Better Product Innovation Starts With User-Centric Research
Rex Chekal, principal product designer at TXI discusses user centric research, specifically:
Why product innovation should be rooted in user research & what does that research look like
How can product managers weigh the needs of two distinct user groups during the research and design process?
Threats to innovation within an organization
product, innovation, people, patient, organization, tsi, problem, understand, question, design, research, perspective, opportunity, idea, doctors, team, ideation process, build, learning, prioritize
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Hello, and welcome to product voices. Today's episode is why better product innovation starts with user centric research such an important conversation. So much of what we do in product management is problem analysis and customer discovery. And that entails research. And so we really have to be good at user centric research in order to find problems to solve and ultimately to innovate. My guest today is Rex Chekal. He's a principal product designer at TXI, a product innovation firm based on one big idea and three small words tech done right, since 2002. TSI has partnered with Fortune 100 companies, startups in Singapore and Tokyo, industry leaders in London and LA, and mission driven nonprofits in its hometown of Chicago. Rex, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation.
Thank you for having me.
Yeah, it's gonna be a great conversation. I'm excited about this such an important topic. So first of all, let's just start with kind of the work that TXI does. I'm familiar with TXI, I've loved the work that you've done. So tell us a little bit about how TXI thinks about product innovation? And what are some examples of your approach.
So our definition of product innovation, or how we look at it has been evolving and changing over the years. I've been there for, it'll be eight years in December. And I think, you know, when we started, or when I started there, we were mostly a sort of development shop with some design. And as we built the design practice over the years, and kind of were inspired by Google sprint, and these ideas of how can we facilitate and drive towards insights through a larger group, prioritizing that diversity of perspective, and doing user research? How can we incorporate that into our process, and really lean into it is something that we believe leads to better products, innovation and market and fit within our sort of agile design and development approach. So as we have evolved, our approach to product innovation has really focused in on that user centered research. And that really begins with us asking and trying to define sort of what is the problem space? Or what is the opportunity that a client thinks that they, they have, they're often founders coming to us with an idea, or large companies, thinking that there's an opportunity to to streamline or innovate in an area of their business. And so they come to us to kind of help them uncover what could be done, what opportunities are there? And what pain points are there even, is there anything there there?
Oftentimes, we may go through work and tell clients like from what we see the sort of user desirability isn't high enough for market adoption for you to even impact your business? Because we're always looking at product through sort of those three lenses of the business, the user and feasibility or the cost of development, or can it be built. So for me, when I look at product innovation, I'm looking at typically validating someone's idea, someone has come to us with an idea. They think there's an opportunity there. And so I see it as my first sort of step and due diligence, is to start to understand how can we validate this assumption? What are the opportunities? What does the market look like in this space? Is it saturated? Are there areas to kind of own or build market share with this idea, and that all comes to down to kind of our process of product discovery and innovation, like validation? So what we would usually start with is like understanding where did the idea come from interview kind of the stakeholders within the company involved in the formation of it, to try to build empathy for their perspective, because first and foremost, it's not about saying, Yeah, we think your idea is wrong. Or we, you know, don't think there's any opportunity in this space. I really tried to understand where they are. I'm trying to build trust with them in a relationship so that we can work together well in the future, but also I'm trying to make sure that I am properly vetting their idea. And that's going to come in through several different ways, if it's kind of an open space, and they don't have a lot of experience in it, but they have an idea, because I have this problem, other people might have this problem, what we're going to start with is more sort of qualitative research, we're gonna go out and do ethnographic studies, we're going to, you know, if possible, go to their home, go to their place of work, we're going to sit with them and interview and talk about their day and kind of build a user journey of what various people we talked to today is like, and then we're gonna start to map that and find commonalities between pain points, or areas of discomfort. And those pain points are, where your opportunities are, if we can solve problems for people, we can start to create products that would want to be used by people. And so we, you know, may have an idea we want to validate, or we think that people have a problem there, we may come out of this ethnographic research and say, Actually, the problem we have is further upstream, it has to do with something else. And Toyota was really good about this with their sort of seven why's framework in understanding a problem. So like, when your car breaks down, you know, that's a problem. So we might solve for it by putting in a check engine light. But if the user never responds to the check engine light, then you know, they're never going to prevent that breakdown. So we keep going up the train, until we find like, what's the core problem here that's preventing the person from doing this action? And how could we make it easier to solve for it. And so that's the same thing we are doing is we're asking these questions, to a certain level of depth, where we feel that we've kind of hit the bottom of what can be done there. And then we start to take all of that synthesis. And understand across all these demographics, what are the main pain points that we could focus in on, and then we use those pain points to start to Ida concepts and ideas for solutions. Once we have a lot of solutions, we're gonna then validate those with stakeholders and internal people to get their domain expertise. And then we may do something like concept testing, we may do us like, build a prototype. But we want to then take all those ideas and make them real, and then be able to put that in front of users and understand again, is it solving for a problem they have? Is this something they would use? Do they have any other ideas? Sometimes I like to do a sort of co creative session, where I'm not only asking them questions, but I'm asking them to be a participant in the ideation process. And it might be given through prompts or like, if you could fix one thing on this, what would it be? There are lots of different ways to approach this. But the sort of framework is always the same of like research and understand, prioritize, sort of what you want to solve for or what you think needs to be solved for, and then start to ideate. And then validate those ideas. And that process can kind of loop over and over again.
I love that. And and you actually answered something I was going to ask you, which was kind of what his research looked like. And I think you gave a really great kind of narrative of some examples there. So So I want to dig a little bit though, I want to ask you a question about, you know, the situations where sometimes products will have two very distinct user groups. Right. And, you know, we have to understand the nuances between those user groups. So how can product managers weigh the two, during this research and design process?
I love this question, because it is something I've been talking a lot about recently. Particular in digital therapeutics, you're going to have multiple stakeholders, obviously, the patient is going to be the end user or something. But the practitioner or doctor is also critical, because they become a gatekeeper to your product. If you cannot get the buy in from the physician, they're never going to prescribe your tool or product. So you need to look at both of those. And then healthcare is interesting in that there's also other layers like the provider, what are the you know, insurance providers are not going to discount things or put them under their plan, unless they have data or proof to back it up? And so research is an imperative when it comes to all three of these stakeholders in a healthcare product. And when it comes to how do you prioritize one or the other? I have some interesting, maybe perspectives on this in that I'd really like to focus on the question of sort of market penetration and market adoption. So doctors are influencers to patients in that patient sees them and then expert. So doctors hold a lot of swathes of getting buy in from a patient on a drug, or a treatment plan or physical therapy. We rely on that trust for patients to do what doctors say. And that is because they sees them as an expert.
So when it comes to market adoption, getting someone to use your product, and getting someone to actually get their product in their hands is all going to be determined on the doctor. And so when we were doing a recent project, we were focusing a lot on the doctor, and also sort of the opportunity that could come with improving health outcomes overall, not just for an individual patient, but for a whole sort of vertical of medicine. And that comes through the interesting ideas around data and data collection. And so I think as a product manager, or product owner, you really need to pull all the way back. And kind of understand the pros and cons are the opportunities for each of these demographics, where that overlap is, and then what's the release plan look like? Because you're not going to burn the ocean and do all of this work at once. But let's say you have some assumptions. I think that if we put pain tracking in this app, we'll get better insights to patient's pain. And patients will understand their pain over time, which will give them a better perspective on their healthcare journey. And they won't be as swayed by sort of recency bias, because with humans, pains is always pain. And it's very hard to understand increments in that. So that is our goal is to, you know, eventually improve outcome for patients as a whole and improve the practice of medicine. But how do we get there? Well, we know that we're not going to be able to validate our idea with patients until we have enough quantitative data to say, Yes, this is working, or this is not working. So just like the Agile processes, we want to get something out in market, we want to test it. But then we have this gatekeeper that is keeping this product out of patient hands, which is the physician. So in that initial release, you need to really prioritize the physician needs to get this product to the patient. And obviously, we're not going to sacrifice the outcomes or the main goals that we need for the patient's experience. But we are going to really focus in on how do we get this product to their hands. Once we've solved for that later releases, we'll start to improve upon what we see in market and feedback we get from patients on the experience, as well as doctors, but that's when we can start to add more features to the patient side of the experience. And as we you know, move up that ladder even further in the product timeline, we're gonna then start to prioritize the provider. So the data that the doctors getting can then, you know, be developed into research or studies that can then prove to providers that this product is beneficial or has a certain level of efficacy.
That's a great example. I love that example of how, you know, having multiple stakeholders and how do you research them? And how do you prioritize them, I think that's a really good example of how product managers and product teams can go about doing that. So I want to take us up a little bit. And, and have a little bit of a different conversation, one of the things that we hear a lot about is teams need to have a culture of product innovation, right. And I think every organization out there would love to say that they have a culture of product innovation. Well, I believe that TXI does that very well, because of just the the virtue of of who you are and what you do for other organizations. So talk to me a little bit about what your thoughts are on, what does that look like? Right? It's such a vague topic, in so many cases, a culture of product innovation, what does that look like? And how, how do you think that firms can shift their cultures in in the direction of having kind of, or embracing product innovation?
So I will kind of look at this through my experience. I'm not an expert in an organizational culture. Obviously, I'm like a contributor on a design team. So I think, you know, to speak, authentically, I will focus kind of on what TXI does. And I've really believe in this. The reason I'm still here, and that is because of our values alignment. And so I think that's where it really starts, you know, there's a team but that team is within an organization. And this really needs to come from the top down and it needs to be incentivized. And it needs to be enforced. And I think maybe that sounds a little bit stronger than I mean, but like I think that all human behavior is a combination of carrot and stick? And so understanding how do you hire appropriately? For people that match your company values? Well, I guess even further up, how do you set your company values? For us, I think the values that really helped lead to innovation, our growth mindset, a belief in integrated teams, or an integrated process.
And I think, you know, in consulting, in particular, building empathy and for the client and their problems, and really, authentically, you know, working for them. I think these three things really help Oh, I'm sorry, there's one more and that is, um, sort of diversity of opinion or diversity of perspective or life experience. And I think you see, that kind of manifests itself in, especially at CSI, in our investment in de AIB, and what we're doing in that space to make ourselves a place for people of all backgrounds and experiences to work at, because we value that perspective, we believe that perspectives are important in innovation.
That's amazing. I love all of that. And I really appreciate what you said about human behavior and human activity, kind of being a combination of the carrot and the stick. And I think that's a really good point of, you know, having the the incentive and the environment to, you know, embrace and foster product innovation, but also holding everyone accountable for for our values. I think that's a really important part of, of culture of product innovation. And, you know, making sure that that that stays in it, it's probably an ongoing effort, right? It TXI and every other organization out there to make sure that we're continuing that process. So I love that perspective. Thank you for sharing that.
And so I want to actually ask you now, related to that topic, I know that there are things that happen in any organization that can be a threat to innovation, and that culture of innovation. So talk to me a little bit about your experience, and some things that you've seen that can ultimately threaten the success of innovation within an organization.
The first one is maybe a little crass, but it is, is really kind of the most important thing to start in. And that is, don't be an asshole. I think that to be an innovation inherently is scary. It is about risk, and mitigating risk, it is about listening to others, and building empathy and trying to build and look through their eyes. So if you are self centered, or do not value some of these things, it's going to be really hard for you to be in innovation without sort of poisoning the well. And when I mean about poisoning, the well is specially in creatives, it's you know, there's kind of a design maturity process that happens of very much about my own ego. And, and having the best design to like switching over to sort of an all boats rise, team building value system where your designs will only improve with the input of others. So it's if you're an asshole, it can be really hard to take feedback can be really hard to listen to other people. And you're going to really design from a sort of internal perspective. And so I think those traits in an innovation lab are going to have chilling effects on the ability of people to feel comfortable sharing their ideas. And so I think that's one of the first things you need to do is, you know, you need to create a space where everyone is in agreement about what proper communication looks like. And that our value is for the product success, not our individual success. No one person on the team is going to win the trophy. This is about the whole team, the whole company, and that has a mindset and a value that can be hard to grow. Sometimes you need to hire for it. Or sometimes you need really great leadership that instills that. And so when you get into these organizations that spin up an innovation lab, some of the things I start to see happening are, you know, power dynamics.
I always think there needs to be a decider in the room. But if that decider is going to have a chilling effect, again on the ideation process, then it can be a hindrance. When you can move past that, then you're gonna get into interpersonal communication patterns, and anti patterns. So how does the team commute indicate oftentimes an innovation lab or someone's trying to start innovation in your organization, by its necessity is going to involve a lot of people across different verticals of the business, you're going to have people from operations, you're going to have people from sales, I've worked in CPG, before in food, and there we have food scientists, advertising marketing, designers, with people from all across the company. And they are all either the king of their own domain, or they're not used to working together in collaboration. They don't ideate or brainstorm, these are all things to them where they're like, I don't do that, that's, you know, I'm not a designer, or I don't do that, because I, you know, just make the decisions. So you need to level the playing field for them somehow, and that they value and respect each other's input. Because again, if you value design thinking and want to innovate, you need to understand that diverse perspectives are the best way to do that kind of work authentically. And so I look for, does someone stand up when they're talking or move or gravitate towards the front of the room, there are lots of little weird things people do with their body language to assert themselves, or to credential eyes themselves in a group of people, especially if they don't know each other very well. So if I'm facilitating something like that, I start to focus in on those things, or I create exercises where I can mitigate them. That's why we do post it notes, that way, we might do dock voting, or note and vote or any of these sorts of facilitation techniques you may have heard of, I like to understand and know that the why behind I'm doing those things is because I'm trying to mitigate some of these patterns or behaviors that are going to cause some people to clam up, or for ideas that are good not to rise to the top because someone's prioritizing their own idea, and then using their voice to leverage it. So that's more at a team level, when it comes to an organization. If it is not supported at the top.
And leadership, it's going to be hard to maintain. I think when companies that I have worked with in the past, the CEO that embraced innovation, and started a lab and, and really was pushing the organization to look into these areas, when they left and a new CEO came in, that's, you know, his first job is to prove their worth. And so what they're going to do is focus on efficiency, and fat, and they are going to cut things like that if they don't actually value or see the value in this kind of work. And so that's why organizations start up innovation, or it becomes a buzzword for a year for a goal, and then suddenly disappears. And that's because it's not permanent in that leadership level. And it's not trickling down to the managerial level, and then eventually to sort of the contributor staff that are making things. And so if I see it at the not at the top, I know that it's probably not long for this world. And is it really truly embracing innovation.
Yeah, what great advice. I love that both, both from the perspective of, you know, it's got to come from the top and be truly permeating within the top levels of the organization. But I love the practical advice to have of looking and working with the team and, you know, seeing those those things that can can end up being a threat to the culture and to innovation. That's that's really great advice.
So, so Rex, my final question for you is, what resources have you found valuable as you've learned about and taught others about user centric research?
Um, I am a voracious consumer offense. I am looking for patterns and interest just everywhere all the time. And it's I mean, it's really lucky that I have that innate interest because it aligns with the job I have. But I do think that curiosity and a growth mindset is the best path to embracing and learning these things. I have hundreds of books. And I can tell you that I've probably read five of them. But sometimes just by owning them, I feel like I'm absorbing their knowledge. But I read a lot of medium articles. I talk about this incessantly with people refining my perspective and my opinion on it, and getting new opinions from other people or learning new things. I think it's an active year to be an active participant in this. It's not something you can take a class on necessarily because it's in constant flux, you are evaluating the problem. You walk into a room and you see the people in there, you start to understand what their needs may be. Then you have to start formulating a plan out of your toolkit of Different things that are going to meet those needs to create the environment to try to do innovative work. So there isn't ever a one step plan. All right, I one plan that works for everything, you need to have a broad and deep tool set, so that you can identify and understand which tools to add sort of to the mix. And so that comes through observation. And it comes through discovery and learning. And this is something I tell our design team all the time, is that we are detectives and not psychics. And so question everything, you know, come with that, that really open mindset to learn or to have your opinion changed. And if you can model that behavior, you can start to get others to reciprocate. And if you can explain to them why it's valuable, you can get buy in. And I think that that, you know, is always so important. If you don't know why you're doing something, it's going to be really hard to convince someone else to do it.
Yeah, we're detectives, not psychics. I love that. That's fabulous. I'm going to start using that. I've even put it on a t shirt. That's that's just awesome. I love that. So yeah, great advice. I mean, we're just on this learning journey. And there's no, there's no end in sight. And that's the fun part. And in many cases, because, you know, we, especially for those of us like like you and me who are just kind of, you know, curious beings. And most most folks in design and product are as well. So, love that advice. Just keep learning, keep finding ways that that impact you and your learning, and your learning journey as well.
So, Rex Chekal, thank you so much for joining me for sharing your expertise and your perspectives. It's been a great conversation, and I've enjoyed it a lot. Thank you so much for being on product voices.
Thank you for having me. Obviously, it's one of my favorite topics. So I'm always here to talk about if you need more.
I love it. I love it. Well thank you again for joining us. And thank you all for joining us on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product voices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.
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