Letting Product Strategy Drive Your Roadmap with Vistaly CEO, Matt O'Connell

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This edition features Matt O'Connell (Vistaly). The full video recording is here 👇🏼

Or read the transcript of some of the highlights:

Question: How did we get here? So many teams are in the same position, and a lot of designers, developers, and product managers are feeling like they're not really empowered. Why is that such a common failure mode of product teams?

Matt: "Yeah, several reasons that you can end up I think a lot of it is well intentioned. You have a lot of people who kind of understand the problem well enough. And you immediately want to jump to solutions like. This is going to solve that problem. Or maybe this will.

And you start to get into this game of. All right. Well. If we just start building a lot of things. The first ideas that come to our mind. Maybe you have a pet project from someone on the C suite. Or maybe something that your most recent customer was complaining about sparked an idea. If you just start throwing all those ideas into a backlog and then just systematically trying to prioritize it and knock them off one at a time, you're going to end up in this space where you're just shipping fees, features, and you're trying to create efficiencies around, how do we just ship features faster?

But the question there is, like, are you really solving your customers problems or are you creating business value?"

Question: You'd mentioned listening to the customers. That doesn't sound so bad. What's so bad about just listening to your customers?

Matt: "You're saying, like, listening to, hey, I would really like you to build this thing for me. Is that what you're saying? Yeah. Okay. Yeah. So there's a couple of things there.

Often I think you'd be surprised when you come up with ideas and solutions. You think that's the right way to approach it. Oftentimes we're wrong. Your ideas might be wrong. Your customers ideas, they may be wrong. However, they're rooted in truths, right? So people think that this will solve their problem.

But if you start to work backwards a little bit and start to uncover, why do you think that this solution will solve that problem? You start to really build a clear picture around what you want to do.

Also, you run into this problem where if you're building what a specific customers are asking for, you're building for that customer. So you want to look across the board at more than just small little pockets of your user base and try to identify solutions that are going to solve more problems for more of your customers."

Steve: "Yeah. So you're saying, hey, if you don't take a step back, you might end up with this product. That you got a lot of features that work really well for maybe that customer that requested it and that customer that requested it."

Question: What does good look like? What are the best companies doing?

Matt: "So we'll take a look at, like, one scenario. So focusing on outcomes, you might hear that a lot. Outcomes over output. What does that mean? Well, it means let's focus on the change that we're trying to to create, the change in either human behavior or the positive change for the business that you're trying to create. And by starting there, you can pragmatically walk your way closer to solutions that will work for you. And that comes by pulling some of your data from your systems, studying user behavior usage patterns, and talking to your customers, like actually asking them, hey, describe this pain point for me a little more. Why is this a pain point for you? And really starting to build this mental model around your users that you can work with.

Yes. It sounds like you're describing, instead of just focusing on the outputs, how much are we shipping? Starting to think about it more from this perspective of what are the outcomes that we want to drive? Right? Yeah. And that's like, one of the things if you're measuring these kind of proxy metrics, this idea of we shipped 32 features this month. Okay, great, cool. But how much value did you create this month by just focusing on how much work you're doing? That does not immediately convert into value. So shifting that focus, it can be hard to do, but shifting that focus towards what is the value that we can create? Is an important one."

Steve: "Right? Yeah, that totally resonates.

And I feel like one thing that's indicative of that is a lot of times product teams can't even really articulate, is what we shipped successful? Because I think a lot of times people feel like, oh yeah, we got it out on time. It's successful, but that's not the right way of looking at it."

Matt: "Yeah. And then just one more quick thing to add on to that. So shipping and then moving on is, I think, another problem. Right. So you ship, your users are going to be using those new features or those new products, but is it working? So we need the space to be able to take a look at that.

Let a little bit of time past talk to our users users about it. And iterate if you're continuously moving on to the next feature without reflecting on the one that you just shipped, you may not have created enough value for that feature to even be valuable."

Question: So we're going to move from this output driven approach to this outcome driven approach. Talk to me about outcomes. Like, what are the different kinds of outcomes? Like, what does it even mean to think about starting from an outcome perspective?

Matt: "So one of the popular frameworks out there is OKRs. Teams will set those and then start to innovate from there. We'll talk about the outcome part... that's like the actual key result... it's the quantitative measurement of change.

So what you're going to see often is business style outcomes. Those are the let's increase acquisitions, increase conversions, increased retention, or reduce churn. Those are the big outcomes that you want to see for your business, and they demonstrate that you have traction, your customers are engaged with your product.

But the question then is like, okay, well, now what? This is solution discovery. So now you need to figure out, how do we move from this business outcome to something that's more manageable? So product outcomes is the term that you'll hear. Teresa Torres talks a lot about this. So breaking down your business outcomes into product outcomes.

So let's take conversion, for example. You want to increase conversion. Well, you need to go out there and figure out, why are our users not converting? What are the pain points? It's going to take a little bit of time, and that needs to be investigated to actually figure out what are our challenges around conversion. You may find out that there's a very critical workflow that users are falling off when they start to engage with it. So maybe a product outcome could be, how do we reduce the time it takes and friction that is there to complete that workflow. Now, that's something that a product team can work with. They can start to interview their customers, figure out how are you importing data and all that stuff.

But you can work with it to figure out how to reduce that time. And reasonably, you should believe that, okay, if that workflow is optimized now and we hit that product outcome, that should reasonably ladder up into your business outcome."

Question: Do you think about it like, oh, executives talk about what the important business outcomes are for the year, and product teams think about, okay, what are the product outcomes that are certainly there's probably some amount of a leap of faith you need to take that these product outcomes will affect that business outcome. But do product teams determine what the right product outcomes are?

Matt: "Yeah, that's a fantastic question, and I see that play out very differently across multiple different companies. So I'll share my take on this. I want to see product teams come up with and own the product outcomes. I think business teams prioritize the business once it makes sense. But the teams, the engineers, designers, and product managers, the people that are out there in the weeds day to day innovating on this product, are going to be able to not only identify and come up with better product outcomes, but they're the ones that are delivering on them. So if they can have ownership over those product outcomes, I think that's a very valuable way to deliver on them."

Question: It's hard to talk to users that often. Can't I just survey people? Or why do I have to spend time of lining up customer calls, getting the whole team to be there for them.

Matt: "Getting everybody together, like your engineering lead or your designer on a call with a customer helps them One sympathize with your customer and the pain points, but Two you hear it directly from them. You're hearing how they're talking about their challenges and their pain points, and you get off the call and you're just really excited.

Every time that we do this, I get together with my co founders, and it's like, oh, my gosh, did you hear that? And you start going back and forth, and that's where some of the best ideas and then you start to not only ideas, but what do we want to learn next? Those kind of questions start coming up. You start thinking through, like, we can test this or that. It's being really agile, and it's fun, right?"

Steve: "Yeah. Another thing, and I think the Mom Test book by Rob Fitzpatrick, which I haven't read, which is probably a cardinal sin for someone who works in Product, I think there's this idea that, like, you know, when you ask people about their behavior or what they find important, they'll often answer in a way that reinforces their identity or this or that. But it's easy for people when you're not talking to them about a specific time they did something that they don't actually give you a truthful answer or they give you the answer that they think sounds good or something they aspire to."

Question: It truly is a lot of time and effort coordinating customer interviews. Do you have any tips on just ways to make it easier?

Matt: "Yeah, I certainly think there are ways that you can make it easier. Also, I think that this is our job. Like we need to to go out there and understand our customers. We need to find ways to create space to do that within our businesses and our teams so that we can learn more about what will solve their problems. So interview automation is like one of the hot topics in the CDH space. How do we automate our interviews? Some people embed links in their applications for calendars like, hey, sign up if you want to help us improve the experience.

And you can set those up to dynamically show up based on availability. That's a pretty automated workflow, right? So you may say like, okay, well, we want three in one week and that's our max. And then once you get those three, it closes. Just some quick tips on doing this. Do not allow them to schedule really far out in advance. You'll get more no shows. So try to keep it really tight like in the next few days.

This is a really easy way to get users to re engage with you that want to provide feedback and just set up a more natural cadence."

Steve: "Yeah, love that it's one of those it's tough, but if you want to be a bodybuilder, you got to lift heavy weights every day. And this is the same thing. Like, if you want to be a PM and do a good job of really knowing your customers, you just got to put in the reps. And there's there's some things you can do and some processes that can make it easier. But it's the job. It's the job."

Question: It kind of begs the question, we go through this process, we've come up with this big tree of opportunities that all funnel up to our outcomes. How do we then go about deciding, OK, which ones do we do next? Which ones are most important? How do I think about where to start once I have that whole thing?

Matt: "Yeah, so this is something I hear a lot. It's like this thing is big. Like, some of these trees, they get like 500, 600, we call nodes in Vistaly, but they get really big and it's just like, whoa, what do we do? The way that you do it is you start focusing on your most important opportunities. So you prioritize at a very high level. You prioritize with your top level opportunities. You're not going to spend time with the opportunities that are lower.

So don't focus on further down the tree or further down in your tree that are prioritized lower. But then you take another step closer to your solutions and you keep focusing on the most important opportunities as you walk your way down and then as you start solving those opportunities. Now you have this mapped out tree. It's fantastic because then what you can do is go right back to the tree after you saw that. You don't have to go back to the team, be like, all right, what's next? It's all mapped out. You know what the next most important opportunity is."

Steve: "This is one of the things that kind of strikes me is it's a little bit part science and you can use frameworks to help you determine which thing you should start with. But I think ultimately there is some amount of just being not super scientific and, yeah, it's a little it's messy. It's hard to quantify with a single number, like, but how painful is this to customers? Like, there is some amount of intuition there, right? Yeah. I think one of the things here to talk about this, and I love it, it's embrace the messiness, this whole process of prioritizing and sorting the opportunity space, it's going to be messy. There's going to be subjective and objective components to it."

Question: So this is from Teddy. I've seen endless discussions to set yearly OKRs, only to have everyone forget about them during the year until it's time to evaluate how close the team came to hitting them. How are the best teams staying aligned and focused on OKRs throughout the year?

Matt: "Yeah, that's something that I hear quite often with setting and forgetting. Right. So we just go through the process of setting our OKRs for the sake of doing it and then not really leverage it throughout the year. It's kind of challenging, right? Because things come up. There's always fires.

There's always, like, operational work that comes up. So teams tend to get distracted. I mean, if you have too many OKRs that could be a sign of, like, setting and forgetting cuz then your like whatever. I'm just going to go focus on the most important thing. Maybe like narrowing those down, trying to create focus. But the way to do this here is you need to figure out what matters for you, which metrics really matter, monitor them. What are we doing? What are we doing every week? Take a look at what are we doing this week to improve? What are we planning in the near term, like really near term, like, next week to do to help improve that? How does the team feel about it? That's another thing too.

What is the sentiment around us hitting that? Like, monitoring that over time, I think is valuable. But yeah, you got to build it in. It's got to be part of your process and keep it continuous.

Instead of a set it, forget it mentality. Right?"

Steve: "Yeah. I think Execs should be talking about this on quarterly basis. But this isn't something that just like, the Execs should force on product teams. This is something that product teams should embrace. And when product teams are demoing things weekly, they should be talking about like, here's what we're building. And remember, here's how it [RoBoT nOisEs] layers back up to our OKRs.

And I think by doing that and getting that weekly repetition reference to the overall goals, you can build that muscle as an organization around keeping those things top of mind."

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