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In today's competitive market, delivering an outstanding user experience (UX) is critical for product success. A well-designed UX can lead to higher user satisfaction, increased engagement, and, ultimately, improved brand loyalty. But how can product designers, developers, and organizations create user experiences that truly stand out and make a lasting impression on users? In this interview series, we are talking to UX professionals, product designers, developers, and thought leaders to explore "The 5 Best Ways to Elevate Your Product's User Experience." As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Samantha Gonzalez.

Samantha Gonzalez

Samantha is an Associate Director of Product Strategy at DockYard, a digital product consultancy, where she works with clients who are looking to level up their strategy ethically and sustainably to build products that perform and scale. She’s previously worked on digital transformations for brands like Facebook, Splunk, and WPEngine, and led product strategy plans and technical discoveries for a variety of growth-stage startups. Outside of work, Samantha is an improv teacher and mentor to new project and product managers through her personal brand, PM with Purpose.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I discovered product development when I was first working more in marketing and sales at an agency. The main project manager was going on maternity leave and I stepped in to cover while she was out. From there, I fell down the rabbit hole of how we create digital products and connect them to impact folks we were looking to serve. At the same time, I began my career in improv where I started performing and eventually teaching. Those two worlds continued to fold into each other as I became a product manager and eventually moved into product strategy.

Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product development and user experience?

I was at an Austin agency, Raw Materials—formerly known as Handsome—and met a UX Designer, Celine Thibault. Celine and I worked on a few different engagements with a variety of clients—Facebook, an investor marketplace startup, a car-selling marketplace, and many more. She gave me my crash course in user research and various UX methodologies. From recruitment to diligent note-taking to creating insights, she educated me on every step as we gathered mountains of data and synthesized it together. I was lucky enough to have her as my unofficial teacher and partner and eventually a good friend as we went our separate ways professionally.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

I had a LOT of fumbles over acronyms I “should” have known like API, GTM, ARR, etc. I was not formally trained in product management until I was in the field for a year. I would not speak up in meetings and then underdeliver on what was asked because I was afraid to look stupid. I learned very quickly it’s better to ask for clarification immediately. It’s elitist to assume we all have the same training, access to resources, and background. Ask for clarification often and over-clarify, because you don’t know who also might be benefitting from the new information.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?

This may seem small but it was the first thing I thought of. I created and hosted an event called “Undoing Harmful Design” where I invited product leaders, designers, and researchers to work as a team on fictional brands that were problematic in some way through a DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) lens. They were given an hour to work on the pitch in groups and then we shared our reworked brands and UX improvements. I received a lot of great feedback from the event and it made me realize I needed to continue to pursue what I now know as “ethical product strategy.” If we’re not looking at the unintentional harm or misuse of our products, we’re missing a big piece of where we want to have ‘impact.’ I’ll get into this more later.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I first became a product manager, I had a lot of ongoing initiatives when I was at a startup. I was not hitting any set launch dates. Customer success, sales, and leadership were frustrated. I am the type of person who solely takes on responsibility for failures whether I had direct influence or not. I started to realize I wasn’t collaborating, I was commanding. I wanted to be a strong leader but I wasn’t advocating for my team. I pivoted to full-team roadmapping sessions in order to get buy-in from all my leads instead of taking our initiatives from the sales team. I have to credit my experience in improv for bringing me back to the spirit of connection and creation I was lacking in my work.

How do you prioritize user experience when developing a new product, and what steps do you take to ensure that the final product meets the needs and expectations of your target users?

This will not be anything new but CONDUCT USER INTERVIEWS! I have seen so many companies skip over this work, especially startups. I am also talking about generative user research where you’re targeting a specific group of individuals and learning about their pain points and behaviors in area [fill-in-the-blank]. Usability testing is great to fold in here, but so many folks will tell you they would buy it but that doesn’t mean you’ve uncovered real value for them. This is also how I can understand we’ve met their needs and expectations because I know what type of impact it will have on them if I’ve created something they will adopt. I know where we started and what life looked like without my solution.

Can you share any strategies you have for effectively gathering and analyzing user feedback?

There are so many tools and methodologies for gathering user feedback, especially remotely. I used to travel and conduct in-person interviews pre-pandemic. The best strategy I have is to demo the test yourself as a user and with others around you. If you can, try it on an older device or slower internet speed. Demo with your parents or someone older. Demo with someone who’s a non-native speaker of your main language. Create inclusive testing practices so you can open up the pool of individuals who will speak to you and feel safe doing so.

Can you share an example of a time when you received user feedback that prompted you to make significant changes to a product's user experience, and how did you approach incorporating that feedback into the development process?

I was working on a vehicle marketplace application where a seller could offload their used cars, focusing on ones that had damage or were no longer drivable. They would go through a seller’s flow to asses what their vehicle was worth based on a series of questions about the history and condition. We found it was easy for sellers to make mistakes when completing their title and finalizing their sales. Making those mistakes meant the sellers ended up spending more time on something that they aren’t invested in anymore, creating frustration and leaving a negative impression of their experience with the service.

We had to emphasize and oversimplify obstacles that sellers passively dismiss and call attention to the most important details so sellers would take the necessary actions to complete the task at hand. This dramatically reduced the completion of the sales as we created clearer barriers for title assessments.

How do you balance the need for simplicity and ease of use with more complex or advanced features in a product, and what strategies do you use to make sure that users can navigate those features without getting overwhelmed?

I think that’s the age-old question: How can we make something custom and complex but also easy to use? For us at DockYard, one of our product principles is to “guide beginners and empower experts.” Digital interfaces need to be easy and intuitive to use but robust and effective enough to allow users to dive deep. Like most product folks, this starts with detailed user flows for happy paths and edge cases. We limit cognitive overload by simplifying the path to complete the desired task.

What are some of the strategies you’ve used to make your product ‘stickier’ and increase user retention?

I would say I avoid the terminology in making products ‘sticky.’ In our service offering of Ethical Product Strategy, we’ve modeled after the Danish Center for Design which seeks to “avoid manipulation” and “put users in control.” We work with clients to create engagement and see where the opportunity areas of value we need to place our bets are. We believe we can serve both businesses and users by putting ethics at the forefront of product development.

In your experience, what are some of the most effective ways to measure the success of a product's user experience, and how can this data be used to continuously improve the product over time?

The most effective way to assess the success of a product’s user experience is by giving the user opportunities to provide feedback as they go. Adding those low-friction opportunities for users to gauge their satisfaction with tools like Hotjar or Pendo are great additions to the product journey. Our other main feedback source is to continually conduct user interviews with current customers. We use this data to help inform our buyer journey that we create during discovery but continually revisit as we learn more. It helps us know what types of go-to-market activities will be impactful for reaching the folks who will find more value in our client’s solution.

Based on your experience, what are the “The 5 Best Ways to Elevate Your Product’s User Experience?”

1. Define a product code of ethics - Pavani Reddy’s book “Ethical Product Development” details an eight-step of code of ethics you can create for any product. It has been a game changer in asking the tough questions in the creation, updating, and maintenance of digital experiences.

In the process Reddy lays out, you should be able to define:

  • Problem Being Solved
  • Users
  • Intended Use
  • Unintended Use
  • Risks
  • Testing (how will we test our product holistically?)
  • Broader Impact (what are potential negative side effects for users/broader society?)
  • Upholding Principles (how will we uphold these principles within the org?)

2. Consider your anti-product - This is actually an improv exercise I like to do with product teams. Ask your teams, what does the worst version of our product look like? What would any ‘evil’ version of your features entail? This can help with the point above for defining “unintended use” but it can also help us break through mental blocks when it comes to solutioning.

3. Simplify complexity - As discussed above, user experiences value consistency, clear organization, familiar terminology, and progressive disclosure to make understanding easy. Whenever possible, evoke the less-is-more approach. This will help make your product more seamless and accessible to use.

4. It’s an assumption until it’s not - I see this a lot with clients who are creating products for their own stakeholders or investors vs. connecting to their users. Unless you have the data around a solution or decision, it’s an assumption. This is the purpose of testing hypotheses in user interviews, observing analytics, and conducting surveys. The most dangerous mistake we can make is betting on an uninformed assumption that leads to a poor user experience (and poor performance).

5. Accessible for one benefits all - I am sure this has been mentioned time and time again but if it’s not accessible, it’s a poor user experience. I’ve become a huge fan of Stephanie Walter who is a thought leader in accessible design. She has a litany of tips, resources, and checklists you should be viewing right now and integrating into every part of your product development process.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I’ve become a big Twitter fan of Yana Welinder, CEO/Founder of Kraftful. I really appreciate her prompts and advice. She’s her authentic self and lunch with her would be a delight.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.