TBM 47/53: Thinking Like a Designer/Product Manager

I tweeted this yesterday:

as simple as it sounds... talking to the *actual* customer is a learned skill. realizing that you aren't the customer and can't impersonate them...is a learned skill.

It got me thinking. What is going on here? What else about product is as "simple as it sounds" but needs to be learned? Why do we fall into these traps?

To explore this, I am going to use the example of (stick with me here) maturity models. If you work in (or have bought, or have been marketed) B2B software, you have encountered a maturity model.

Hint. You’ll always be 2 or 3, and the vendors product will get you to a 5.

But what happens when we step back and think about the maturity model as a product...as a designed thing. Let's take a quick stab.

Maturity models have both internal and external users. There's a whole community of people involved (with some people wearing many hats).


  • Researchers and model builders

  • Perform assessments

  • Communicate results of assessment

  • Use assessment to sell company product(s)

  • Use assessment to help make customer successful with product

  • …and more

External (Customer or prospect)

  • Take part in the research (that informs the model)

  • Take part in the assessment

  • Interact with results of the assessment

  • Make decisions based on the assessment

  • Involved in interventions (based on those decisions)

  • …and more

Looking at two key users, here is how they describe their needs:

Sales and marketing

Get everyone oriented in the same direction. The conversation is more productive because you have built a map that you can travel with the customer on. Make the alignment and orientation phase move faster. Impact on win rates and reduce cycle lengths.

I love this articulation. Themes: conversation, orientation, a map to travel, impact on deals.

Customer or prospect:

We want to know how we stack up against our competitors and the best in the world. You work with lots of companies, so we value your perspective. Some of that is vanity and morbid curiosity, but at the end of the day we want to know where to focus to improve, and how other people have had success improving. And actually, I want to see if you know your stuff. Are you actual experts?

Themes: comparison, vanity, curiosity, focus, stories from others, expertise, improvement, guidance.

There’s so much more we could learn from more research here…more about the salesperson’s world, incentives, non-deal related goals, etc. More about the change environment on the part of the customer/prospect. More, more, more.

Maturity models are a sum of many different capabilities:

  • The research to inform the underlying model

  • The underlying model

  • How you communicate the model

  • The assessment approach

  • How the assessment interacts with the model

  • How you communicate the results of the assessment

  • How you map the assessment results to interventions

  • How you communicate those interventions

  • ...and more

Woah wait...it is not just a slide with 5 columns?

OK. We've gone over the people involved. Their high level needs (in their words). And the different parts of maturity models. There are many more angles to explore, but this depth should be enough for this post.

What's the point?

My hacky take above is enough to start considering the true job of the maturity model (for the humans involved). With the soundbites from the key users, we start to appreciate unexplored angles: maps, journeys, vanity, and curiosity. We understand that the salesperson and the customer have overlapping and non-overlapping needs. We understand that a maturity model is the sum of different parts that need to work together. We ponder the different outcomes we could create in the world.

Why don't most people approach it this way (as simple as my approach was/is) ?

Some thoughts:

  1. It is easy to crank out a maturity model with some awareness of the domain. Good maturity models are labors of love, science, and time.

  2. It is easy to confuse the needs of internal user from external user. And easy to conflate them (especially if you are an internal user).

  3. It is tempting to confuse interfaces and models. An interface may benefit from being “simple”, but the data/details it communicates may be more complex. Show a salesperson a complex underlying model and they’ll assume it will be too hard to use (not necessarily the case).

  4. Customers DO LIKE linear maturity models! So it is logical to assume that the linear maturity model is the right approach. The reality is that other approaches are more effective...for the customer at least.

  5. It is hard to decouple the parts of the puzzle (e.g. assessment from communicating the results of the assessment).

  6. It might not be obvious that there's a whole art/science to maturity models (and different types, approaches). What is the prior work?

  7. It is easy to hit the point of cognitive dissonance when grappling with the different layers of the problem.

  8. On a high level, it is so tempting to just forget ahead.

We could apply the maturity model problem to so many things in product.

Imagine the differences you might experience if you tasked ten teams with "building a maturity model product!" They would immense. From redefining the idea completely and enabling meaningful, long-term outcomes (and/or focusing on one persona)…to dutifully enabling the standard 1-5 model. With dark mode, of course. Just like a spreadsheet. And slide export, of course.

So I will leave you with a question.

How do people learn to dig deeper? How have you learned to dig deeper?