During this week’s Product to Product episode, Liz Papierz, Event Manager at Roadmunk, chatted with Emily Mias, Senior Product Manager at Indigo Ag.
Emily currently works for Indigo Ag, a startup that develops microbial and digital technologies that improve grower profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health. Emily’s focus is on pricing on the marketplace platform. In this session, Emily shared how she collects user feedback and some tips for collecting feedback from a busy customer base. She also touched on how working for a sustainability driven organization has shaped the way she now makes product decisions.
Emily shared a lot of insightful information and we highly recommend watching the full talk. If you’re tight on time, we’ve pulled out some highlights below.
(Highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity)
How Emily fell into product (1:35)
Liz: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got involved with product?
Emily: Yeah, happy to. So I’ve been a product manager, oh boy. I don’t want to date myself too much, but I’ve been a product manager — I’m in the five to 10 year range of experience. I went to a school actually for English. I have an English degree, and I happened to be able to wiggle my way into really teching out that English degree. I became a tech writer. I took a bunch of HTML courses and coding courses, web design, et cetera. So right out of school, I was actually a tech writing intern at a startup, at a tech startup. So naturally, I found at a startup, there’s lots of things that people need help with. So I was helping out the project managers, the engineers, the business analysts and I ended up getting hired full time because when you’re helpful and you solve problems for people, people really want you to stick around.
So I became a business analyst and then quickly… Startup life, right? I jumped into a project management role and then I started realizing the things that the customers were requesting were consistent between each other. And I was like, why are we customizing these things just for these one customers? Why don’t we just build it into our base product? So I would go to the engineering team and talk to them. That’s how I fell into product. I do hear that story actually quite a bit that people sort of accidentally find themselves doing a product role. I didn’t know what it was. They don’t teach you that stuff in school, but that’s how I ended up in product. Otherwise, I just, I love tech. Once you’re in tech, you pretty much stay there. So I’m a big techie. I love to read, doing a lot of reading now in the pandemic. I have a new paint by numbers kit set up. So that’s a lot of fun.
Indigo Ag and Emily’s role at the company (5:31)
Liz: Can you give us a high-level overview of the company and how your role specifically fits into the organization?
Emily: Yeah. Happy to. Indigo, we build products for farmers and we have our hands in the whole product life cycle for farmers. So pre-plant and all the way to transportation of grain to a buyer’s facility, and then of course the sale in between, the sale of actual grain from a farmer. That’s where I fit into the life cycle, but we have a bunch of different products. We have transport, which you can kind of… I don’t know if I can drop the name, but it’s kind of like Uber for grain. You can have someone else transport your grain to your buyer for you if it’s too far, or you just don’t want to, or you don’t have your own trucks. Then grain marketplace, which is what I work on, it connects growers and farmers to different buyers. They might just be selling usually, to the buyer down the street.
So now, they have the opportunity to connect with a bunch of buyers, including those that might’ve been outside their comfort range, but they might get a better price. Then of course, we have Indigo Carbon, which is a new initiative. I say new, but it was launched last year, where we’re trying to really center farmers as the heroes of the climate change story because ultimately, you can take carbon out of the air and stick it back into the soil through agriculture. This has come up actually a lot in the news recently, but it’s a really exciting opportunity for not only farmers to have healthier soil and grow better crops, but to literally take carbon that has been obviously pumped out into the air and put it back into the earth. So we want to incentivize farmers to do that because otherwise, it’s expensive to do it on their own.
Adapting a sustainability mindset as a PM (7:35)
Liz: Sort of jumping off this sustainability theme, that’s a huge area, it seems like for Indigo. Has the way you made decisions as a product manager changed since starting Indigo? Do you try to weave sustainability more into your decision making process?
Emily: Absolutely. It’s a cornerstone of our mission. It’s one of our pillars. The big thing about becoming a farmer that uses regenerative practices is you do take a pay cut the first few years. So that’s a really important thing that I need to be thinking about, even though I’m not a part of the Indigo Carbon product, I don’t work directly on it, but we have growers that are selling… And sorry, if I use grower and farmer interchangeably, we refer to them as growers, but a lot of people just, they’re farmers, right? When they’re selling their grain through the marketplace that I work on, they might be selling grain that they’ve worked extra hard this year to do regenerative practices and they should get paid for that.
So how do we make sure that that gets highlighted? How do we make sure that these sustainability efforts that our customers are doing can get worked into our product as much as possible? So I’d say that that’s particularly important, but even in how IPM from a sustainability standpoint, it’s just top of mind when your product is so focused on it. It’s been interesting since we went remote, it’s amazing how much the carbon footprint of just your commute and everything starts to go down. But while we were in the office, Indigo is all about a lot of sustainable practices in terms of making sure we’re recycling and composting and everything like that as well.
Working with different product teams across the org (9:54)
Liz: How do you sort of work inter departmentally at Indigo to make sure that the user experience is, I guess the same sort of experience from the start to the end and then it all connects together?
Emily: It’s tough. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to be like we have that figured out. No, I will say the design team is actually really core and making sure that that happens. We have a shared component library. That’s huge. Just the look and feel of everything shouldn’t be wildly different from when you go use Indigo Carbon products to when you log into Indigo Marketplace. So that’s pretty key, but Indigo, as much as possible, we are trying to make sure that each team is staying as up-to-date and in sync as possible. We have regular all hands.
It’s been tough since we went remote. Before, you’d be able to walk by someone and be like, “Hey, what are you working on?” And have that organic conversation in the kitchen or somewhere like that. So now, you have to force that stuff and relationships that you may have established before you went remote, making sure that you reach out and have those conversations regularly, even though you’re not running into them in the hallway. It’s a tough one. That’s definitely something that I think everyone can get better at.
Collecting user feedback from a busy customer base (11:43)
Liz: Since you mostly work with growers, and in the pre-interview, you mentioned that they are extremely busy people and we talked a little bit about collecting feedback from them and how it can be a little bit tricky, so how do you collect user feedback? And do you have any advice for people who also may be working with a really busy and just tricky user base to get in touch with and stay in touch with?
Emily: Yeah, this was something we struggled with quite a bit. We’ve actually made some fantastic improvements in the last few months. The biggest thing is we hired someone specifically to do this. You try to avoid it. You want the product managers and the UX designers to be able to gather the stuff themselves and you still should push for that. I still talk to growers and our grain marketing advisors, et cetera. But we hired a user researcher who spends her entire day talking to farmers and getting things scheduled, so she’s always talking to the farmers and that’s been revolutionary. It’s worth the investment is all I can say there. But before that, before we had someone dedicated to lining all this stuff up and talking to them, when your user base is super busy and especially farmers, we’re not going to get them on a Zoom, right? They’re not going to hop on a Zoom with us. That’s not going to happen, but we can get them on a phone call and we have to learn these really interesting habits of theirs.
So for example, farmers always have usually one office day a week where they’re in the office, they’re doing paperwork that they have to do anyways, and that’s the day you want to get them because they’re in the office. They’re not out in the field where they don’t have any service. Also, hopping onto regularly scheduled calls, I know that this is a good tactic for anybody with a busy customer base, if your customer success manager has a check-in with them scheduled, being able to get in there, not only is it beneficial to you, but the customer success manager, if that customer has feedback for product, it’s super empowering obviously to be like, “Hey, I have the person who builds it right here.” You can talk their ear off and give them feedback.
Then yeah, again, going back to the habits. One thing that’s interesting is we could actually check the weather in terms of when we’d be able to contact farmers. Rainy days, they’re likely not out in the field. Hail, they’re actually probably really busy trying to protect their crops depending on how bad the weather might be. So for example, there was some really bad storms out West a few weeks ago and a lot of stuff was lost, but it was actually unfortunate. It was unfortunate, but it was a good time to talk to them because they were in recovery mode. They were figuring out, okay, now what are we going to do? How are we going to plan this? And it was a good time to be able to listen to those pain points and see if there was anything we could actually do about it.
The relationship between a UX researcher + the product team (15:06)
Liz: You mentioned now that you have a user researcher. How does the user researcher work with the product team? Are they on the product team specifically? Or are they kind of on a data team? Do you have a data team? How has that integration happened?
Emily: Yeah, that’s a good question. They’re actually, they report to the VP of Design. So they’re on the design team technically, which is fantastic because they’re able to funnel all of their user findings right to the UX designers. So our user researcher, her name’s Kris, she’s absolutely fantastic. And really, she is embedded in the product team in that the design and product team are… that we’re at the hip. We’re linked at the hip. We’re constantly talking. We have design reviews every week, I think, at this point. They were every other week for a while and she would present her findings.
We also have something, and this is really cool, we have something called Context Tuesday. So Tuesday mornings, 9:30 AM every week, she comes and she takes up a piece of the presentation. We’ll have other guests as well, but it’s all about sharing context with the engineering team, the product team designers, everyone, and anyone who wants to come really in the company. It’s all focused around, we’re not going to talk about projects, we’re not going to talk about milestones and where are we in development? We’re going to talk about what did we learn this week? What’s something that you don’t know about in terms of our customers? She’ll bring clips from her phone calls, which is amazing because then we can actually hear firsthand from the customers, and she’ll talk about what we’re going to be testing next because she’s constantly lining stuff up.
Aligning teams with story time (16:46)
Liz: That’s really cool. It’s also really great that [Kris] also brings in teams like engineering. Sometimes with product, there’s sometimes that disconnect where the product manager, or I guess in this case, user researcher is doing all this research and then you prioritize your decisions and then kind of loop in engineering and be like, “Hey, we think that this should move forward based on X, Y, Z feedback that we’ve heard.” Have you heard any feedback from the engineering team about them being included in this process?
Emily: Oh, yeah. From the beginning when I joined Indigo about a year and a half ago, it’s always been about making sure that the engineers have context. So they need to be included right from the beginning of a project on the why. We actually have a part of our product development life cycle, and this is actually something I learned at Drift and took it with me through the couple of companies I’ve been at, we do something called story time. So right at the beginning of a project, you talk about the why. You don’t jump into solutioning. You don’t jump into, okay, what are the designs? What are the buttons? How are we going to do this? It is, who’s having the problem? What is the problem? Why are we trying to solve it? Why do they care about it? All the little nuance and detail.
And you give yourself that space with the engineering team and the designer and the people who are going to be building it because when you do that upfront, all the little micro decisions that you have to make later, they don’t fall on the product manager. They might. You might double-check, probably a good idea. But for the most part, it’s like, oh, I know I can’t put this drop down here this way because they’re going to need to be able to access this information later, X, Y, Z. Right? They’re able to have the context that lets them be autonomous in decision making.
Liz: That’s so awesome. I also just like the title, how you call it story time because everything is kind of a story that you’re doing for the user and the customer and helping them succeed with your product.
Emily: I do find that if we skip that, we have to come back to it. We just had a project where we had a bigger story time that kind of encapsulated a bunch of different projects, and we started down the path we’re developing, we’re building, we’re designing. And then we actually had to come back and have a smaller story time specifically about one piece of the project because it got too diluted and people were like, “Why are we doing this again?” As soon as you hear that, as soon as like, “Wait, why?” You should come back to that and you should reset and make sure everyone understands why you’re working on what you’re working on.
(19:37) Emily, how has your team adapted to UX without in-person user time?
(21:07) How do you gather and weigh feedback from people across the organization? AKA, do you have one central repository to maintain feedback from different parts of the business?
(23:19) Your org sounds really fascinating from a logistics standpoint. Are your customers, essentially the growers, do you end up developing tools and services for other groups and stakeholders as part of the end service you provide to growers?
(25:43) How has your organization delineated responsibilities between project manager and product manager when it comes to requirements gathering?
(28:45) What is one piece of advice you’d give to a PM who eventually wants to become a product leader in their org?
Emily Mias is a Senior Product Manager at Indigo Ag. She’s done the rounds at a few Boston tech startups, including The Predictive Index, Drift, and Notarize, and in the process has picked up all sorts of tricks and perspectives when it comes to shipping good product. Offline, she loves cooking, making fancy cocktails, and going on adventures with her silly hound rescue, Hazel.
Liz is the Event Manager at Roadmunk on the Marketing team. She produces Recess and in non-pandemic times, organizes Roadmunk’s Product to Product in-person events held in Toronto, New York and Chicago.
Prior to Roadmunk, Liz produced events for a renewable energy company and a non-profit.
You can follow her on LinkedIn.