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All new products start with an idea and then continue through the stages of development. What are the 5 habits that can accelerate product development cycles? In this interview series, we are talking to product managers, founders, and authors who can share stories and insights from their experiences about how to accelerate product development cycles.  As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Duane Bray.

Duane Bray

Duane Bray is Groopit’s Chief Product Officer, based in New York. He is passionate about workplace innovation, helping leaders solve complex challenges in today’s environment, and how to align business needs with talent capabilities. He brings both a user experience and leadership strategy capability to the role, having recently joined Groopit after a 27-year career at the design and innovation firm IDEO.

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’ve always been interested in design and creativity—drawing, making things with my hands, and trying out new ideas—since I was a small child. I would create new ideas, illustrate them and bring them to school to present to my classmates.

I originally thought I would move into a field like graphic design and started out on that path. But when I was in college, I had a job working for what was a very early online information system—pre-web browsers—as their “digital graphic designer.” I became fascinated with how different it was from the world of physical, printed materials. People understood how to interact with books, magazines, and posters. But this was different. Any number of experiences could happen on that screen—it was all about how you approached guiding people through it.

That had me hooked, and I decided that the world of digital experiences was where I wanted to focus—it guided me to my initial role as an interaction designer throughout my career there, and now to my role as Chief Product Officer at Groopit.

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

When I was at IDEO, I had the privilege to work with the late Bill Moggridge, who went on a personal and professional journey from the world of physical products to embracing interactive experiences. He coined the term “interaction design,” which was the field I entered after grad school. I think what was so impactful about my experience of working with him was his own story—in the 1980s and 1990s, he saw that more and more physical products were being made with screens and that what happened on the screen was going to be what defined the experience of using the product. Shifting his own thinking about product design and the product development process led to his definition of “interaction design.” Getting to work directly with him, and have him see and critique my work as a young designer, helped shape my own processes at a very important moment in my career.

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 once worked on a project that was a kind of digital assistant for people with chronic health conditions, who needed frequent contact with their care providers. That largely ended up with a focus on elderly people at home or in assisted living facilities.

I ended up having the opportunity to work with people at an assisted care facility and did a lot of my designing and prototyping on-site. I remember testing early prototypes and getting a lot of shrugs, blank stares, and even laughter as they worked with my designs. And that made me realize that my life experience was radically different from theirs—I was so immersed in technology on a daily basis, but these people were working from an entirely different mental model. They simply had no idea what I was asking them to do, and the early designs were utter failures.

This for me was a real lesson in empathy—not just trying to understand someone else’s context, but actually trying to see the world through their eyes. 

I started leaving paper prototypes behind at the end of each day, letting patients make marks on them or even write down their own ideas. And by building on what they shared, I shifted into a mode where I was co-designing the experience with them. At the end, we had a solution that they felt confident in, and that they felt would actually make a difference in the quality of care they received.

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

Certainly, my example earlier from my college job, working on the design of an early online information system, really changed my trajectory. But to give a more recent and relevant example, let’s fast forward several years, and we get to another moment that had specifically shaped the role I’m in today: nearly 20 years ago when I was a consultant at IDEO and leading our digital business, I had the opportunity to work with Tammy Savage, an executive at Microsoft. She rapidly became my favorite client, in part because she is one of a handful of leaders I’ve worked with who truly have a vision for what they are here to do. In her case, it’s combining the power of technology with insights from everyday people to solve really complex and challenging problems. That was her mission when she was at Microsoft, and when we reconnected a couple of years ago, I saw a new version of that vision in her decision to found Groopit. That initial collaboration almost 20 years ago inspired me to leave an organization I had been at for 27 years to be a part of her team as Chief Product Officer to help build a new software category called crowdsolving.

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?

This question doesn’t resonate with me. Not because I haven’t experienced hard times, but because once I knew my path, I was committed to it. I’m someone who, once I have an instinct about something, always trusts my gut and never questions it. So when I encountered challenges early on in my journey, it was less about what I was doing but how I was doing it. Was this the right project for me? The right role or company? Those are tough questions to ask sometimes, but I think it’s important to distinguish between the journey you’re on and the roadblocks that inevitably arise. 

How do you stay on top of market trends and developments in the product management space?

I’m someone who tends to engage in conversation as a part of my learning process. I have built up different networks that allow me to dig deep with people I respect and admire about what problems they are facing, how they are solving them, and what matters to them at the moment.

I also simply like to experiment a lot—hearing about new tools and processes, trying them on for size, and seeing how those might change my own approach.

What role does cross-functional collaboration play in accelerating product development cycles, and how do you foster effective collaboration across different teams and departments?

I honestly don’t know how you have product development without cross-functional collaboration. For me, that’s across the entire journey—the needs and insights of your customers and end users is one form of collaboration and often the start for me. Connecting those needs to the product vision, the business strategy, engineering, sales, and marketing is all part of the process. The outcomes are simply better when all of those different perspectives inform the process. While this was true in my consulting role, it is especially true now in my role at Groopit, where not only am I running the product development process but doing so for a product that is itself about customer insights and cross-functional collaboration.

Fostering collaboration is all about modeling it. And for me, that’s two things—sharing and curiosity. Sharing means being open and vulnerable with your ideas—bringing ideas to the table in their early stages, when they can be influenced with feedback from others.

Curiosity is about engaging and asking questions that help bring new perspectives to your thinking—understanding needs, motivations, priorities and outcomes that matter to different stakeholders.

Based on your experience, what are your “The 5 Habits That Can Accelerate Product Development Cycles”? 

Habit 1: Breaking down barriers internally

In many organizations, work is broken into silos, where product, marketing, sales, and engineering are often separated from one another. The reality is, that each of these roles has a distinct lens to bring to iterating and improving on the product, through their expertise and through the people they interact with. Harnessing the insights across these groups on a regular basis is an important key to success.

Going further, I would say that harnessing insights from every single person who interacts with customers—in real-time—is so important to see the patterns that will drive both strategy and outcomes. I’ve seen this myself in work with a large Enterprise software company whose internal sales and marketing teams would go out of their way to avoid using their own product—uncovering why this is (rather than chastising them) uncovered some serious but very addressable problems with the user experience that had been ignored because neither sales nor marketing were included in the product development process. 

Habit 2: Getting the voice of the customer in your head (and your process)

We all understand the importance of user feedback and user testing. These tools are helpful to evaluate, but not particularly generative. Spending time with customers helps us understand the needs and motivations behind why they want to use your product, what role it plays in their work, and the problems they are trying to solve. Knowing the needs and motivations of your customers as you think about product evolution, priorities and new features is powerful to innovate and bring solutions that customers really care about. 

An important mindset shift for this to work is going from “I’m the leader and I know everything about the product and the process” to “People on the ground using my product on a daily basis probably see or know things that I don’t.” That’s not always easy, and it requires having the right tools in place to listen and to invite people in to share what they know.

One of the best examples I know is a client of mine (who happened to be the CEO) who regularly went around to employees at customer organizations as a support person and asked for direct feedback to “take back to the leadership team.” One of the tools was printouts of their product and a pen, where he invited people to mark up things they didn’t like or make suggestions for things that were missing.

Habit 3: Having a strategy and sticking to it

We are often buffeted by new needs and requirements and sometimes lose our way, either getting buried in a mass of new requirements or using the loudest voices to drive our decisions. In reality, we need a North Star, a strategy for what the product is and what it will become. Using this not just as a vision or something in the deck but as a tool for prioritization is critical to stay focused, knowing what to say no to, and ensuring you’re making decisions that are aligned with what is going to offer the most value.

Sometimes, this can be as simple as having a way to reinforce your strategy—what metrics can you use to see if you’re on track or need to change focus? What do insights or feedback from customers tell you about how your strategy might resonate with their needs?

Habit 4: See #3, but be open to change

The reality is that sometimes that big customer is going to want something done, or that potential new customer is only going to use your product if a certain feature is in place. That’s reality, and that’s OK as long as this is not your default response. And the opportunity here, when these requests come in, is that you might hear something that is applicable (and important) to all of your customers, and may actually become part of your product strategy.

To me, this is about creating space for the unexpected to happen—not only the ability to hear new things that may differ from your current understanding but also the place to surface those new things so you can onboard that information at the right time. A great example of this is understanding what your competitors are doing: your product or offer doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so you need to understand how the moves your competitors make will impact what you do and vice versa. 

Habit 5: Embracing—and learning from—what doesn’t go as planned

What’s wonderful about product development is that users are unpredictable—they may not use your product or features as you planned. Features that you think users will love and need may completely bomb. These can be seen as setbacks and frustrations but they are also wonderful opportunities to learn. Why didn’t that go as planned? What did I not understand from customer insights? With this new knowledge, what would I do differently? What should I try first? These questions are powerful to know how to be resilient as you evolve your product.

One of the things I learned early on in my career was that you can never predict how people will use something that you make—their mindset isn’t necessarily your mindset. I still remember an early project I worked on where a user was banging their fist on their keyboard trying to accomplish a task—it’s one thing to build something that someone can’t figure out, but it’s quite different to incite rage in someone. That was a big learning for me to think not only about how something works but the emotional impact I want it to have (and rage is not on my list of desired outcomes).

What I wish I had then was the ability to tune into those needs across a wider number of people on an ongoing basis to make those moments of failure—when they inevitably happen—truly work as learning opportunities.

What are some of the common pitfalls that you see product teams fall into when trying to accelerate their development cycles, and how can these be avoided?

Accelerating is about making tradeoffs, but sometimes time as a constraint can cause us to edit the wrong things out of the process. The most common one I see is defaulting to what you know and, in doing so, losing the perspective of your customer or end user. This can result in launching something that no one actually wants or that they can’t use as easily or effectively as they might.

Another pitfall is getting into a closed mindset, where your world is entirely focused on getting something out the door without enough of a critical lens on what that something is. This can mean losing the connection to the product strategy or even the business outcomes.

Can you share an example of a time when you had to make a tough tradeoff between speed and quality during a product development cycle, and what was the outcome of that decision?

More than once. Again, this is where it’s important to pause, take a breath, and check yourself against what your original goals were. I’ve landed on both sides of the tradeoff—delaying a launch because quality and completion were most important for the needs of the business; on the other side, digital products benefit from iteration, so I’ve also launched early with less features, knowing that we can learn and tune in-market.

How important is a data-driven approach to product development, and can you share a story where data significantly influenced your decision-making process?

It’s hard to imagine a product development process that isn’t informed by data, particularly around usage. For a project that was about career tools, there was a hypothesis that employees did not care much about or read into the details of salary negotiation. When we built out a system, we saw that information about how raises are determined and how to ask about a raise quickly became the most accessed information in the system. That was great to see and didn’t necessarily change the product itself, but it did ensure that the company’s leaders were as informed about compensation and raises as employees since those employees were using the system to come to their salary conversations informed and prepared.

Can you share an instance where user feedback led to a significant pivot in your product development strategy?

See my earlier example above about designing a product for people with chronic health conditions.

What I would add to that example is that we, as people and users, can be an endless source of inspiration. When it comes to using new products and services, we often don’t use them exactly as intended—it’s those unexpected behaviors that are a gold mine for innovation and product development. And the more varied your users are, the more interesting those user insights can become.

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

Thanks for asking! I don’t like to play favorites, so I’m going to frame this a different way—I love connecting with people who like to share stories, methods, and their own career journeys. If my interview sparks interest for someone, I’m open to connecting with them.

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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.