@johncutlefish's blog

Check out Iterate.fm, my podcast with friend and coworker Tareq

Talking The Talk: 32 Conversation Prompts for Product Development Teams

Published: February 15, 2016

Topics: Learning goals. Decisions. Collaboration. Data. Experimentation. Personal passions. And respect for diverse viewpoints.

1 h fQGOKu14ZeE5Od7e4o4g Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation (circa 1935)I’ve noticed over the years that diverse teams that communicate clearly, honestly, and respectfully will always beat homogenous teams that struggle with a lack of focus, trust issues, and silencing minority viewpoints. We look for quick fixes — a new methodology, a new process, a new structure — when our biggest challenge is creating a safe environment for sharing diverse viewpoints. And then, literally, learning how to communicate in those settings. (I speak more about this in my post To Experiment Is Human. Reality is a **cker. And The Law Of Two Feet)

What do high-performing product development teams sound like? What do they talk about? How do they stay so focused?

For a while now I’ve wanted to create a deck of cards teams could use to learn to communicate more effectively in software product development team settings. There is a lot of material out there to help teams collaborate and communicate more generally, but I wanted to focus in on common product development situations.

1 8n B9T5qiH zx6RKOivOTg

So here’s the first iteration …

Tips For Facilitators

  • Print the prompts and examples on card stock and make your own cards (much cheaper than Avery index card labels)
  • Create a safe space that is friendly to curiosity, passion, and empathy. Set the scene by reminding participants that there are no stupid answers
  • Scope the discussion. Pick a specific product development effort
  • Underscore that as a team you’re practicing patterns that can be applied in new settings. So there is a specific application — the effort at hand — and more general applications
  • Use the cards as you see fit: team members can pick from the top, work as groups on a set of cards, get dealt cards, “pass the trash” to get answers from other people, etc.

    Tips For Team Members

Be specific whenever possible. Relate things to your observations, your experience, your perspectives, and your needs. Be in the present. Discuss the current situation and decisions at hand. Be honest with your intentions. Stay curious.

When in doubt, remember the STATE acronym (from Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High):

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for others’ paths
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

    The Prompts

And here they are … to be improved, but “in print”

I’m concerned that if we ________, we may miss the opportunity to ________.

Example: I’m concerned that if we spend too long deliberating over the behavior of the page filter, we may miss the opportunity to test early with customers.

To feel more confident about our decision to ________, I would like to observe ________

Example: To feel more confident about our decision to add steps to the workflow, I would like to observe more customers completing the existing workflow

My primary reason for advocating for ________ is that I care deeply about ________

Example: My primary reason for advocating for the enhanced error messaging is that I care deeply about the user experience, and preventing customer frustration

A missing voice here is the voice of ________. This will heavily impact** ________.** We should explore ________ perspective

Example: A missing voice here is the voice of Roger from customer success. This will heavily impact** him and the customers he works with by saddling them with a difficult to use feature.** We should explore his perspective

I feel strongly that if we ________ it will negatively impact ________ by ________

Example: I feel strongly that if we release without IE support it will negatively impact our less technically savvy customers by introducing a painful user experience

In my opinion, learning more about** ________** would have the greatest impact on focusing the team

Example: In my opinion, learning more about** the customer mental model for organizing their scheduled meetings** would have the greatest impact on focusing the team

One way to test this “in the wild” (with live customers and their data) would be to ________. By capturing data on ________ **we could decide whether to **________.

Example: One way to test this “in the wild” (with live customers and their data) would be to create a feature toggle and show a small % of our customers the new functionality. By capturing data on column sorting behavior we could decide whether to optimize our queries.

Before adding ________ I’d like to learn more about ________ so that I can decide ________

Example: Before adding a new API endpoint I’d like to learn more about any potential customer security concerns so that I can decide whether to anonymize visitor data in the response

The most valuable learning we could take from this project and leverage in other areas of the product would be the fact that ________. An immediate application of that learning would be to ________.

Example: The most valuable learning we could take from this project and leverage in other areas of the product would be the fact that our users select system roles that are far out of alignment with their actual “real world” roles. An immediate application of that learning would be to try to survey our users to capture their “real world” roles.

A blindspot in our current understanding is whether ________. **To learn more about this we could **________ and observe ________.

Example: A blindspot in our current understanding is whether our customers really need XLS export instead of a simple CSV export. **To learn more about this we could **add a dummy option for XLS export to the existing menu and observe how many people select it who previously were not using our CSV export option.

A signal that would serve as a leading indicator of success in this situation would be that we noticed ________. As things ramped up I’d expect to see ________, with data indicating a ________.

Example: A signal that would serve as a leading indicator of success in this situation would be that we noticed more users exploring and testing the new Appointments tab. As things ramped up I’d expect to see a small set of users adopt the auto-scheduler, with data indicating a shift of between 80–100% of their appointments away from manual scheduling.

In the past I have observed that ________. This impacts my current point of view on our decision to ________

Example: In the past I have observed that our customers have very different behaviors when visiting our app from a mobile device **. This impacts my current point of view on our decision to **expand the primary navigation with more items

At the end of the day, I’d really like to say that I ________. That’s the personal contribution I care most about. As a team, I’d hope we’d ________ with data showing ________.

Example: At the end of the day, I’d really like to say that I got the endless scroll working smoothly. That’s the personal contribution I care most about. As a team, I’d hope we’d make the whole feed experience more user-friendly with data showing increased repeat engagement.

The next important decision I need to make is to decide whether to ________, or to ________

Example: The next important decision I need to make is to decide whether to spend more time optimizing page load time, or to move on to refactoring the image resizing logic

I primarily want to contribute by ________. I’d prefer to be less involved with** ________**

Example: I primarily want to contribute by listening in on some customer interviews. I’d prefer to be less involved with** observing usability testing**

While I trust Amira to decide ________, I think that decision would benefit from us having more data about ________ **because ________**

Example: While I trust Amira to decide whether to continue iterating on the address book, I think that decision would benefit from us having more data about current usage among power users **because power users have many more contacts**

I could contribute more if I understood exactly why ________ are advocating for ________

Example: I could contribute more if I understood exactly why Dan and Trish are advocating for the inclusion of trial customers in the on-boarding experiment

From my perspective, the riskiest assumption we are making at the moment is ________. If we’re wrong, that will impact us by ________.

Example: From my perspective, the riskiest assumption we are making at the moment is that users will recommend the service so quickly. If we’re wrong, that will impact us by making it difficult to hit our user acquisition targets.

It feels as if the greatest tension here is between ________ and ________

Example: It feels as if the greatest tension here is between shipping early to meet the end of quarter sales objective and spending more time on enhancing the feature to please existing customers

The area we have the hardest time establishing a shared understanding around is whether our** ________** need to** ________** in order for them to ________

Example: The area we have the hardest time establishing a shared understanding around is whether our** customers** need to** have access to the edit history** in order for them to find value in the proposed MVP

An example of something I care deeply about is ________. While I respect those that do care about ________, I don’t find myself caring as much about those things.

Example: An example of something I care deeply about is the extensibility of our code. While I respect those that do care about the use of micro-interactions and new UI patterns, I don’t find myself caring as much about those things.

By spending less time focusing on ________ and more time focusing on ________ I think we could ________

Example: By spending less time focusing on supporting different payment types and more time focusing on the speed of payment processing I think we could improve the current user experience without adding undue complexity

I’d be comfortable having ________ decide ________ provided I could ________

Example: I’d be comfortable having Parrisa decide whether we switch reporting frameworks provided I could attend a meeting with the options clearly described including benefits and risks

With the support of the team, I’d like to spend some time exploring ________, so that we can better decide ________

Example: With the support of the team, I’d like to spend some time exploring how competitors have solved this problem, so that we can better decide how to add some low-hanging fruit differentiation

One way to get out of our own heads here would be to ________

Example: One way to get out of our own heads here would be to test the three options with customers at the conference tomorrow

Spending too much time on ________, and not enough time ________, might result in us ________

Example: Spending too much time on refining the information architecture of the dashboard, and not enough time improving the dashboard widgets, might result in us failing to add real value with the new set of charts

I’d be confident that we were on track if I observed ________ within the next ________

Example: I’d be confident that we were on track if I observed a large increase in the use of account tagging functionality within the next two weeks

One decision we could safely defer now is ________. A decision we should make earlier rather than later is if we will ________.

Example: One decision we could safely defer now is whether we use a noSQL datastore. A decision we should make earlier rather than later is if we will support custom fields.

Playing devil’s advocate, I’m not sure we are taking ________ into consideration. A benefit of focusing there might be that we could avoid ________.

Example: Playing devil’s advocate, I’m not sure we are taking seasonal differences in feature usage into consideration. A benefit of focusing there might be that we could avoid making UI enhancements based solely on behavior at the end of Q4.

The personal experience that is most driving my intuition here is** ________** with a ________ **in the **________ domain.** My greatest learning from that prior experience was that we should consider ________**

Example: The personal experience that is most driving my intuition here is** the time I attempted to nudge users to use tags instead of folders** with a B2B SaaS product **in the **advertising domain.** My greatest learning from that prior experience was that we should consider the mental models of our less tech-forward users**

I would happily pay ________ right now if I could see more data about ________. This would help inform how ________

Example: I would happily pay $1000 right now if I could see more data about customer search behavior and its impact on time in-app. This would help inform how we might define success for this initiative. Are we trying to increase or decrease time in-app ?

Our most valuable learning to date is that ________ . We can leverage this learning now by ________

Example: Our most valuable learning to date is that customers rarely check their email for feature updates . We can leverage this learning now by trying some different ways to present update notifications in-app