Software Development

Why ignoring the end-user makes you seem incompetent

IT product developers who don't try to understand the needs of end-users are doomed to fail.

The recent high-profile fiasco of the healthcare.gov website has reminded me of an issue I’ve seen more and more of lately, and that is: a disregard for customer service.

Now, this goes as high up as CEOs making decisions that they think their customers will want. And then it turns out that they’re wrong (Most companies fail customer service test—MoneyWatch). As the author of this piece, Michael Hess, says, companies should be more concerned with the way their customers feel because technology has made it much easier to praise (or pan). “Customers now tell 15 people about their good experiences and 24 people about their bad ones, while nearly half of consumers always tell others about good customer service experiences.”

But it also applies to internal customers. I have seen many cases in which the development of a new tool for end-users is done seemingly without concern for the end-user. Code is written, deadlines are met, but no one goes to the trouble of anticipating and empathizing with what the end-user’s experience is going to be like.

Now before everyone starts blowing gaskets, I know that end-users are not the only shareholders in the equation. I know that you have other masters that are guiding the outcomes of your projects---other masters who also happen to have your future employment in their hands. But there are ways to successfully walk the line between the two groups. There is a way to manage expectations of your end-users.

I think IT has come to expect that end-users ask for on-a-whim features and not really what they need to get their jobs done. Since IT personnel won’t be the users of, say, a new cms, they can’t differentiate between “it would be great if we had this capability…” and “We have to be able to do this.” So, they ignore most of what they hear when gathering needs requirements—and believe me, being ignored is one horrible customer experience-- and they plod along creating a product that is technically functional but lacking practical usability.

So what can IT do to avoid this?

1.  Be an end-user for an hour.

Yes, I’m suggesting that you get up from your chair and walk over to another department. Sit down by an end-user and watch as he or she goes uses an existing tool to file a claim or enter some data.

I’m a firm believer that witnessing a task is a much better way to learn than looking at rows of a requirements spreadsheet.

2.  Install a project manager who is neither IT nor in the area where a tool will be used.

What you need here is someone akin to a U.N. interpreter. This would be someone who can understand technical details but who isn’t actually in IT; someone who can understand and translate end-user needs but knows how to weigh and triage technical requests. And if you find such a person, hold onto him or her for dear life.

3.  Don’t be afraid of face-to-face meetings.

Despite what I think most people fear, I’ve never witnessed a gladiator-type, to-the-death interaction between IT and the employees of other departments. Google docs and email might work for interim meet-ups but the occasional group get-together helps with clarity a lot during a project. And it’s also the place where you can tell an end-user why his desire for a 3-D button is not at the top of your to-do list. Explain about priorities, particularly those expressed by upper management. Given some perspective, end-users might be able to “get it.”

4.  Do a post mortem/survey with end-user input.

Yes, it could be painful, but you will also learn some valuable lessons along the way that you won’t repeat the next time a project comes up. It’s also a time to let end-users what they could have done to make the project go smoother. [See item number 2 if you need someone to referee.)

Also, if you create an end-user survey, make it a good one. So many times, I’ve been the recipient of surveys whose questions are designed to garner only positive answers. For example, don’t ask a yes/no question like “Did you at any point during this project kick an engineer in the throat?" and then expect a No answer to be taken as relationships with shareholders were good. Enlightenment might sting, but it’s good for you.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

27 comments
RMSx32767
RMSx32767

It is not necessary to utilize a non-IT project manager. There are IT folks with excellent soft skills who spend considerable time with end-users, learning about them and how they use the software, then designing and implementing software which meets the specs of the end user. Those folks frequently become the "goto guy/girl" for other groups within the company. I am one of those IT folks.

PeterM42
PeterM42

It would seem that Microsoft are VERY guilty of this - As an IT consultant, I don't know ANYONE who likes Windows 8 or Outlook.com.

CriticalEye4Details
CriticalEye4Details

If you want an excellent example of this article, check out https://www.facebook.com/groups/yahoomailfail/?hc_location=stream  on facebook.  People's business negatively impacted, people losing contacts, lives becoming stressed, all of it was unnecessary. Yahoo mail is now unreliable.  Many are leaving.  This facebook site gives a close-up view of the impact of the NEO version of Yahoo has had on individual lives.  

VOMIChairman
VOMIChairman

@Toni ....Your article is right on cue.   For the past 16 years, I have been clamoring for a "Global-Virtual" location option on forms since we are a virtual organization and all our webinar/virtual events, career opportunities,  educational opportunities, and target markets are independent of any specific geographic location.    Yet, my plea for such option has largely fallen on deaf ears.    The response that I usually receive is a variation of one of the following:  1) Well,  the various job boards that we deal with and pass your information to require that we provide them with a specific location for a position in order to "prevent spam" , etc.,   2)  the search engines and databases that propagate and store the information that we receive from you use code that are location-based and therefore cannot process "global-virtual" data, etc., and last  but not least,  3)  we understand your need and will keep that in mind, however, our software developers will need a bit of prodding since they build software which is based primarily on the need requirements of a majority of their end-users.   

Perhaps, TechRepublic's clout could help bring attention to this huge problem that, to date,  has largely been ignored by the IT community.   I am considering to start a "Give Us a Global-Virtual Option" movement on Change.org in order to help address this very end-user issue and would very much appreciate your assistance in getting the word out.  

            

Ed_Stalker
Ed_Stalker

I think the operative word in this title is "SHOULD" - Ignoring the end-user SHOULD make you look like an incompetent
Unfortunately, all too often, it is the IT Support people that pay the price for a kludgey POS that gets foisted off on the customer.
The Managers of both the IT firm and the Customer Firm will go back and toast themselves with champagne, while the actual users are kvetching up a storm and the support people are going nuts..

bmerc
bmerc

The real problem is that the people you think are customers are not, in fact, customers. The real customers for public companies are their shareholders. Those are the only people they care about keeping happy. 

Everyone else is just a resource to be consumed in the quest for greater "shareholder value."


RNR1995
RNR1995

LOL
Anyone tell Microsoft this great wisdom???

albayaaabc
albayaaabc

Who use the internet is a good user for other computer issues with little English intercultural.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

Ignoring the end user doesn't make you look incompetent -- it makes you look insufferably stupid.

Software design /has/ to begin with figuring out what the user expects, and how the user is likely to use (or would like to use) the product.

Snak
Snak

Foward it to Hornbill too ..... I have yet to come across a Support Centre application (SupportWorks) that is so ..... well, shit, actually. I have to use it every day and, well, I'm so glad I didn't write it. When I write apps the first and last people I talk to are the users. This is why a database I wrote in 1997 is still in use, and loved by its users. AND it survived half a dozen Access version upgrades without breaking once. When upgrades are needed, the user is more important than the manager. Happy users make successful-looking managers.

paul
paul

I cannot believe that anyone still needs to be told this. Are we still in 1983? If you do not involve the users in the design of the systems, and the design of the user interface, you are doing the equivalent of prescribing medicine without examining the patient, or developing a drug without knowing the disease. And not just the user management, but the actual staff who will sit at the keyboards in front of the screens.This article explains why so much US originating software is so clumsy, ugly and inefficient.

The usability expert Alan Cooper wrote 'The Inmates are Running the Asylum' 15 years ago. If you think this article is telling you anything you didn't know and practice, you should buy copies for yourself and everyone on your projects. And search out other similar books.

jonathan
jonathan

Utilizing face-to-face feedback/criticism has been our most important distinction as a saas developer; and, our most humbling.

tomi01
tomi01

Yes, can you forward this to Microsoft, in the wake of Windows 8 there seems to be a substancial amount of this article they completely ignored and continue to ignore. 

-PM-
-PM-

Please forward to Symantec too - Backup Exec 2012

Nightscribe
Nightscribe

Really excellent tips - I especially concur with #2. It's like having a mediator in the legal arena!

Netteligent
Netteligent

I love your simple investigative report and whoheartedly believe in every single word, specifically Number 2 (secret of success). 
Most of the corporate America will NOT agree with you. It costs too much to maintain high level of supports, design, and implementation. We outsource everything and everything to maximize our profits.
Obamacare is a good example. We spent more $700 million and outsource most of the product development  to India, China, and outside of America. There is a huge "project management, program management, and experts" in America. There is no customer engagement or field trials because it deems unnecessary.
We and product developers from oversea simply ignore our customers and end-users.

GTGeek88
GTGeek88

It's really sad that an article like this has to be written. The article should be done like this:

Title: Why ignoring the end-user makes you seem incompetent

Body: Because if you ignore the end-user you ARE incompetent!!!

lymanp
lymanp

Great article and some great points.

Unfortunately it seems that companies already have something specific in mind for the end user.  He/she should be elated with the new version/product without the need for any of this in between stuff. 


minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I think the _idea_ of a survey is good. But the actuality of it is usually bad. That's because most places don't treat the survey like a project in and of itself, testing the requirements (the questions) and testing it on users.

I think the problem in many IT shops is the bureaucracy outside the IT shops. That why so many folks like Agile programming. Developers and users sitting together without 3 levels of managers on both sides helping to facilitate the process.

It's the difference between talking face to face and letting your lawyers negotiate for you.

But no surveys. Surveys probably irritate your customers more than your customer service experience can.

mariel.
mariel.

This is an excellent post, and reaffirms everything I've been doing on my project - www.triggerapp.com.

Just this morning I was speaking to a user who said he'd never seen such swift action when it came to user suggestions being implemented into an app.

Listening to end users, setting up a forum for them to vote and comment on ideas, as well as a published roadmap (to show potential users where our app is headed), were the best things we've done for our business, and has seen customer satisfaction, and revenue grow rapidly!

Michael Berg
Michael Berg

As a Technical Writer for past 14 years, I am yet to see a well managed IT project. From my angle though, understanding audience / end user needs, expectations, situations, and testing, editing, obtaining feedback is the way to go. But...in these times, quality is rapidly diminishing despite the ISO push a few years back, so work as a Tech Writer is hard to find....despite being qualified in professional and technical communication.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

@bmerc The shareholders are not the customers, they are the owners, and the best way to shut them up about development costs is to require them to use the product.  Or take calls at the help desk.

Uncle Stoat
Uncle Stoat

@paul "I cannot believe that anyone still needs to be told this. Are we still in 1983?"

Unfortunately: YES - if not worse.

 

Editor's Picks