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Special Edition / Revolutionize Your Product Development Process with Customer Feedback, with Jay Brewer & Zhuldyz Alimbek

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Kyle Psaty




Jay Brewer & Zhuldyz Alimbek

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Jay Brewer is the Senior Vice President of Digital Product Design at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which creates a powerful digital platform to support K-12 teachers and improve student outcomes. He has been working in design and user experience across a wide range of areas, including toys, websites, video games, and enterprise software. He also  founded several companies in games, social media, and product innovation. Jay’s focus has always been to improve the outcomes of the products and experiences he delivers to the end customer. At Warner Brothers, he worked as the Lead Experience Artist to create the interface for Lord of the Rings Online. At Rapid7, Jay built the user experience team, which delivered a platform that allowed security professionals to secure their business, allowing innovation to prosper while doing so. Jay has won over 10 awards in toy and video game design as well as contributed to the user experience community with white papers on UX Maturity, From Dark Patterns to Angel Patterns, and Converging Data with Design Within Continuous Delivery Environments.

Zhuldyz Alimbek is a UX Researcher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. With a background in cognitive science, Zhuldyz is passionate about understanding the human mind and designing products that meet users’ needs. She has experience conducting both generative and evaluative research and believes in the power of user-centered design. Zhuldyz loves observing and studying human behavior and is particularly captivated by the digital space and its opportunities for creating exceptional user experiences. Before joining Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Zhuldyz worked on projects researching the neuropsychological effects of dance on Parkinson’s patients in collaboration with Canada’s National Ballet School and conducted ethnographic research to explore the environment of orphans in institutional care in former USSR countries, with a focus on Kazakhstan. In her free time, she is an avid social dancer and former instructor of bachata and salsa.

It hurts to admit, but product designers and teams don’t always know what our users need. We need to seek out user feedback and create ways for them to tell us spontaneously, often in the heat of the moment. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Jay Brewer & Zhuldyz Alimbek – fresh from the stage at Pendomonium 2023 – join Sean Flaherty and Kyle Psaty to talk about UX research and customer feedback and the essential value they deliver throughout the product development process.

User roles have become increasingly specialized in recent years, and so have user demands. At the same time, the pace of change is accelerating wildly. Taken together, these factors create a scenario that only adds to the importance and urgency of gathering feedback regularly – and from a variety of sources.

Zhuldyz, a UX researcher, highlights the power of spontaneous feedback, “which is received in the moment of frustration. That’s super important for us. It’s a different type of emotion,” she adds, “and it’s a different sense of responsibility you have as UX researchers or design team. It’s crucial to pay attention to this type of feedback, as it often reveals critical pain points and usability issues.”

Jay, Sr. VP of Digital Product Design, says it’s also important to find a balance between the spontaneous and interruptive feedback, as well as the negative and the positive.

“Finding that balance tends to even out those data doubters or those feedback doubters that we’re not actually getting a representative of engaged, kind of frustrated customers, not engaged customers. We need to go back and make sure we have a well-rounded set of feedback.”

Be sure to catch the entire episode with Jay Brewer & Zhuldyz Alimbek; they bring the UX perspective into the frame, doubling down on the power of collaboration within the product trio and the empathy required not just between builder and user – but among researchers, designers, and the product team as well.

It’s the ideal way to align user needs with product roadmaps to ensure that the right solutions are delivered.

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Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Kyle [00:00:43] Hey, Sean.

Sean [00:00:43] Hey, Kyle.

Kyle [00:00:44] Welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. Coming at you live today from the Pendomonium conference hosted by Pendo. Big shout out to them for having us in today. And it’s been awesome to hang out with almost a thousand product people learning and growing and getting to hear about what’s coming in the space.

Sean [00:01:03] What a great episode.

Kyle [00:01:04] Really interesting to talk to Jay Brewer and Zhuldyz Alimbek from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boy, they are really passionate about the user.

Sean [00:01:12] I’ve never seen two product people so passionate about what they do. We went deep on how to inform product development with feedback.

Kyle [00:01:21] Yeah, different processes and tools.

Sean [00:01:22] Yeah, and you know, next-level cognitive sciences. You know how I feel about that.

Kyle [00:01:26] Very cool. And they really talked a lot about how to influence all their stakeholders across a really broad platform with a lot of different functionality and sub-apps, essentially.

Sean [00:01:36] It’s a great episode.

Kyle [00:01:37] Let’s do it.

Kyle [00:01:40] Hey, everybody. Today we’re joined by Jay Brewer and Zhuldyz Alimbek, and they’re coming at you from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And they’re some of the rare animals in the zoo today because they’re both from the UX team at Houghton Mifflin. We’re excited to get into that and how you guys are thinking about analytics, tracking measurement, understanding the user better to help your product teams. Jay Brewer is the SVP of Digital Product Design at Houghton Mifflin. He’s been working in design and UX across a wide range of areas, including toys, websites, video games, and enterprise software. Then he founded several companies in gaming, social media, product innovation. So big breadth of knowledge here, excited to talk to you.

Kyle [00:02:19] And then Zhuldyz is a UX Researcher at Houghton Mifflin. She brings a background in cognitive science, which is really cool. So get ready for Sean to geek out about that. She’s passionate about understanding the human mind and really designing to meet the needs of those users across the broad range of user types and a lot of users on a really complex and complicated product that Houghton Mifflin has created for students and teachers. So really excited to have you both today. I’m Kyle Psaty, VP of Marketing at ITX. And of course, you all know Sean Flaherty, EVP of Innovation at ITX and regular co-host of the of the podcast. Thank you guys for joining us today and making time.

Jay [00:03:01] Thanks for having us.

Kyle [00:03:02] Yeah, awesome. It is exciting. This is a very exciting scene and it’s been awesome, I think. Everybody’s been in such a great mood and so warm. It’s been really a community-oriented event, so that’s been cool. I want to talk about user feedback and I want to talk about how your team is using user feedback across this platform and all these sort of various capabilities that you bring to the table.

Zhuldyz [00:03:24] Sure, I can talk about that. So we have various sources where we get user feedback. Of course, we do a lot of UX research with the usability testings, with the user interviews, ethnographic research we do, we gain a lot of user feedback. But if we really talk about Pendo, it’s the spontaneous customer feedback receive via resource center, where our teachers or admin, they can go in and submit feedback. And in the moment of frustration, that’s super important for us. It’s called spontaneous. We don’t ask for that feedback, so that’s a big difference for us. And also we have NPS that we put out twice a year, which is, we ask for their feedback. So they give the number and they provide their user feedback. So if we talk about Pendo, that’s two sources of user feedback that we receive.

Kyle [00:04:08] Can you talk more about that spontaneous feedback and the quality that you get in the sort of qualitative, like, frustrated moment that, that’s honesty, right? Like, that’s honesty.

Jay [00:04:18] Yeah. I mean, once again, one of the things with Pendo that’s great is that we have the resource center, they submit their feedback. We actually know in the product, like in what we’re calling Ed, Ed’s our platform, educational.

Kyle [00:04:31] Okay.

Jay [00:04:31] And so in Ed we’ll know like, “Hey, it came from the dashboard,” or it came from they were looking at their Into Math teaching curriculum materials. And we then get a little bit of more of a context, which I think the conference has talked a lot about knowing the context of the feedback, which lets us categorize the feedback a little bit easier and then kind of collate that feedback. So the types of things you hear are like, “Yeah, I can’t find anything,” or, you know, like, “This thing isn’t working, I want to grade faster.” You know, “Why does it take me so many steps to complete an assignment,” right? “Why does this product on your platform have assignments different than this other product on our platform?” Right.

Jay [00:05:14] And so we find, like, since we also connect to a lot of programs, that we’re getting a mixture of feedback around support issues like around the actual usability, and then also around their perception of, like, the content, right? Which for them, that experience, that whole thing is the product, right? So if they happen to be using math in one of our connected programs like Waggle, which is more of a standalone application that you launch from the platform, they see it as one thing. And so what’s great with Pendo, since we can have it across all that, we get that wide range of feedback. For us, we’re really trying to improve the platform to teaching experience. But we do provide that feedback to other stakeholders in the business so that they can actually learn.

Zhuldyz [00:05:59] Teachers are really proactive and we are so lucky to have them as users. I have teachers who are providing video links in the feedback being like, “This is what’s happening, this is what I don’t like; can you improve this?” So they’re very proactive. And just for the past year, for those spontaneous feedback, we received over 7000.

Sean [00:06:19] Wow.

Zhuldyz [00:06:20] And sometimes they are stuck with our platform and they want us to improve. It’s a different type of, it’s not entertainment when they get bored, they can leave. Here, we really need to improve the experience because they are teaching with us. And especially if they’re frustrated, and you’re in the middle of the class, you’re frustrated. It’s a different type of emotion you have because you are teaching and you have a student waiting for you. And it’s a different sense of responsibility you have as UX researchers or design team.

Sean [00:06:46] Do you find you get better feedback from customers who actually care about the product?

Zhuldyz [00:06:50] Mm hmm.

Jay [00:06:50] Yeah. I mean, they care about the product because the product is the learning that they want to provide the student.

Kyle [00:06:55] So it’s really immediately adjacent.

Jay [00:06:57] Yeah, It’s like, right there.

Sean [00:06:59] Tough in this situation because they don’t really have a choice, right? As a teacher, they don’t get to choose what product they’re using.

Zhuldyz [00:07:04] Yeah.

Jay [00:07:05] It’s very unique.

Sean [00:07:06] Makes it even more of a responsibility for you guys to take their feedback really seriously.

Jay [00:07:11] Yeah, because like, their district or, you know, whoever has picked to have Ed as their educational platform, obviously there’s a lot of care and understanding that goes in to trying to make it fit the needs of the district. But in the end they’re like, “Okay, I have to learn this math program or science program if it’s new.” Typically it’s a many-year kind of subscription. But it is something where we really care. And so they’re very passionate knowing that it isn’t going to go away. Right. It’s sort of like a car you buy and you can’t return. You’re like, I have to drive this car every day. You know, the fact that I have to turn on 45 buttons and flip the switch like four or five isn’t really great from a UX perspective, right? Or like from the fact that they want more assignments or they want to associate or make groups of kids, like, all the stuff that’s in their classroom is very unique to their situation and the kids, and it changes year to year for them. It’s not as predictable as you would imagine.

Sean [00:08:10] If it’s spontaneous, I’m sure you’re getting some positive feedback.

Jay [00:08:12] Sure.

Zhuldyz [00:08:13] Yes.

Sean [00:08:13] How do you use that?

Zhuldyz [00:08:14] Well, empower our stakeholders to say, “Oh, you’re doing a great job.” But I mean, the range is more negative because people tend, psychologically speaking, people tend to write when it’s negative more than when it’s positive.

Sean [00:08:26] Especially when they’re in a prisoner sort of scenario where they don’t have a choice, right?

Zhuldyz [00:08:30] Yep, this is what’s happening. But whenever it’s positive, I tend to put it in my slide and just let them know they’re doing a great job.

Jay [00:08:38] I think it’s a good point, which is there’s a lot of feedback. You know, the talk that we gave today at Pendomonium, too, around this is like, how do we collaborate with our stakeholders across the business, product managers, other folks to say like, “Hey, everybody, I know we turned this thing on and we’re getting all this stuff, but let’s work together to come up with an innovative way to solve the problems, and then we can work on fun stuff together. And then in the end, this hundreds of pieces of feedback around, I can’t use my dashboard or whatever it would be, that’s going to go away and you can work on other stuff.” And so that’s really been our method of trying to work through the feedback this last year.

Kyle [00:09:14] Yeah, and that feedback really drives empathy, right?

Sean [00:09:16] Yeah.

Zhuldyz [00:09:16] Oh yeah.

Sean [00:09:16] I ask that question because I’ve found in the teams I’ve worked with that positive feedback, it’s like fuel for your culture.

Jay [00:09:22] Yes.

Sean [00:09:23] Especially when the bulk of the feedback you get is negative.

Jay [00:09:25] Yeah.

Sean [00:09:26] Like looking for those little balls of light to make sure you’re feeding the team, you know?

Jay [00:09:30] Yeah.

Zhuldyz [00:09:31] Makes you feel good when you read the positive line.

Jay [00:09:34] We also recruit through Pendo now for new projects and new development, and we use other…

Sean [00:09:38] For beta testers?

Jay [00:09:40] Yeah, beta testers, or like, “We’re going to do a study.” We have a concept where we’ve learned all this feedback. We’re going to then put together prototypes and stuff and, you know, we do get a lot of diary studies and videos that we do through other software. And then just like the positive feedback, when you can play a video from one of those diary studies, it brings everybody like right to the customer and they’re like, “Oh, that’s Breanne, like, she’s like a teacher and this place in upstate New York and she like, really loves these two things, right?” But I think, you know, one of the goals too, is for us to continually, like, make the feedback real. Because it’s just data otherwise. It’s just like if you say, “Well, like, these four people can’t click on this thing,” and you’re like, “I don’t really care about those four people today.” But when you make it really human, like it’s really, really powerful.

Sean [00:10:28] And you see the impact in real time, that’s great. So you guys mentioned NPS, which is generally interruptive feedback.

Jay [00:10:35] Sure.

Sean [00:10:35] There’s a big difference in the quality of the data you get from interruptive feedback versus spontaneous feedback. Is that what you experience?

Zhuldyz [00:10:42] It is different. When it’s spontaneous, it’s in the moment of frustration. And sometimes it’s also good to interrupt because they’re not all the time very active and you want to reach out to those also who are not active at providing spontaneous feedback. We also do NPS via email because we want to reach out to those who are also not in the platform because Pendo is in the platform, right, so we want to reach out those who are not using it, who left our platform. So it is different, but it’s also, for us, a way to reach out for those who are not usually active going to that feedback platform as well.

Jay [00:11:18] It also balances those data doubters or those feedback doubters that we’re not actually getting a representative of engaged, kind of frustrated customers, not engaged customers. You know, we need to go back and make sure we have a well-rounded set of feedback.

Sean [00:11:33] Survivor bias.

Jay [00:11:35] Yeah, exactly.

Kyle [00:11:36] Part of your talk today was about how integrating customer feedback helps build products that truly stand out from the competition. Can you guys talk about how your focus on customer feedback and building this empathy through storytelling, how does that maybe pervade the organization or provide other sorts of leverage to help Ed stand out among the other products that are available to those school districts?

Zhuldyz [00:12:01] So it’s a big thing. In UX research, we know that you just don’t always know what they exactly needs. And sometimes we’re just so focused on tactical features to deliver. And so what we’ve been doing with the workshops, we really, we need to go back. First of all, we educate our stakeholders to let them know, “We’re going to provide you a lot of research insights, a lot of user requests, but it doesn’t mean we need to do exactly what they’re asking for.” You need to sometimes step back and try to think how we can integrate a few features and really provide some solution that’s effective. We need to listen to them. It’s like patients and they provide the symptoms, it’s the same. They’re really good at explaining their problems, but as experts in tech, we need to provide effective solutions for them. So it’s sometimes examining further and understanding jobs to be done, why they’re asking for this feature exactly, what’s the root of the problem? So that’s where we’re not just providing features, but actually providing the solution for them that is right. So that is the big difference.

Jay [00:12:59] Yeah. Nailed it. It’s like, we like to help people say like, “Well, you have this thing,” and they’re saying, “I can’t find this stuff, and also I’m actually having trouble like getting to my class quickly or looking at grades before I teach the class.” You know, we try to run workshops and design thinking stuff with PMs to basically say, like, there’s a whole set of stuff that’s kind of related and how do we think about approaches of what we could do with different experiences or things we don’t have, or potentially things that we have that aren’t working well together, and then transform them into, like, needs and then say, “We’re going to meet more of these outcomes.”

Jay [00:13:40] And then you can look at all that feedback and be like, oh yeah, teachers are saying it was difficult to plan, it was hard to look at what they needed to do to get to teach right away. And also they needed to know, like, what happened the day before and what it is. And so if you think about that, what would you do there? We do have projects, and I can’t talk about everything, but like, there was a massive amount of feedback around areas like that and other areas where for back to school 2024, we’re using that feedback to put that into different ways to either reorientate the teacher to the class to make it better. You know, Houghton Miffliin’s an educational company, but it’s also a 180-year-old publisher. So they’re very publishing-focused. Well, teachers are class-focused and kid-focused.

Kyle [00:14:23] Yeah.

Jay [00:14:23] So maybe our experience has a pretty good bias in it to be more about the content and those titles than it is around whatever. So how do you unpack that mindset of like, “Oh, it’s not that they can’t find stuff, it’s like, it’s not in the context of how they think about finding stuff.” And so that’s really how we work through it. And then we’ve, since I’ve been there and working with a team, working with product managers, there’s a level of like fitness we’re getting around thinking about the bigger picture to then act on it in bite-sized ways to really drive like, you know, sets of needs instead of just like go move a button because they say they can’t find this quick review.

Kyle [00:15:02] Yeah.

Jay [00:15:02] You know, or whatever that is, so…

Kyle [00:15:04] Yeah, you talked a little bit about the culture of Houghton Mifflin and there are all kinds of cultures, not many of them are UX research first, right? Like Houghton Mifflin is publisher first. You guys have a lot of data, you’re doing a lot of research, you’re synthesizing that data, you’re pulling out stories, you’re sharing those videos. For you as a team with so many stakeholders across this broad platform, how do you find influence with your stakeholders to get them to listen?

Zhuldyz [00:15:30] Yeah. I don’t know, whenever I talk to you researchers, I think all of them have this problem. There’s a tension between the research team and the product team, and they’re like, “Oh!” And there’s always, like, a researcher who wants to put a lot of user pain points in the roadmap and the product team, they have other things to put in the roadmap. So it was so important for us to collaborate. So there are a lot of tips. So we invite them to the workshop, so we don’t record the workshop. So they’re honest with us and we are honest with them. So that was the first.

Kyle [00:16:00] These are workshops with your users?

Zhuldyz [00:16:03] No, with the product teams. Influence the stakeholders.

Jay [00:16:06] After we’ve kind of collected this feedback quarterly, we workshop the feedback in the themes where you might have someone who is really working on the dashboard and our discovery of content and whatever. And so we’ll be like, “Hey, we think these things line up, so now we’re going to workshop and come up with creative ideas of like where this can align to the roadmap so you as a product manager can hit the ground running and have all this feedback-informed product development.”Right?

Zhuldyz [00:16:34] So providing that empathy as a UX researcher and also letting them know that we are on the same team and have one goal. At the end of the day, we’re trying to enhance student progress and improve teacher’s lives. Research is really here to help you to make the right decisions and prioritize the future development. And being genuine about it. I’m really here and really empathetic. I’m empathetic to users that all sympathetic to you as a product manager. You probably have a lot on your plate.

Zhuldyz [00:17:03] So that was the first thing when we invite them to the workshop. We really want to understand their side and then we provide our user research, our user insights, and then we collaboratively work together to align user needs, user requests to the product roadmap and probably the potential products they have. So it’s basically empathy not only to your users but also to your partners. And it was that kind of influence, being genuine, really there to be helpful and insightful when it comes to building that bridge between the user and the product team.

Sean [00:17:34] Do you guys ever workshop with your customers?

Jay [00:17:36] Yeah, sure. Absolutely. Yeah. And we also do other types of field studies and, you know, things where we’re out of the classroom, we’re learning. They’re providing us, like, daily diaries that they’re doing week after week, doing wrap-ups. And we do, you know, in class and stuff. We have a significant community like in Teachers Corner on Facebook and stuff and oh my gosh, like…

Sean [00:17:58] Yeah, what comes out of that?

Jay [00:17:59] Anything you could possibly imagine. It’s like they’ll sign up to do anything to help out. They love showing us all the ways that they’re doing these things that they would love to not do, or they’re really proud of the way that they plan. And they show this like, you know, almost like archaic medieval manuscripts looking things, right, where they’ve got every moment of everything planned out. And we’re like, “What’s the blend?” You know?

Jay [00:18:22] One of our big challenges has been since the pandemic, and for teaching and learning in general is that a lot of teachers have left the profession. There’s a lot of new teachers in the profession, and so they’re put right in this hot seat of having to do planning, teaching, figuring out how to set up their class, learning the curriculum, learning the instructional routines, figuring out how to do assessments. All these things that I didn’t really even know til the last couple of years. And then you’re like, “So what we’ve really been focused on is getting, you know, these really new-to-teaching teachers into that mode because they’re actually able to learn an onramp to teaching that can make them not look like fools in front of the class.” I mean, they’re really like, they’re up there.

Kyle [00:19:07] Different kind of pain.

Jay [00:19:09] They’re like, they’re young, they want to be successful and they’re having to do all this. And so we’ve been really focused on that and the onramp of getting them set up, running, going, getting professional learning, getting them a coach, all these things that we’re making in the platform experience around them to give them that psychological safety to become a teacher.

Sean [00:19:31] They have a pretty merciless customer base, right?

Sean [00:19:34] Oh, yeah, they do. Absolutely.

Jay [00:19:36] You know, parents and kids. Right?

Kyle [00:19:37] Right.

Jay [00:19:37] Because everybody wants the best learning and they want the best teachers and everybody wants that. But like, you got to give some of these teachers a shot so that they do become those amazing teachers and they can connect with the students. And they have a lot to offer along with the seasoned teachers right? And so that’s really been the challenge, too, is that the customer who is using Ed has changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Sean [00:20:04] So selfishly, I’m gonna ask Zhuldyz a couple of questions now.

Jay [00:20:07] Perfect.

Sean [00:20:08] When you say cognitive sciences, that gets me excited. How do you bring cognitive science to the product space? Like, what do you mean when you say that?

Zhuldyz [00:20:16] Interesting. So in cognitive science, we study a lot in terms of perception, and it’s a lot of experimental psychology and understanding how to conduct research. So that’s basically the literature review, maybe not exactly in terms of understanding mind I’m using at work, but understanding research and how I need to be rigorous when it comes to numbers, when it comes to talking to teachers. And also, of course, I’m conducting the interviews. Listening to them helps me a lot from whatever I’ve learned, doing cognitive science as well. And yeah, I think in terms of skills of research, doing research and psychology helps me a lot to use in UX research. I never planned to become a UX researcher. I was just genuinely interested in human behavior and I just ended up becoming a UX researcher. But if you talk to any UX researcher, I think they have very interesting journeys where they studied psychology. So I think talking to people, having that empathy, having that genuine curiosity in human behavior, what’s going on, let me put myself in their shoes. So all of the skills that come from cognitive science and not only the research methods that you use in psychology.

Sean [00:21:26] Yeah, I’m a big fan of that. We try to apply concepts of self-determination theory and the science of human intrinsic motivation when we’re building products, you know, informing your workshops with what’s going on under the covers in people’s minds is a powerful tool.

Zhuldyz [00:21:41] Yeah, and it’s unfortunately, it’s real life. I have no time to do literature reviews and do more stuff when you do a lot of projects at the same time. But that’s one thing, sometimes I wish I could go back and read all these interesting articles before I do the project, but that’s super interesting.

Sean [00:21:59] It’s a cool mix of skills.

Kyle [00:22:01] I got a quick one for Jay. So, Jay, you have a pretty varied background. You’ve been doing this for a long time. What do you see changing about the process or about the job as a UX researcher or as a leader of the UX function?

Jay [00:22:15] Yeah, my background, you know, doing product development and stuff, also I did a large stint like 12 years in video games. Video games, like everybody says, you know, is usually a little ahead of everybody else. And it’s true. The thing that you learn is like, you know, all around, like I have a need to play this Lord of the Rings game because I want to be Legolas, like in the evening, and I want to go through the shire and do these quests with my good hobbit friend and like deliver some pies and come back and I come back the next night and I want to play that game and go deeper and maybe we’ll wander out.

Jay [00:22:49] And what’s happened is really that that outcome of a success, right, and like a feeling of joy and whatever, it’s about the needs being met and having those outcomes. And so, you know, this whole conference has got a lot more of that language in it. And what you’re seeing is that you have to figure out those needs and really get the motivations and get the research and understanding right so you can embark on a good journey, right?

Kyle [00:23:17] Right.

Jay [00:23:17] With your product teams and your development and design teams. And the voice of the customer and, like, the informed point of view of empathy and relating is even more important than ever before in an enterprise space, right? Because like, the thing is, is that this is all going to like, “I can keep paying and go, or I can go somewhere else really quickly,” right? And as like more product development happens and more smaller areas of stuff due to AI and whatever, then that needs outcomes is going to go higher and higher and higher. Like, you know, you have your calendar and you have this and you have this little app and that little app and you use your ChatGPT, like, you know, we heard at this at the conference. And those are all stitching together to meet your needs. And that’s also a different way of thinking why you’re buying and doing, but I think that’s happening.

Sean [00:24:06] My favorite book on this is written by a guy named Scott Rigby who we’ve had on the podcast many times. He wrote Glued to Games, He’s got a PhD and he studied self-determination theory studying video games and behavior and human needs satisfaction. So I’ve got a couple of nuggets that I captured. We’re getting close to the end here, so I’d like to just review them with you, make sure I have them accurately captured. One is that spontaneous feedback is really important. So if you can figure out how to capture it in the moment, it’s like a power tool for product leaders. That’s something that you get clearly from Pendo.

Jay [00:24:38] Yeah. And you’re willing to take it, right?

Sean [00:24:40] Yeah, absolutely. Number two, we talked about positive feedback as fuel for your culture. And I think having systems and like doing what you’re doing, like taking that positive feedback, putting it on your slide deck so you’re pushing some of that positive energy about the good work you are doing, especially in the midst of a lot of negative feedback, is really important for teams.

Sean [00:25:00] Number three is I asked you to compare and contrast spontaneous versus interruptive feedback. I didn’t exactly get the answer that I like because I don’t like interruptive feedback personally. You said, you know that it helps you handle all those data doubters and it helps you deal with things like survivorship bias and all the things that you can’t see in the people that are actually using the product. I thought that was brilliant.

Sean [00:25:20] I got a lot here. So four, understanding the context. You went deep on that. Like, the more you understand the real context of the problems you’re trying to solve, the better you can solve the problems. I think we lose track of that a lot as product leaders. Number five: feedback. Sometimes we schedule regular workshops and we don’t even think about what, are we informing this workshop with?

Jay [00:25:41] You can put it right on that Miro Board.

Kyle [00:25:44] Yeah, just get it there.

Sean [00:25:45] It’s there, but we don’t always use it. So I love that. This has been a theme here, number six, this came from you Zhuldyz, that empathy is not just for your users, but also for your team. I think that’s an important them to continue to reiterate.

Sean [00:25:58] Number seven is that having a beta testing community that’s diverse, not just in the way we typically think about diversity, but in the longevity of their usage of the product. Like you need new users because you might get a lot of unexpected things from them. And that was an insight for me. And then number eight, informing products with cognitive science, I think that’s next-level. That’s going to be the next generation of great products is going to come from that. Like, really understanding how the brain ticks.

Jay [00:26:28] I think a lot of times you see research come out and it’s all, like, very positive and all like exciting and that’s fine. It’s good to sprinkle a little positive and get to the actual facts so that you can really do the work. So we have like a monthly performance review where we go through all the projects and themes. We meet for a day and everybody can see all the work. All the research is in not just the product team reporting like, “Hey, guess what? We built all this stuff.” Here’s all the research we conducted. Here’s actually how the things that we’re doing are being built. And it’s actually completely from when the project starts, the research never goes away. Because, like, for the next phase, for design, for discovery, for whatever…

Kyle [00:27:10] It’s connected, yeah.

Jay [00:27:11] Here’s why features are there.

Kyle [00:27:12] That’s brilliant.

Jay [00:27:13] Which has been also a big, big win. But it’s also, you know, it’s a thing to ask the research team to make sure we can provide that. But we’ve seen it worth it. Like really, really worth it.

Kyle [00:27:23] Yeah, that’s probably the best metadata tag I’ve ever heard of, like carry that research right along with this feature so the empathy is always there.

Sean [00:27:31] And you don’t ever forget what you learned in the past.

Jay [00:27:33] Yeah. And then that research gets rolled up to the executive leadership team. And when they started getting a little bit of it, they’re like, “Holy cow, you guys are doing all this; I’m hearing about teachers.” And so that was another really good win for us, I think too.

Sean [00:27:47] Excellent. So how do you guys define innovation?

Zhuldyz [00:27:51] Interesting. I think there are very different ways we can look at it, but for me, it’s adapting. For me, there is nothing original that it’s also trying to adapt and creating something. So for me, it’s like being adaptive and being creative.

Sean [00:28:06] Combining.

Zhuldyz [00:28:06] Yeah, combining things that you’ve learned, of course, and evolving. And it’s just as human beings, we are programmed to evolve all the time and if you’re not adapting quickly, you’re going to be dead in the market.

Kyle [00:28:18] I love it.

Jay [00:28:19] Yeah. I would say it’s really looking at the diversity in the space, like Zhuldyz is sort of getting at there, and listening and understanding and relating before you jump to the solution and taking all that into it and to like, “Oh my gosh, what if we did this?” So there’s a transform in there. If you’ve got the context, you kind of relate, get the empathy. You know, it’s like if you feed ChatGPT well, right? It can work well, your teams can perform well and come up with something innovative if they’ve got all those tools and the diverse set of things informing it, it really works. Other than that, you do get a lot of like moving the button.

Kyle [00:29:00] Yeah. It’s all about that context, I guess, right? Last one, anything that either of you are learning about lately, or especially any books that you’ve read that you think our audience would love to read?

Zhuldyz [00:29:13] Well, it can be very different.

Kyle [00:29:15] No wrong answers, Zhuldyz

Zhuldyz [00:29:16] All right. Okay. I’m going back to Russian literature. I love Tolstoy and Dostoevsky whenever I’m not feeling I’m not spiritually growing. But, you know, I think they are the best at explaining psychology and philosophy. A lot of people ask for psychological book recommendations from me because I study cognitive science. But I’ll always go back to literature, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, it’s a masterpiece. I can’t even describe it. So you really want to understand deep psychology, the motivation, what happens? Crime and Punishment. It’s just it’s a very long topic, but that’s what I’m reading right now. It just came to my mind and it’s really interesting. It might not be related to product development, of course, but I think it’s great to actually grasp some stuff from there as well.

Kyle [00:30:01] Very florid and detailed, right, which our listeners love to be detailed. Detail-oriented, so well played. What about you, Jay?

Jay [00:30:10] Well, I have a philosophy degree as well. And I recently, just with the state of everything, I’ve been getting back into a philosopher whose last name is Quine. And there’s a book called The Web of Belief. And I’ve been going back through books that when I was a little younger, maybe a little fresher out of college, had really good ways of thinking about having better conversations with people and really kind of taking a web of someone’s belief and then being able to have a good conversation versus having an argument because you’re just so far apart. So I’ve been doing that and a little bit of Alan Watts, too.

Sean [00:30:43] Excellent. Well, thank you, guys.

Jay [00:30:44] Thank you.

Sean [00:30:44] This was a great interview. We really enjoyed it.

Kyle [00:30:47] That’s right. Jay Brewer and Zhuldyz Alimbek from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt here at Pendomonium 2023. Thank you guys, for being here.

Jay [00:30:56] Thank you for having us. This was awesome.

Paul [00:31:00] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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