Technology is constantly changing. But the fundamental stumbling blocks for IT never seem to change at all. One of the perennial hurdles is establishing great working relationships with end users.
An IT end user cartoon from the 1980s shows end users and IT set in combat lines and shooting at each other from behind barbed wire barricades. Today's endorsement of more collaborative approaches to application development is an attempt to get away from adversarial relationships — but the inevitable stress points between IT and end users are still there. Often, this is because end users and IT see systems in different ways.
An end user wants a simple online app where users can chat or use voicemail. IT sees backend integration work, backup, security, device compatibility, and a host of other "invisible" functions that must also be built to accommodate the app. Naturally, timelines and expectations will differ, depending upon which side of the end user/IT divide you sit on.
Despite these historical challenges, however, there are steps IT professionals can take to facilitate productive and cooperative work with end users. Here are 10 of them.
1: Get to know the business
Understanding the business from the business (and not the IT) point of view equips IT professionals with empathy for the end users they work with, along with first-hand knowledge of business pain points. Such knowledge enables IT developers to build more business-friendly applications.
2: Form alliances with key end users in the business
Most business users are receptive to forming active and ongoing working relationships with IT that include sharing the pain points on both the IT and the business sides of app development. In many cases, these business users provide key leadership (and also expectation management) on the business side of technology. IT departments most successful in application development and deployment nurture and maintain these end user alliances as part of their business strategy.
Business users commonly complain that IT doesn't "listen" to what they want, and that instead, IT designs what it thinks they should have. A growing number of IT departments are trying to change this perception by stressing a "service culture" in their organizations. The bottom line for application developers aspiring to be great is that they should listen and be responsive to their internal customers (i.e., end users). If there is a better way to design an application or a workflow, demonstrate it to end users — but always work for the best solution to meet the requirements of users, who knows their business best.
4: Don't be arrogant
End users are fascinated by technology, but they don't understand it well. This sets the stage for meetings with IT that soon get packed with technology jargon and acronyms those end users don't understand. The jargon is frustrating for end users, and out of this begins to emerge a perception among them that IT'ers are arrogant and like to talk down to them. By leaving jargon out of conversations with end users and sticking to the business and the purpose of an app, IT professionals improve their collaborative skills and their ability to forge strong working relationships with end users in the business.
5: Understand the business process behind the app
All too often, IT goes away with an app to build without understanding the business workflow that the app fits into and how the app will contribute to that workflow. To gain a better understanding of the business, application developers should spend time with end users in their departments actually observing and (if practical) participating in business operations and workflows. The experience gives IT'ers a more realistic and hands-on concept of the business — and of the role an app is expected to play.
6: Take a business course
A surprising number of IT'ers have never taken a business course, even though today's college curricula stress it more. Taking a business course enables IT pros to better understand how businesses are run and how technology can affect business performance.
7: Learn how to read the corporate financials
Early in my IT career, I was a junior employee at a company where the CEO would take all of the employees through the company financial statements each month. He wanted us to understand how the business was doing. As my business knowledge grew, I began to more fully appreciate how important it was to grasp the financials, which are actually the lifeblood of the business. This furthered my business acumen and clued me in on how IT could best deliver business value.
8: Be service-oriented
Those business analysts and application developers who succeed best with the end business are individuals who understand the value of the business and the people who work in it. They treat end users like customers and have a service orientation.
9: Follow up!
If you're going to be service-oriented, it's not enough to drop an app on someone's desktop or mobile and then wash your hands of it. Check in regularly with end users after app deployment to see how the app is working for them and whether there are any problems. Also ensure that end-user training on the new app is part of your application deployment.
10: Look for ways to bring instant pain relief
Today, early app deploy and test techniques and/or pilot testing of app prototypes are ways to either immediately eliminate end-user pain points with technology or to show end users that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Work is difficult enough these days. Application developers can become instant rock stars in the eyes of their end users if they can design something really valuable that brings pain relief to longstanding problems that the business has not unable to solve.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.