Well-meaning creative leaders often confuse knowing people with knowledge about people.
Even the best teams slip into data-driven decisions that, while valuable, can make us forget that we build products for people, not numbers.
Knowing about people means having access to their data and demographics – people being treated as data. Knowing people means talking to them and understanding them as individuals.
With every product, a unique language grows within the team that builds it; shortcuts are used to discuss and understand principles. Acronymed conversation becomes a core refrain.
Product teams often use solution-focused verbiage, while customers look for language concentrated on their problem, task, or the action they want to take. For example, engineering teams may say “query the database,” while a customer wants to “find contact info.” User issues happen when the language is more subtle like the difference between “save media” versus “save recording.” Media is a broad term, and while the team’s data system can store all media, the user may only storing recordings. Debate about naming features is common when backend language is more accurate but less helpful to the user.
Internally product-speak helps teams collaborate with speed and efficiency. The challenge is to prevent that product-speak from infiltrating your product.
Making a product that “works” is not enough. No matter what we build, we must consider the people who spend their time using the tools we create. If you can learn to connect with people, your product will be more in tune with the customer – grounded in their languages and more purposeful.
To build products that resonate, here are three ways to bridge the gap between product-speak and customer-speak.
1. Avoid putting backend and system language in UI.
When building a product, you get a deep understanding of what’s happening behind the scenes. You begin to understand how systems are connected, how data moves, and the flow of operations making your product work.
When a customer clicks a button, there may be 100 levers and processes happening in the background — all the customer sees is a button. And often, the button is all the customer needs to see.
As a product designer, you have the curse of knowledge. You see the connections behind the scenes, and it takes effort to imagine what the uncursed expect to see.
Often we get tripped up when we talk to customers. We start talking about all the mechanisms happening in the background – especially when significant technical challenges are overcome and we want to share. But as the explanation goes on, the customers’ eyes inevitably glaze over.
Hold back from indulging in the genius of your product behind the scenes. Never let your ego take center stage; it will get in the way of building true customer connections. When you are working with customers, talk to them in their terms – you’ll gain understanding grounded in customer perspective.
2. Bring customers into your tribe by teaching them your language.
“Okay,” you may say, “but my product is unique and to use it, I need to explain our backend and system concepts.” That’s cool; I get it.
Teach people your language.
People are funny. They will often not ask you to explain a concept they don’t understand to prevent looking stupid.
Seth Godin speaks of a tribe as, “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Over millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another.”
He then says, “… A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
Teaching customers your concepts gives them a way to communicate better with you. And it’s an opportunity to build customer loyalty and deeper connections.
3. Consider speaking in customer language with your team.
Every product team speaks with shortcuts. Using words that embody an entire concept saves time when building products. It allows you to communicate with your team because your team is another tribe.
But to give your team a more in-depth insight into your user as you build out your customer experience, try speaking about your product from the customers’ perspective.
I’ve had success in changing some shortcut team language to be customer-facing. When someone on my team says “purchase” or “buy,” it’s customer language. But it’s a shorthand for creating data, kicking off an API call, and 100 other background levers being thrown. In this way, the team can stay connected to the customer and their language, as they work every day in the complex product space.
Find a Common Language
Connecting with customers is key to building products that truly resonate. Speak to customers in their language, bring them into your tribe and immerse yourself in customer language even when they’re not around.
To build great products, learn the customer’s language.