Product development has a people problemPath 2

Product development has a people problem

by Sushma Zoellner

September 26, 2019

Representation matters, in our elected leaders, our workplaces, and on our screens. But what about the people that work on those screens, behind the scenes? Billions of people use digital products made by teams a fraction of the size. These teams have a huge responsibility to ensure that their users are being represented—is your team up to the task?

Think about your product team. Who are your product managers? Your engineers? What background do they have? What sorts of schools did they go to? How old are they? Chances are your team looks at least a little different than your user base. While some disparity is expected, if these differences aren't acknowledged, you may be building in bias.

It is not a new thought that diversity breeds excellence. It's also not a new discovery that the tech industry doesn't reflect the world at large. There are many, many articles about the need for tech to diversify and far fewer about how you actually achieve that from a hiring perspective. While I don't have the secret to hiring a perfectly representative product team, I do have some keys to using the team you have to build the best products for your users.

At H-E-B, our user base is Texas. We have millions of shoppers across the state, which is as diverse as it is large. We serve this diverse customer base with a diverse talent base, but even with 116,000 employees, we can't claim to have one employee for every possible Texan. What we can claim is to have respect for every possible Texan, and to work tirelessly to ensure that their voices are heard.

Just as we stock our stores to reflect the needs of the unique communities they serve, we’re building our digital products to reflect the needs of our unique digital users. And that starts by discovering what those needs are.

One way we do this discovery is by talking to real customers. We recently sent a team on the road to understand how even tech-reluctant customers could find value in our mobile app. Our product managers and designers sat down with customers from Waco to McAllen to learn from a cohort that wasn't using the app to order groceries—what some companies would consider a non-primary user, if they considered them at all. By putting a beta version of the app in front of these customers, we were able to incorporate their feedback and ensure we were designing for—and respecting—the way they shop.

It was crucial that our team get to know real customers, but to make that trip a success it was crucial that we had first gotten to know our team. At H-E-B, we value getting to know our employees as people, and try to staff our teams with a mix of different backgrounds and experience levels. The team that went on the road, for example, has a product designer with agency experience, a product manager from the world of enterprise software, and a director who worked at a retail B2C. 

This diversity of experience with different types of customer is just as important as diversity in personal background. Each person has their own perspective shaped by their experience, and can use it to test the assumptions of the others. It is this questioning of assumptions, the constant checking in to see if the solution actually solves the need, that product teams need to engage in to ensure every variation of their customer is represented. So go grab your team and get questioning!

Sushma Zoellner is Senior Director of Product at H-E-B. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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