Product to Product: Rocketship.FM’s Mike Belsito & Michael Sacca on understanding users better

Product to Product - Mike Belsito and Michael Sacca

Surprise! It’s a bonus episode of Product to Product‘s second season, a podcast for / by product people!

Listen to the episode below:

As we continue to explore the human side of product this season, we’ve paired up with Mike Belsito and Michael Sacca (same first name!), the hosts of Rocketship.FM, for this episode.

Rocketship is a podcast that dives into everything from product to growth, design to management and everything in between. This past season on Rocketship, the entire season was devoted to product and growth. And one of the topics Mike and Michael did a deep-dive into were the tools product people apply to understand their users better—specifically user personas and jobs to be done.

Since Mike and Michael did so much research on the topics, and interviewed a bunch of people using these frameworks, they shared their insights into what they learned from the episodes. Our colleague, Eleni, picked their brains on what differentiates these two frameworks, how to apply these concepts, and why jobs to be done has become the popular tool on the block.

The episode can be listened to above, and we’ve also included a transcript below. You can subscribe to Product to Product on iTunes (here) and Google Play (here), or get the latest episodes delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.

Eleni: Mike and Michael, thanks so much for being here, I’m really looking forward to chatting. How’s it going?

Mike: It’s going great on my end for sure. This is Mike.

Michael: Fantastic, this is Michael Sacca.

Eleni: I was saying before we started this chat that I have personally never interviewed two people with the same name at the same time so we will see how this goes!

Mike: I was pushing for Sacca and Belsito but..

Eleni: Right? For anyone here who is not familiar with you guys, can you both just take a second, introduce yourselves and tell us what you do?

Mike: Sure, my name is Mike Belsito and I’m the co-founder of Product Collective, which is really a community for product people. We have 15,000 product people from all over, mostly on the software side. But we have a newsletter, we do webinars often. We have a very active Slack channel, several thousand product people in that. We have a conference that we put on twice a year called Industry the Product Conference. It takes place in Cleveland, Ohio in the fall and in Europe—Dublin, Ireland—in the Spring.

With Michael, I also co-host Rocketship, which I joined a couple years ago, but it’s been something that Michael’s run for several years now.

Michael: Yeah, I co-host Rocketship with Mike and we’ve been doing Rocketship going on four years now and almost over 300 episodes. I also am the Director of Business Development and Marketing at Dribbble, which is one of the largest design communities online.

Eleni: I know the most recent season on Rocketship, you’re focusing all about product and growth. Why was now the moment to make that your focus?

Michael: It just felt nice to focus in on a topic that’s really essential for any entrepreneur. It’s a growing topic in our industry where we have this position of product management, which sits right under the CEO often, and yet there’s no formal education for it and a lot of people have questions about it. Mike has been razor focused in this area for the last couple of years. It just felt like we had some expertise in this department, why not buckle down on it?

Eleni: Yeah, I feel like product, regardless of what department you’re in, there’s value in learning more about product. Even if you’re a marketer, if you’re a sales person, the more that you understand that function, the better you’re probably going to be at your job.

Mike: Yeah, and a lot of the listeners of Rocketship in the past have been entrepreneurs. When I first met Michael, I was an entrepreneur. I’ve kind of been the entrepreneur from the founder’s side and the early stage executive side too. The realization for me after the fact, entrepreneurs, whether they think of themselves as this or not, they’re product people. I actually think the evolution from being entrepreneur-focused to product-focused, it’s actually a pretty natural one.

Eleni: For sure. I feel like so many entrepreneurs are like, “I didn’t realize I was a product person,” until recently when they’ve been doing that work for a decade.

Mike: It’s definitely the camp I was in.

Eleni: So the focus we want to have for this interview is talking to you guys about a few of your recent episodes, which were centered around user personas and the jobs to be done framework. These are two different tools product people might use to understand their users better. I’m wondering if you can start by telling us what is a user persona. Why do product people use these?

Mike: Sure, for me, a user persona is really defining as deep as you can with a picture, name and everything, who you’re actually serving. Sometimes we as product people and entrepreneurs, we might have a product and we might think it applies to so many groups. But really at the end of the day there’s probably a couple of very specific use cases that your product is extremely relevant for and is really even designed for.

"If you’re making big product decisions based on personas, you’re probably going to miss a lot."

So user personas, you’re not only saying, “Hey this is designed for a product market.” Or “No, it’s designed for this product marketer who actually has 40 years of experience working at a software company and is working at a mid-sized company, but is often really confused about how to approach marketing.” You can go on and on. You give this person a name, maybe you even give this person a face. You might tear out a magazine or find it online, but this user persona becomes a real person that you’re actually developing a product for.

We did go in to a whole episode that was related to personas, which was fun and we’ll get into here, but when I think of personas, that’s what comes to mind. Michael, what am I missing?

Michael: I think it’s putting a generic face to the person that you’re building for and that’s why user personas have a wide variety of usage—which obviously we’ll get into. But the important part of personas is how do we humanize the people that are using our product when we can’t see them.

Eleni: Can you take us into your episode? Michael, why don’t you tell us about what you guys covered in your particular episode on user personas.

Michael: We wanted to go deeper into what a user persona is. Mike actually went out and we identified three different user personas that we wanted to try to highlight. We found these descriptions that real companies use of how they wrote their user persona. Mike went and tried to find this person in real life and interview them. See what actually motivated them; see what they were actually like in person and how accurate this description was.

The whole episode is basically contrasting the generic description of who they’re building for with the real person who is a gym owner, and what are their anxieties, what are their worries and what do they look for in a product like the one that was being sold.

Eleni: How did these people feel when you confronted them with their persona? I can imagine someone being resistant to the concept that they could be bottled down to this profile.

Mike: Actually, I think both of the folks that we talked to, they had fun with it, to realize, “Hey now I know what a persona is. Wait, somebody’s actually using me as a persona?” Here’s the thing, both of them had critical feedback for whoever it was that created that persona to begin with. I think that’s a cool thing. If we could think of creating these personas, then you literally ask the persona for feedback on how you could make it better. We should all be so lucky if our personas could literally tell us how to better define them and how to think a little more about making the perfect persona. 

Both of the people we talked to had a lot of fun with it. It made them think about how might I use even this exact approach in going about their own day-to-day business. I will say a couple of things that came to mind for me in both cases. One thing that stands out that I think is worth mentioning here is the personal side of things. Both of those personas that we used, one was for a gym owner, the other was for a VP of marketing at a high-growth software company. When we talked to both of them, they felt like their personal lives actually should be part of the persona because that has a big impact on some of the decisions that they’re making.

"User persona: I use it with my team to humanize the product that we are building for people."

Professional decisions people make, it’s not necessarily a hole in a vacuum. For instance, that gym owner, she said, “Hey look, I do have a family. If somebody is trying to market to me, or if somebody is trying to create a product that’s for me, I might have different needs than somebody that is a gym owner and this is the only thing involved in their life.” Maybe building in some of those personal characteristics into the persona might be more important than people might think.

Eleni: Good marketing connects with people on a personal and human level so I think, like you said Michael, just humanizing someone via a persona gives that much more color when you’re working on your marketing or your product. What are some of the other benefits of creating user personas for product people?

Michael: We hear about people like Bezos who put a chair in the room right when they’re making product decisions and I think personas can also serve as that reminder of who we’re building for. I have design teams ask, “Who is the customer here? Who am I designing for?” I think it helps as that reminder of is this appropriate for Jill, or Mark, or whoever your persona is. You can think through those product decisions that you’re making and try to put yourself in their shoes. And that was one of the points that we really wanted to illustrate with the episode was the deeper you go with these, the more useful they are because their life isn’t just staring at a screen.

I think a lot of times we write very surfaced-level user personas, but the more that we actually understand about someone’s life, the better product we can build—if user personas is one of the tools that we’re using on our product team.

Eleni: I like the idea of going back and asking for feedback. I feel like the persona usually comes out of interviews but then when the interviews over, it’s over. Whereas the idea of going back is iteratively improving it and making it deeper and deeper. I feel like there is a vibe in the air that personas have limitations and that they might be too cookie cutter. Why do you think this kind of dispute comes up? What are personas missing when someone’s saying that?

Mike: I think it’s not the end all be all, right? We shouldn’t think of user personas as some sort of magical tool where if we’re using them everything’s going to be great and it’s going to give us all the answers. It’s a tool that we can use and we should treat it like that; just like we have so many other tools that are disposable.

I can understand folks that give feedback like well okay you have a couple of personas but you have all sorts of other customers that are outside of that persona. Or most of your customers don’t fit that persona exactly correct, so what good is that? But again, I do think even though that might be the case, the fact that we are now humanizing the customer and now we can think about who we’re building product for as a real person. That alone might have implications, as we’re building product that we might not have thought about if we weren’t approaching it via something like a persona.

I think if we’re thinking about it as the end all be all and some sort of magical pill that we can take that makes everything better, we’re probably setting ourselves up for failure.

Eleni: With that in mind, how important is accuracy when it comes to the personas? 

Michael: Yeah it is, I think accuracy is incredibly important and also incredibly hard to achieve here—which is one of the downfalls of a persona. They will bring biases into it. If you do use personas heavily in your product decisions, that is going to bring biases of who creates that persona and who is that persona. That is a risk you open yourself up to because it’s not something that we intend to do. But I think that you’re leaving yourself vulnerable if you don’t use another technique along with the personas and you don’t use personas as simply a humanization exercise for your team. If you’re making big product decisions based on personas, you’re probably going to miss a lot.

Eleni: Let’s jump to jobs to be done because you also did three recent episodes covering the jobs to be done framework. For anyone who has never heard the word jobs to be done before, tell us what this is and why it’s so popular.

Mike: More than just talk about jobs to be done on the episodes, we opened it up for Product Collective and our conference Industry. We actually put it all out there and were pretty transparent and we worked with Bob Moesta, who’s one of the co-architects of the jobs to be done framework and he literally conducted jobs to be done interviews for us to show us the way.

"It’s an interrogation technique, as if you’re doing a criminal investigation."

Rewind all the way back to just jobs to be done, it’s a different approach or mindset about thinking about what a product is. Sometimes we think of a product as something that we buy, or has these features and it does this thing for us. But really the jobs to be done concept is, trying to think of a product as not just that, but it’s actually something that we’re hiring to do a specific job. Sometimes it’s not the job that one might naturally think the product was hired to do. You might say, “Whoa, gosh, an analytics platform. Oh okay, so the job we’re hiring you to do is analytics.” Maybe the job is actually job safety for you as a product person so you have data to point to.

It could be many things, but trying to figure out what those jobs are, in order to do that, you need to interview customers. So that’s where the jobs to be done interview comes in and that’s where we brought Bob in, and he basically did these interviews side by side with us for Product Collective and Industry. We were very selfish in that we figured, hey if we’re going to pick a company, let’s pick our own and let’s see if Bob can help us with these—which was just awesome.

Eleni: So walk us through that. What did you guys do together and what did he bring to the process that you didn’t have before?

Mike: It all started at our conference. It was our third annual Industry conference and Bob was one of our speakers. I remember backstage having a conversation with him and saying, “Yeah we do attend the interviews because we try to treat Industry like a product.” I never called them jobs to be done interviews because I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing when it comes to jobs to be done and he said, “What? I’ll do them with you; it’s not rocket science. If you’re up for it sometime.” I would make sure that I was never going to forget that he said that because I wanted to take him up on that later on.

Really what Bob did was he said, “Hey, why don’t you go out and find an attendee that came to Industry for the first time in 2017. Why don’t you find an attendee that has been to Industry multiple times, and let’s have a call with them. Ask them for an hour of their time and I want to be on that call and you can be on it with me, so you can hear the types of questions I’m asking. You can hear how deep I go.”

The big takeaway for me from those conversations was just that Bob went so deep with those attendees. The attendee interviews we used to do, I’d schedule them for 20 minutes because I know this is precious time and I don’t want to waste an attendee’s time. The questions as a result, got surface-level answers. But Bob went so deep and we went into that in the episode. If you listen to the episode you can see the types of questions Bob’s asking, but also not letting the attendee off the hook. If the attendee’s not really giving an answer, Bob drills into the attendee, “Okay, but really, but why did you do this, or how did you do this?” For me, that was probably the most illuminating part of the episodes that we did with Bob.

Eleni: How did he get so deep? Was it just asking the follow-ups or did he ask specific types of questions that were different from what you’ve been asking before?

Mike: He was asking more specific questions. If you’re familiar with the concept of the five why’s—not to say that Bob was implementing five why’s or asking somebody why five times to get somewhere. But if somebody was saying, “Yeah, I attended Industry because I got an email for it and I thought it sounded cool.” Maybe in the past I would have been like, “Okay, that’s great.” Then when you signed up, Bob would say, “Well wait a minute, when did you get that email? And where were you? Were you at home? Were you in bed scrolling through emails? Were you at work and it came across your computer screen? Then you got that email, did you go right to the website that day? How much time did you spend on the website? What song was on your Spotify?”

He went very deep and got very specific and I think in talking with Bob afterwards and asking, “Hey, why is that so important to go that deep?” Bob sets it up like what we’re doing is we’re sort of making a movie here, making a documentary, and we’re trying to get as much background from this person as possible so we can paint the scene. I think it’s really a combination of asking very specific questions. It’s so specific, you’re trying to get into the person’s mindset when they actually made the decision to purchase your product. Yeah, Michael, I’m probably missing things here. What would you add to that?

Michael: It’s an interrogation technique to get all the information possible, as if you’re doing a criminal investigation. He says that’s how he builds his story because a decision is never a binary decision, and even comparing different products isn’t good enough to know what you should be doing with your product. He’s looking at what was the atmosphere like around that decision. What were the key anxieties that pushed or pulled you to or from that decision?

Those are the things that he’s trying to figure out so that either you can make product changes to adapt to it, build new products to satisfy them, or change your marketing and how you’re describing things. The beauty of jobs to be done is you move away from what the person looks like, and into what the product satisfies—which there are no blind spots in that and there are no biases.

Eleni: Right. It’s almost like moving from who they are as a profile to what is in their psyche in the moment when their making the buying decision. You’re talking about this anxiety that people feel about wasting someone’s time during these interviews, or even just being too pushy. How can PM’s work that muscle to get over their anxieties about crossing some kind of line and push themselves to actually diver deeper to find the value of jobs to be done?

Mike: My take on it is, it’s a comfortability thing and sometimes it just takes doing it over and over and over again. Look, this person, they’ve already said they want to help, they’ve already said, “Yeah, I’m willing to spend time with you to help you dig in and make your product better.” Just the fact that they agreed to have the conversation with you, they’re opening themselves up and so maybe we just need, as product people, not be afraid to dig in deep with them.

For me, before I was setting the expectation, be it a 20 minute conversation, I wouldn’t want to try to take an hour of their time. I think for me now I’m trying to schedule those conversations to be longer and as long as they’re agreeing to it, I’m going to dig in deep with them. After one conversation, or actually a couple conversations, tagging along with Bob, I’m not perfect at it yet; I wouldn’t even say I’m good at it yet. The only way that I will get better at it is to just keep doing it over and over and over again. I think that’s the best way to get over that fear.

Eleni: So Mike, what did you learn from those interviews? What were the jobs that you thought Industry was being hired for, and how did that shift after you went though this process?

Mike: I will say, beforehand, the jobs that we thought, they were very surface-level. We’re like, “Well, people come to Industry to learn from the best product people, to meet other product people and to find inspiration, to do better work.” You could say those three things for any conference in any industry, period, right?

When we really started to dig in, we were learning from some people just things that we had never even known before. Bob had an in-person conversation at Industry and came to find out for this specific attendee, the only reason they came, is they were identifying analytics products to use for their company and they saw that three analytics companies were going to be exhibiting at Industry, and they thought, “You know what, we could compare all three and get demos all on the same day.” The whole conference was just a bonus to them. 

What does that mean for us? I will say one thing that we’re doing this year, and our sponsors love it, is before Industry actually takes place, we’re surveying all attendees to say, “Hey, what are the platforms you’re most interested in in getting demos with? We can help set you up one-on-one meetings at your preferred time.” So for the attendee that is in the same boat as the other attendee, where they just have multiple platforms they’re trying to evaluate, they can get their preferred time to meet. They don’t have to worry about, “Gosh there’s 10 other people trying to talk to this company.” For the sponsor, now they have a guaranteed meeting with somebody at Industry. They love that and so it’s a value-add we’re offering to them but it’s also one way of making the attendee experience better.

"I think too many times we’re pitting solutions against each other. "

Bob goes into his questions, trying to identify what are their anxieties for products that they’re trying to hire. One of the anxieties that we’ve discovered for Industry is that, when people go, they feel a responsibility—because often times, it’s a company that’s paying for their ticket to come and the flights and the hotels—about having to prove that it was all worth it when they get back to the office.

Being able to take notes, that’s something that’s on their mind. Well, one of the things that we’re going to be doing for Industry this year, and it’s not something that we’ve advertised as a feature (it’s probably going to be something we delight people with), is we’re actually hiring somebody at the conference to take notes so before the person gets back to their office, they will have a nice pdf with all the notes from the various talks that happened at Industry. They wanted to take their own notes, that’s great, but they don’t have to feel that pressure and that anxiety of having to do it because we’re going to help them, do it for them basically. We wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for these two interviews that we did with Bob.

Eleni: I feel like the things people are anxious about don’t really come out in a more surface-level ten minute survey.

Mike: That’s right.

Eleni: Okay. Let’s step back again and look at user personas and jobs to be done in tandem. Michael, maybe you can sum up for us, what are the benefits of user persona versus the benefit of jobs to be done?

Michael: User persona: I use it with my team to humanize the product that we are building for people. But beyond that I don’t make many decisions based on the user persona. For that, we turn to jobs to be done and really try to figure out what are those anxieties; what job are we actually doing for people and how can we do that better? I do use both even in every day work but I think that personas are a limited tool, and jobs really helps me to make the harder decisions.

Eleni: Okay, Mike? Anything to add?

Mike: Yeah. I think we can look at these things as tools and depending on the stage of where we’re at, focusing on one versus the other can make a lot of sense. It’s hard to have those jobs to be done interviews without really understanding who it is we’re actually serving and one way to understand that is through those personas.

Eleni: I’ve seen a couple blogs about this, that says, “User personas should be replaced by jobs to be done.” What do you say to that perspective?

Mike: To me it just feels like apples to computers. They’re two totally different things and they should both be tools that are available to us that we’re using to make our products better. I don’t think they necessarily compete with each other. I actually think if you’re using both frameworks, they compliment each other quite well.

Michael: I think too many times we’re pitting solutions against each other. There can only be one methodology alive at any given time, and it’s just not a healthy way to go about it. I think both serve very good purposes. I think they both live next to each other, and as a product manager, as just a product person, it’s just tools that you pull out when you need it. I think these articles are more for sensationalism than actual functionality and should really be treated as such.

Eleni: Do you think the same in interview techniques can result in a user persona and a jobs to be done framework? Could you create both from one interview?

Michael: I don’t think so. I think you could start to get the picture but I think the jobs to be done is really a much deeper interview and it’s really focused on how does that person find your product, and what job does your product do for that person. I think the persona can be a lot wider than that. It could be things that aren’t necessarily related to your product, but could be an interest of theirs throughout the day.

The gym owner, it mentions she’s a mom. It mentions that they have these other hobbies and interests that are outside of her purchasing that software. You could cover both, but I do think there’s a different goal at the end of it for each one. But personas are a much less interrogative approach, so you’re going to look at those differently.

Eleni: In what way do each of these frameworks give you a window into having empathy with your users?

Mike: I think that’s one of the benefits of both of them. With personas, we are trying to understand as much as we can about our user, our customer, who it is we’re trying to serve. With jobs to be done it takes that to a little bit of a deeper level in terms of what the relationship is with our product. I just think in both cases we’re learning a lot about our customers, we’re learning a lot about who we’re serving, and the more that we can learn about them, the better we can empathize with them.

Sometimes as product people, it’s so easy to get caught up in analytics that are in front of us, or you just get mired down in meetings—especially in developing user personas. And then with jobs to be done, we’re in front of customers and anytime you could put yourself in front of customers just naturally, you’re going to have more empathy for them. That’s one of the things that I like about both of those frameworks.

Eleni: Speaking on that point of analytics, the jobs to be done interview for example, is a very qualitative process, where you’re really “digging in deep” with another human being. How can product people then connect that to whatever metrics they’re trying to push towards?

Michael: We do this every day. I think that jobs to be done helps you understand obviously the person and some of the anxieties but without the data. It’s really hard to find the right solution. The data can also help to inform where you are weak in a product. It’s hard to talk about generalities, but if you have holes or places where people are dropping off, that is where you can focus that job to be done interview, to figure out where you’re failing.

"Jobs to be done might not feel right for you and you still might be a fantastic product manager."

Bob has a great story about selling condos in Detroit that we cover earlier in the season and he had people who are interested in these condos but there was something where they were just dropping off. They would lose interest, they weren’t actually purchasing. When he went back and did the jobs to be done interview, he found out why. The reason was, these people were downsizing and they didn’t have room for their kitchen table which had all of this emotional baggage around it. It’s where their kids sat at Christmas, it’s where they opened up presents, it’s where they celebrated every birthday.

None of those were on the radar of the people trying to sell the condo. But once they set up a place, they rearranged the condos so that the table could fit in or they gave them storage so they didn’t have to get rid of the table. That’s when they were able to move these condo units, but it takes both sides right. You have to know where to focus and that’s where the data often can tell you and that’s where the jobs to be done can start to give you that answer.

Eleni: I definitely want to send our listeners to go listen to your episodes because they really go a lot more in depth about this whole interview process. Before we do that, do you guys have anything else to add on either user personas or the jobs to be done framework and how those can be applied?

Mike: I don’t have anything more to add I think we got into it pretty well.

Michael: Yeah, I think they’re great tools. I wouldn’t hate one or the other and I think any product person, you’ve got to love your tools. Just learn it and figure out what works for you because there’s no right answer. Jobs to be done might not feel right for you and you still might be a fantastic product manager. I think it’s really about finding your style and figuring out how these tools work into your decision making process because that’s really what they and the actual tool do. We get really into the semantics of both of these, but none of that really matters; it’s really how it works for you in your personal work.

Eleni: Where can people find you?

Michael: Go to rocketship.fm and you can find all the episodes. They’re broken out into the episodes and the full interviews or you could search rocketship.fm anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Eleni: Mike, what about you? Or what about both of you personally, where can people find each of you?

Mike: I’m on twitter at @belsito. Also, if people are product people, they’re definitely welcome to join us a Product Collective, which is just at productcollective.com. Or join us in person at Industry, which is the conference we organize each Fall in Cleveland and each Spring in Europe. That’s at INDUSTRYconference.com.

Eleni: Great, thank you both so much.

Mike: You too, take care.

Michael: See you all later.


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Author
tarif

Tarif Rahman

Tarif is the Digital Content Specialist at Roadmunk. He's got a penchant for storytelling, enjoys bringing creativity to the tech world, and has an aversion to Netflix (don't judge).