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Insights from a Product Manager User Research Interview

Raguram VenkatesanWe recently began doing 1-on-1 video interviews as part of a user research initiative, which we described in a post a few months back called User Research: How to Start Talking to Your Users.

It's been such a rewarding process to spend an hour with a real customer talking about their real problems and how they use Balsamiq for a real use case. This is the kind of thing that analytics will never tell you.

Much of the time even an hour doesn't seem like enough to really hear their full story. So for this month's case study, I spent a little more time talking to Raguram Venkatesan, a customer and Product Manager in Florida. And, with his permission, I'm publishing some of the topics we covered.

Read on for our interview...

(And, p.s., if you want to talk to us - sign up here)

Q&A with Raguram Venkatesan

What industry do you work in, and what is your title or job description?

I work in the Transportation industry with a focus on the Trucking vertical. My role at Optym is Product Manager (for RouteMAX).

Using RouteMAX, trucking companies can optimize the first and last mile operations of freight movement. In this role, I find market problems worth solving, guide the creation of solutions and take the solutions to market.

What kinds of things are you excited about in your industry?

I am very passionate about building decision automation and optimization solutions for trucking companies to improve utilization of assets and resources. It is really interesting to note that every object in our room has traveled in a truck for some part of its journey before it reached us!

Building mission critical real-time execution systems needed to support such dynamic and fast-paced operations is exciting and extremely challenging at the same time.

What suggestions do you have for someone looking to succeed in your role or industry?

Lessons learnt as a Product Manager:

  • Identify market problems worth solving and, more importantly, what customers will be willing to pay for.
  • Listen to your customers carefully to understand their problems but do not listen to them about the solutions.
  • Product Management sits at the intersection of customer, technology and business. It is a balancing act between each of these areas.

    Product Management sits at the intersection of customer, technology and business. It is a balancing act between each of these areas, which means involving the right people, in the right ways, at the right times. In this role, you need not always come up with the best ideas, but you do have to create an environment that will facilitate the best ideas to bubble to the top and then guide its timely execution.

Your team is very distributed, how do you group teams geographically?

Yes, that is indeed a challenge. Fortunately, over 90% of our clients are based in the US. So, we structure our teams in such a way that those who need to interact with clients closely are located in either Gainesville, FL (our Headquarters) or Dallas, TX (the hub for most of our airline clients).

Our development teams are distributed as follows:

  • US - Business and Algorithms
  • India/Armenia - Application development and Algorithms.

Where do your requirements come from? Do you involve (potential) customers, subject matter experts (SMEs), or something else?

User requirements are collected through user interviews, surveys, and field studies.

Technical requirements (functional and non-functional) are uncovered through stakeholder interviews from different teams (Engineering, Executives and SME) and interactive workshops.

Raguram's team uses Balsamiq for wireframing and sketching out workflows.

As someone with a technical background, how did you learn wireframing and UX design? How do you continue learning and improving?

Over the last six years at Optym, I have been fortunate to wear different hats. I have done Software development, Business Analysis, Project Management, Sales and now Product Management.

As my exposure to business increased, I began functioning as an SME within the team. So, I would often be invited to rapid wireframing sessions (by UX designers) to give feedback on usability/technical feasibility. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in these sessions as it was magical to see the "Design Thinking" processes in action. It was a great learning experience for me to witness how we iterated on each idea until we converged on the final design.

It was a great learning experience for me to witness how we iterated on each idea until we converged on the final design.

From being a silent onlooker, I became an active participant in these whiteboard sketching meetings and that’s how I got into wireframing. In parallel, I began reading books on UX Design, subscribed to blogs and completed a few online courses to get a deeper understanding of UX design principles and its practical applications. (Completing the UI Design 101 course from Balsamiq is one of my Q3 goals.)

What are some of the communities or people that you follow to get better at what you do?

I have a carefully curated social media feed on Twitter and LinkedIn for my daily dose of reading. I read 20-30 articles every day on my areas of interest namely Product Management, Agile Development, UX Design, and Leadership. I have listed below a few communities/people I follow:

@MindTheProduct, @romanpichler, @cagan, @RichMironov, @JoeNatoli, @Balsamiq, @dcancel, @dharmesh, and our very own @Peldi.

What are some of the ways that your wireframes helped you refine your design?

Wireframes are crucial in weeding out sub-par ideas.

Wireframes are crucial in weeding out sub-par ideas. They help us save valuable development time and effort as we get to perform some usability testing early on and proceed with a reasonable level of confidence that the final design will work.

What was your path to your current role?

Software Developer → Business Analyst → Project Management → Product Management.

In retrospect, I realized that I have been practicing the "Solve for the customer" principle in all of my previous roles. Now, I am paid to do this full-time 🙂

What's the most important thing you're better at now than when you started?

I have honed the ability to differentiate between user needs and user wants.

What's challenging about your job and how do you deal with it?

In my job as an Enterprise product manager, our Customer and User are different. I have learnt to deal with this dichotomy with these two strategies:

  1. Keep ALL stakeholders aligned by sharing the Product roadmap frequently (Psst... a Product Roadmap is the Product Manager's best communication tool, focusing on the "WHY" and also helps collect valuable feedback)
  2. Map every feature request to the business goals. This helps everyone collectively make those important trade-offs on what to build and more importantly what not to. Consequently, this enables us to strike that delicate balance and keep both camps happy (users and executives).

What are you into outside of work?

Music (I sing and play on the violin occasionally) and Meditation.

Why and how do you use Balsamiq?

I am a big fan of Balsamiq's no-frills approach to wireframing.
  • I am a big fan of Balsamiq's no-frills approach to wireframing. I use it regularly to create early-stage wireframes after conducting user interviews. It helps in crystallizing my thoughts/ideas into a rough wireframe while everything is still fresh in my mind.
  • Typically, I use it as a collaboration tool while working with the UX designer/Business Analyst on our team.
  • I also use it during my discussions with the development team to elucidate user workflows.

Do you have any feature ideas or suggestions for how we can improve our product(s)?

  • I would like the data grid control to be more flexible. Currently, Balsamiq becomes very slow if I import medium size datasets from Excel (14 columns x 10 rows).
  • Ability to adjust column width of data grid easily without going into edit mode.
  • Limited canvas size in desktop version of Balsamiq.
  • Extend icon library to include more icons.

(Editor's note: Thanks for the feedback! In our new Cloud version the canvas size is MUCH bigger. As for the icons, you can add more yourself in the icon library dialog. Read about it here.)

Thank you, Raguram, for taking the extra time to help us understand our users better. We're lucky to have you as a customer!

Leon for the Balsamiq Team

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