Season 1 - Episode 3

How to Truly Understand Customer’s Needs

This week in the product podcast, guest speaker Ankita D’Mello takes us on a journey that brought her from computer science into the product world. This less than typical path not only provides a unique perspective on the world of Product but also highlights the diversity that inhabits the product sphere. Learn what it takes to truly understand the nature of your customer.

Question [00:01:16] Have you ever wondered about how the biggest services and brands were developed when you were growing up. Did you ever consider how people interacted with either physical or digital products?

Ankita [00:01:35] I mean, the reality is probably not. I think growing you kind of just take everything for granted and then assume how the world works.

I think is probably the first time I ever thought about [that idea] was when Facebook came out when I was 15 or 16. I remember thinking how coo it was. But I think it was only much later on when I asked: why did someone actually decide this is a good idea?

I don’t think that’s a natural mentality for many people to actually try and work out why things happen the way they do [at a young age].

Question [00:03:19] Did you grow up knowing people in tech? For instance your family or friends, or any other role models?

Ankita [00:03:19] I grew up in India and then moved to Singapore, so I lived tech cities in general. So I think there was always a focus on computer science and digital work in general. But I don’t think like nobody in my family actually worked in tech. My dad was a captain on a ship so absolutely not haha.

As a kid, I still remember getting my first computer and all I wanted to do is play games on it every day. I think that was when I first thought that I wanted to do something in that kind of area. Then I started working on computer science and studying in this field.

Question [00:08:43] You joined Accenture — which is one of the world’s biggest management consultancies — as an associate software engineer. I want to know a little bit about how you found this technical role and whether it helped you in your future as a PM. Did it help you have more empathy, for example, with the tech team?

Ankita [00:09:10] So the way I see it, [the job] was definitely challenging. I think it goes back to the whole application side of things, and to actually take everything that you’ve learned, and people actually expect things to happen and you have deadlines. And you’re just thinking like, ‘oh my God, everything’s broken’.

Back to your point about having empathy and understanding what engineers actually go through, I think that has played a huge part in shaping who I am as a product manager. Even though I’m not an engineer and I haven’t done actual engineering for a long time. But the reality is having a broad understanding of what it’s actually like to be in that role definitely helps.

There’s a fine line because you don’t want to overstep the boundary dictate what the engineering team is doing. It’s very helpful when you can speak the same language to an extent that people know how difficult it is to do something.

[00:10:42] There’s always that healthy tension between Product and Engineering. In some ways, Engineering sometimes sees Product as people who just think of all these crazy unicorn ideas. And then Product thinks that Engineers just say no to everything.

So even though it’s a healthy tension, having that [engineering] background has helped to ease that tension and make it a much healthier relationship. It’s a sense of mutual respect because they understand that you can get what they’re saying to a degree that’s quite technical.

Question [00:11:57] Your next role was in business analysis. Would you say that this early immersion into market and user needs, paved the way for product management tasks? Did it help you in any way?

[00:12:39] I think so. There are so many different routes into Product Management, and I came from an engineering side and I could have gone straight into product. But I think I would have probably had a very technical lens, which I think can also limit yourself to become a bit like the engineering team.

You need to strip that away in product, because you do need to think of the impossible; you need to pretend that there are no boundaries. Coming from a technical background can sometimes block that in your brain because you’re automatically thinking of solutions. So doing the business analysis role was really helpful because I actually got a different side of how people enter into product, and operate in a product environment.

I think the most important thing [with this role] was understanding how to measure things, because I’d never done that before, and that’s obviously a very critical part of being in product management. It’s not just throwing something out there and say, “OK, cool, onto the next”. You need to prove that what you’ve done has actually made a difference; that’s the whole point of it. And the truth is, it can be a good difference or it can be a bad difference. But you do need to dedicate the time to actually work out what’s going on and what’s happened. So I think that was really important.

Question [00:14:38]Afterwards you switched to project management. What would you say are the intersections and the differences between project and product management?

Ankita [00:15:36] So I think it’s probably one of the hardest questions. They’re completely different, in terms of project management and product management; they’re just two completely different tasks. It’s probably only been in the last 10 years or so that product is even a thing, and it’s mostly in newer companies that have it.

The reality is people who do know what both are, the overlap comes with managing the roadmap. That’s the area I see that’s a bit more project management than product, if that makes sense. 

Question [00:37:19] What about the challenges of managing a product that is based on subscriptions as opposed to other models? How does a PM adapt to that?

Ankita [00:37:19] I’d say probably the challenge that is different from other businesses is retention. I think with other companies you are more focused around conversion, but with subscription, the biggest thing is being able to retain that person and make sure that they want to keep subscribing for however long.

It’s an interesting problem to have because the model is “Try, Learn, Buy”: you try the products that are in your box, you learn what’s good for you and then you buy the full size product. So if the model works really well, at some point you’d hope that people would stop subscribing, right?

So it’s a really weird problem data because I want to keep you [the customer] as a subscriber, but at the same time I want you to learn stuff; and I want you to buy stuff; and I don’t want you to keep getting sampled every month.

I think it’s something that we haven’t really worked out yet if I’m being honest. Realistically, the lifespan of our customer shouldn’t be more than six to eight months. But then how do we still keep them as a customer? Like what do we want to do? It’s something that we’ve got to work on over the next few years to really figure out how we actually get this customer to still be with us but have a different relationship with us. 

Thank you for joining us again for another episode of the product podcast. Do you have some thoughts on what we’ve talked about? We want to here from you, and you can reach us on Twitter.

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