When I saw starting out in IT (I won't tell you the year, but a B-movie actor was president), we brought users in when we were writing program specs. And we didn't see them again until delivery.
Needless to say, a lot of really mediocre apps got written when Ronald Reagan was president (this is one thing we won't blame on him, however).
More recently, our methodologies have matured to the point where users are an active part of application design and development from start to finish, as part of agile development and iterative methods, and that's as it should be. Rather than going off into our hovels and designing something inadequate, we are kept on point by the ultimate discriminator of success until we deliver. It's more work, but we get it right, and we get it right faster when users are at our elbow.
Social media has emerged in the past decade, and if there's one feature that rises above all others, it's that social media amplifies every voice. If you're on Facebook every day, you know this to be true: All the memes you love, and all the ones you loathe, are in your face 24/7. And many of us just can't stay away.
But here's the thing: that amplification can work in our favor, as architects and developers. Our task is to design software and systems that deliver precisely what is needed, and to build those apps and systems in such a way as to scale when needed and change as they must. And the user's voice has proven invaluable, hasn't it?
Social media can amplify that voice and keep it right where we need it while we're building the apps and systems. It's a matter of recognizing the value of this input, delivered in this manner, and acquiescing to it.
Make yourself at home!
Social media is now readily available in the enterprise: SharePoint/Yammer, Jive, Buzz — any of these can deliver input from every quarter, addressing any problem. How can we put this to work?
1. Start dialogs about new apps, or modifying old apps, before specs are written. Writing a new in-house app? Modifying an old one? In the distant past, we gathered input from users via questionnaire and left it at that. Today, it's possible to get all the users of an app talking about what they don't like, and talking interactively. How is that not better?
2. Don't limit discussion to immediate users — include others. It almost never occurs to us that the current user base might not see all the possibilities in a modified or extended app, or even a new one. But the universal truth of human innovation is that From The Outside, Looking In often yields the best ideas, the ones that the people closest to the problem can't see. If you start a company-wide discussion of an app modification, let more people into the discussion — the unexpected viewpoint might deliver inputs you otherwise would miss.
3. Social media creates an atmosphere of constant feedback, and opportunities for review. In short, social media does very well what bureaucracy only vaguely delivers: perpetual evaluation. Input on functionality and ergonomics can flow into the design and development process on an on-going basis, at every stage, and without the burden and cost of repeated meetings and demonstrations. Less time and expense, more input. Win-win.
Painless? No. This step requires enterprise-wide social media deployment, and that deployment will need to be moderated, or it gets clunky and confusing. But that's a price worth paying.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.