviors and talking about different problems, and they all fundamentally benefited from the product. But if we had kept building in any one of those directions, we would have lost the other two audiences. And I think, you know, I haven’t been there for a few years, but it seems from the outside, like they’re still hitting all three of those targets pretty well, I hear. I still hear technical people and product managers and marketers all using KISSmetrics, probably using it in very different ways to see.
Bronson: I love this discussion. It’s actually it’s helping me a lot because I had Steve Blank on the show before and all the stuff clicked about customer development, except the idea that your customer actually evolves into new segments, which is why it’s an ongoing process, so that this, I think, is the best explanation I’ve seen of the evolving customer and how customer development plays into that evolution. So it makes it simple, but it’s profound all at the same time.
Cindy: Absolutely. And even, you know, when you’re going for a longer period of time, even the exact same customer morphs over time. So especially with us, like a Yammer user who’s in their first month is going to be very different than a Yammer user who’s. Who’s been there for a year. Mm hmm. You know, this technology marches on and people get more comfortable, and then they see the world in a different way. So even if your customer base is exactly the same. Person. That person has changed. Yeah. And that’s something that wider Microsoft is kind of battling with because, you know, they’ve always had the same corporate customers, but now those same corporations have changed and their needs are changing.
Bronson: Yeah. So they’re acquiring companies like Yammer.
Cindy: Yeah. To to work with that.
Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. Connect the dots for me because you do you actually yammer director there that and then you write this book on customer development, not a book on UX. What’s the what’s the overlap? Do the dots connect between UX and customer development? Is it two sides of the same coin? How do you see it?
Cindy: Sure. Well, you know, user research and customer development are very similar. In fact, customer development, you know, almost all of the the techniques that are used are things that user researchers have been using for decades. There’s nothing new. We just you know, we cleaned it up. We called it a different name. The main thing that I think is different is that user research has always fundamentally been in the service of the user. It’s been if you talk to researchers like I want the best possible experience for the user, the phrase advocating for the user gets thrown around all the time. And the sense is kind of like in this war, you have, you know, people trying to make money and people trying to make life better for the user. That’s where research has historically been. Customer development is advocating for the business. It’s basically saying, you know what, the absolute best user experiences might not be? What keeps us all making money and keeps us employed? Okay. And so sometimes you’re making a tradeoff where the user would love this. But here’s the thing that actually will make the product successful. Mm hmm. And so, of course, you have to see from the user’s perspective, but it’s a very balanced view of, like, here’s what we want to do with this product or company. And here these pain points, you know, how do these things come together? And in some cases, it may be things like, Hey, we can charge more if we do this. Yeah, that’s certainly not a pure user advocate, but it is the thing that will help you grow and survive and, you know, win.
Bronson: Yeah. And if you win, that’s good for the customer because now you don’t have to close out their account because you couldn’t pay the bills. So sometimes the business winning is allowing the user to win.
Cindy: Right. If you’re solving a problem, people want that problem. Solution to keep existing.
Bronson: Exactly. That’s great. Now, I’ve heard you say that, you know, customer development doesn’t necessarily lead to rapid growth, but it does lead to rapid experimentation. What do you mean by that?
Cindy: So, you know, another way of putting it is, I’ll say customer development doesn’t guarantee you’re going to build great products. So you can talk to a bunch of customers, learn a lot of stuff that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to build a good product. I mean, if you have no product managers, you’re not going to be able to put that together into something. I kind of have an analogy about you can go to Home Depot and buy all the raw materials. But, you know, if I were to try and build a house, it would fall over here. Architects, you know, you still need someone to be architecting. So but what it does is, is it forces you to, in a very methodical way, question all your assumptions. So, you know, if I were going to build this house, I might you know, I could just start building by like, oh, there’s a tree in the middle of this lot. What do I do now? Like, the first thing you do in customer development is identify your biggest risks and try to mitigate those. And sometimes what you find is, is that you can’t you might say, well, I want to go out and do this. Oh, we just we just can’t. Mm hmm. And that’s good, because, you know, it saved you from a lot of pain and money. Mm hmm. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to grow. For example, some of the most successful customer development stories I’ve heard are people who shut down businesses early or didn’t quit their day job because this idea they had. Oh, doesn’t really pan out. Mm hmm. And you know that experimentation is critical, but it is not actually helping growth.
Bronson: It actually helped it die. But it was. But it was the right thing to know. That’s right. Now, that’s awesome. Now, I’ve heard you say before with customer development that it’s not just looking at that a variable one. You’re doing a B test B one, that’s good, but you’re looking for the why it one. Like that’s the real insight to the whole thing. But here’s my question. What does that process look like? So you’re there, you have a test, you get the results of the test. But let’s say you don’t know why. Like you actually don’t know why. B one. You just know that b one. Mm hmm. What do you do then? Is there a framework that you can actually work through with your team to figure out the why? Or is it just you take best guesses and see which one sounds right? I mean, what does that look like?
Cindy: So I think the more you’ve talked to customers, the more you have a good guess. You never know for sure, because even even an individual user often can’t articulate why they did something. You can’t call someone and say, you know, why didn’t you buy this thing? They’re going to give you an answer. It might not even be the real answer. People say, Oh was too expensive, but really it was that their coworker didn’t want to use it. Yeah. So things like that. So. But you need to know why. Because otherwise you can’t form a good second test. So people who are derisive of the lean startup would be like, Oh, that’s just like throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Mm hmm. If you never know why, that’s exactly what it is. If you’re just testing and you have no sense of why something failed. I mean, you can. Keep doing that, but you will probably run out of cycles before you get something that works.
Bronson: And so if we can’t really trust their feedback necessarily, how do we get to the Y? You know, like how do we actually get inside their psyche in a way that’s somewhat trustworthy?
Cindy: So focusing less on asking people to kind of form an opinion and more about a narrative. So you might say, tell me about the last time you did this. And as they’re talking, you can see that there are certain behavioral patterns. You can see that they went this long way around because they have a coworker they don’t really like very much. And it’s just easier to go around that guy than you know. So that’s a that’s an interesting thing. You can see that here’s where they ask for permission because they have a very hierarchical culture and they can’t do things without it. You know, here’s where they did something that they really pride themselves on, figuring things out on their own. So they did it this hard way instead of doing an easier way. So if you have a lot of these kind of patterns that you’ve heard people reveal and they don’t even really realize they’re revealing them, and then you launch an experiment and you say, Okay, well, that kind of makes sense, because I’ve heard, like, based on what this person has said, they don’t seem like they’re very confident in this new role. And so we’re giving them a feature that’s a little bit weird. It’s a little bit unfamiliar. I’m not surprised. Yeah. For example, one of the, one of my favorite AB tests that won at Yammer was that we used to have generic avatars for people’s heads. If you didn’t have a photo, we had this sort of gray and white, really generic kind of ugly avatar. And we know that people wanted to feel more comfortable posting on Yammer. This is a big thing that they had expressed to us. I don’t know who’s out there, you know, am I just speaking into the void? Is this a waste of time? And we said, you know what? If we could make those avatars look better, what if we just put people’s initials and used some brighter colors? And I think we actually released just before the Gmail version. Gmail does a very similar thing, and it was one of those pure design things where I actually had a little bit of a struggle getting it into the queue because we were like, This isn’t going to make a difference. There’s no feature impact at all, so we’re just going to try it.
Bronson: Uh huh.
Cindy: And so we did. We launched, you know, in a B test where half of the networks had the same gray, ugly avatars. Yeah. And the other half had these bright, you know, Microsoft primary color squares. And we found everything went up, you know, engagement, retention, hosting rates. And why? I mean, if we’d asked someone, no one could have told us why. We can hypothesize based on what we know, that the site was more esthetically pleasing, it looked more personal. You know, if you’re posting and you’re your avatar is a little red square that says Beachy, that seems better than just a gray black.
Bronson: Absolutely. I’m already liking it. Just visualizing it.
Cindy: You know. But so so that’s one of those where we made a hypothesis about the why is probably correct. And based on that, we’ve started doing a few more things that just make the design seem friendlier. Yeah. Because even though that’s not changing the function of feature functionality, if it’s increasing people’s comfort levels, then they’ll use it more.
Bronson: Yeah, I love this inside of really figuring out the story, not just asking them for a quick answer. Because that’s the thing is people were really complicated. I mean, I don’t know why I do some of the things I do. I just actually walk through it myself, much less put into words for you and for your company. But I can tell you stories all day long about what I actually did and what happened, and then you can piece it together. Then you’re absolutely right if you want to. Somebody said, Hey, if I put initials instead of a photo there, are you going to post more? They’d be like, I don’t know. They, you know, they can’t give you an answer.
Cindy: Or ask people, do you like A or B better? Yeah, this is my favorite terrible usability test. And every time I see someone do it like no one’s allowed to do it on my team. Whenever I see someone do it, I just it drives me nuts because what people say they prefer and what they will actually, I’ve seen time and time again a gamer. There is almost no relationship. Yeah. Which one of these designs do you like better? Oh, I like that one better. We launch it. People use the other one more.
Bronson: Absolutely. Are the the Pepsi challenge. You know, everyone likes the taste of Pepsi better when their blindfold is on. But as soon as you introduce the brand of Coke now they want to buy Coke. It’s a paradox, but it’s because we’re really complicated people. And what we say will do has very little bearing on what we will do.
Cindy: Absolutely. No, that’s.
Bronson: Great. Well, let me ask you a few final questions here. This has been an awesome interview. You know, Yammer has been a rocket ship. I mean, from, you know, demo ing to getting it bought by Microsoft, it’s just it’s had a huge growth curve. From the inside, what would you attribute that to? And maybe it’s something you’re doing with your team or maybe it’s something with the founders and the product itself. But what would you attribute this amazing growth to?
Cindy: So I mean, definitely starting with the founders, but continuing is the absolute dedication to usage and seeing what actually works. So our focus has been on making it better for the customers. And this is, you know, a lot of people feel like customer development or talking to customers means doing what customers ask for. I would say and Yammer customers would agree that we almost never do what customers ask for. They ask us for things all the time. We get a lot of crap for this, actually. They ask for features all the time. We almost never build those features because those features are usually not the right solution. We talk to people and we figure out a problem and we want to address that problem. But, you know, there are many, many times when customers have said, you guys need to build this and we say no. You know, we’ve avoided building toggles in the product because fundamentally people are pretty the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small company or a giant company or a tech company or a very highly regulated industry, the way people communicate is very similar. And so we we have had a dedication to reducing product complexity by not introducing these toggles. That also reduces engineering complexity, which allows us to move faster. And it really forces to focus on what’s the problem, why are people asking for this? So, you know, it’s very tempting. I think as a company, a company excuse me, as a startup, a company will come to you with $1,000,000 check and say, sure, I’ll sign if you do this thing. And that’s very tempting. That could be paying all your people for another year. But a lot of times those one offs are extremely disruptive. They could be company killers in themselves. Mm hmm. And I think I think there were some early decisions like that, you know, just a few that snuck in that we still see the repercussions of. I still hear engineers complaining about some decision that was made, you know, before I got there four years ago, that there’s still little bits of it in the code that we’re dealing with. So just this sense of like, what is the vision that we’re going to stick very clearly to it. We’re going to validate it very hard. We’re not going to say, here’s the vision and I don’t want to hear any contradictory, you know, anything to the contrary, we have to validate it. But once we have it, stick to it. You know, people will say, you should do this and you have to ignore that. You’ve got to or you have to find out why they’re asking for it and then figure out is that the right solution. And, you know, when I first joined, that was a lot of my job is just going back to customers and saying, here’s why we didn’t build this. We aren’t listening. Don’t stop telling us stuff, but we’re not going to build this thing you asked for. We’re never going to build it. And here’s why. And we did know that there’s a problem and here’s how we’re trying to address that problem.
Bronson: Yeah, I love the way you see customer development because I’m a visionary. Like I have my view of the world that I want to achieve and customer development can feel like, Oh, but now I have to be a slave to 100 people with 100 opinions. But the way you’re seeing it is that they empower me to just pick the right vision, even though none of them had the vision. It seems much more appealing the way you package customer development.
Cindy: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of criticism around Bay Area startups, especially around solving problems that only 23 year old unmarried founders have. And, you know, there’s a lot of truth to that. And if you are that person, you could say this would be perfect. I absolutely need an app helping me find out what my ten friends are doing on a Friday night. Mm hmm. And like to me, I laugh because, you know, I’m a little bit older than that. I’ve been around a little longer, and I’m like, you know, you realize that once you’re, you know, 30 something and you have kids, that this is not the core problem you’re solving.
Bronson: Yeah. Friday night is just like Monday.
Cindy: Night, but it’s not the same thing. So you have this vision. It sounds amazing. And you talk to people and you’re like, Oh, I guess my vision only worked for this slice of people. And sometimes that’s okay. Mm hmm. There are certainly apps that only work for this slice of people, and you just. That’s your customer base, and you go after it. But that also can help as well, because it may mean let’s not build out a giant engineering team because this is going to be a small app for this kind of person. We’re not going to market to the masses. We’re going to market to this kind of person. Mm hmm. You know, so it’s not killing your vision is not diluting it. It’s really sharpening it so that it can expand. Yeah.
Bronson: No, that’s right. All right. Last question. I asked this to all the guests at the very end. It might be something already covered or might be something new. But what’s the best advice you have for any startup that’s trying to grow?
Cindy: Keep your focus on validating. It is very, very tempting once you start seeing success to just say we’re going to keep going for this. And, you know, our our our CTO, Adam Tassone has this great chart with arrows. And he says, you know, you start off one way in the arrows going this way. But he’s like, you don’t know where the target is. The target could be here or it could be here or here or here. Is it going? If you just keep going on this arrow and the target is moved, you’re going to miss. It’s like you go a little bit and then you do a little bit and then you do a little bit. And you do a little bit. You’re going to hit it and you’re not going to have these massive misses. You’ll have little course corrections. But, you know, that’s incredibly, much easier than if you’ve spent six months engineering something and it’s completely wrong. Not only have you wasted that time in which moralizing, you know, superseded you, you wasted money. And frankly, everyone on the team is just demoralized. Now you’ve got a group of really smart people who work really hard, who are just like, Oh, yeah, start over. And doing that is I that’s almost worse than the money hit because you just recovering from that kind of morale hits terrible and it kills start ups.
Bronson: You know, you’re right. Momentum is this unsung hero. If you can ride momentum, you can get more done in a day than other people can. It’s it’s this magical thing. And you’re right. Not validating is actually a momentum killer. So it’s this kind of double whammy of bad stuff when we stop validating.
Cindy: Absolutely. You know, and it feels like it can feel like, oh, I’m not building anymore. It’s slowing me down. But what it’s really doing is preventing you from, you know, going completely off the course and not finishing.
Bronson: And it may be hard to not build because you want to do something, but it’s harder to build the wrong thing for six months. And we just the two side by side one is an obvious choice. You just got to be patient and do things a little differently.
Bronson: Well, certainly this has been an awesome interview. There’s so much in here that people are going to pull out and I hope they really think about the things you’ve said because there’s two or three insights in here that are really important. So, Cyndi, again, thanks for coming on growth narrative.
Cindy: Thank you.
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