Is data the only way to identify priorities in improving our digital services?

John, our Senior Digital Product Manager, looks at our approaches to decision making and discusses how a relentless focus on data alone can be an issue for our team.

It’s vital to ensure your digital products are data-driven, right? Countless blog posts champion and showcase how to utilise data in a better way. But how do you manage this with limited resources?

We have a vision to improve the quality of experience and user satisfaction across all our digital products and services. To understand our work outcomes, we use data. Data is very much our protagonist when telling the story of how we’re improving our user’s experience. Users completed the task x% faster. X% increased conversion. Improved satisfaction scores over time… you get the idea.

However, when it comes to decision making and prioritising work, being truly data-driven has been challenging, especially when it comes to user needs. The reality is that with a team this size (there are currently 12 of us), we don’t have the amount or quality of data we need to use as a primary means of decision making. It’s simply not always been possible to do the right level of user research, or gather high quality quantitative data. And so we sometimes rely on business and tech needs, which we know and which are easy to get hold of.

Two Venn diagrams. The first showing that current focus is on business and technical needs rather than user needs. The second diagram shows a desired future state where the focus is equally shared between user, business and technical needs.
We want to get to a place where our focus is equally shared between user, business and technical needs.

I’m acutely aware that this is not ideal. We use as much user insight as we can get our hands on, to help make the right calls, and we aspire to do more. But right now, this is our reality. Sometimes when we need to deliver two or more things concurrently in a short time-frame, managing our user experience resource is a balancing act, and we can’t do the same level of discovery across everything. As a product manager, I’ve had to lose the guilt of not being truly user led on some areas, in order to get things done.

The ‘hunch’

How do we advance when we don’t have the ‘right amount of data’ to make decisions? Well, that’s where we start with a hunch. We’re using educated guesswork to move us forward and avoid analysis paralysis.

There are ways we can mitigate against these educated guesses failing us:

  • Don’t make product decisions alone. The team have experience and knowledge in their heads. Get that knowledge out and validate user needs as we go.
  • Start small. De-risk by making small changes, things that can be quickly rectified if we’re not on the right track.
  • Look backwards. Evaluate work done and understand what has and has not worked for users
  • Focus on ‘no-brainers’. I’ve used this term a fair amount recently. Find the things that are hard to get wrong and act as foundations that can be built on later.

How to get where we want to be

We need to make sure we don’t stay like this forever, so we need to:

  • Build in user research and data gathering as part of the roadmap. Our upcoming work needs a shift to user research at a high level and filling data insight gaps across our digital products.
  • Shout from the rooftops. Senior stakeholders need to know what we’re missing with a lack of insight. User needs discovery and validation isn’t just nice to have, it leads to substantially reduced risk, potentially huge cost savings and improved reputation.

Over time, our intuition will improve as real data soaks into our minds and we build our UX capability within the team. Until then, yes, we may make some bad calls while we rely on a hunch, but it’s been proven time and again that it’s best to learn while doing than to simply wait. I’ll reflect on this in the next few months when we put forward our strategy for the upcoming year.

Have you had successes or failures when relying on intuition to make decisions in the past? Do you disagree and think we ought to focus on understanding our users better before we dive into delivery – and how do you manage the challenges that creates? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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