Product Probes

3 min readJan 30, 2021

Recently, I was having a conversation with a bunch of Product management enthusiasts/ Practitioners and one of the discussion points was the identification of customer needs. We all know that at any given time, the focus should be on what users need over what users want. For this, we need insights from the customers (or users) and not assume the asks.

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Similar to the 5 Rights of Medication Administration that results in the desired outcomes for the health, the Product Manager should get 5 things right. The below 5 rights of Product Management slightly differ from the run of the mill definitions of the 5Ws and 1H. But they arm the Product manager to create the perfect experience for the users.

  • Right Problem (Why)
  • Right Users/ Customers (Who)
  • Right Probes (Where/ What)
  • Right Time (When)
  • Right Team (How)

For a product to be valuable and useful, the product managers often should be capable of knowing the unspoken needs — they say. Unless the Product managers know what the customers truly need, prioritization becomes a monotonous routine. So, how does one identify what the customers really think and need? How does one filter the wants from needs?!

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Conversations with customers can provide the details right to a good extent. These could be all it takes to satisfy the requirements. But, the conversations could just be scratching the surface in some cases. To be able to provide delightful experiences, it might need much more than that. This is where Product Probes (as I call them) come in. The idea is to employ other methods to observe and be hands-on with the needs of the customer rather than being perceptive or just being a Yes — (wo)man Product Manager.

Probe (verb)

to try to discover information that other people do not want you to know, by asking questions carefully and not directly.

Here are 3 ways to probe and understand customer needs. These were earlier used in different contexts by different professions but they are quite applicable as Product probes.

Once used by user experience designers, the shadowing technique is very useful for the product managers as well. When users are working with the product in their natural environment, it helps observe them as they navigate through the intricacies. Active observation is the main ingredient here while asking Probing questions periodically to determine if the intended use and the actual use are matching. This technique also helps in looking at the product from the customer’s eyes and why a certain thing is that way.

The Apprentice technique helps bring unrealized problems to the surface. This can help in finding the real problem at hand that needs addressing instead of the focus being placed elsewhere on the symptoms. By performing the actual work, one can understand the nitty-gritty that is not generally discussed.

In one of my earlier experiences, we used to have monthly meetings with user groups and talk them through the feature roadmaps. At the same meeting, we used to discuss the problems that they are facing in the existing product. All of these used to form the consolidated list of requirements that used to be shared with the user group again. The representative user group ranks the problems and the priorities are set based on that. This proved to be a pretty effective practice.

A product manager always lives in an Attention economy and if S/he aspire to be an adjective in the space, they better be equipped to handle the unspoken needs.