Whenever a new project is awarded to us, lot of people come to me and ask questions about the technology platform and name of the client organisation, in that order. Often times, some of them also want to know the domain or functional scope. This thirst for their knowledge of technology, client or customer and functionality continues even during the project initiation and knowledge acquisition stage. Their undeterred focus on the above perspectives extends throughout the execution of the project and lasts till the end of the project too. Surprisingly, not even once do I get any questions on ‘who the users’ are for the underlying product or application. Even more surprising is the fact that the project sponsor or client team may not ask this question to themselves, leave alone answering it.
Why do we need to know the users of our products?
Let me explain with a few real-life business cases. Most often, product companies launch new products or variants of their existing products without thinking much about their users or their real needs. This could happen in two scenarios – 1) they are looking too much internally or 2) they are under pressure from competitors. This lack of user awareness leads to the product failure at the hands of its users, for whom it was developed. A case in point is the search engine market in the late 1990s. Alta Vista created a powerful search engine but could not position it in the market as an effective search solution. MSN and Yahoo too did the same mistake of looking inward and not catering to the user needs. Then Google stepped in and understood that users really need a ‘simple’ search interface and ‘simple’ search results. Google’s simple search was a huge success because its interface was clear, simple and was extremely easy to use for expert users and new users alike. Also, the search results were shown in a simple and clutter-free way that worked for most users. Google continued to make user-based innovation as their core offering and there is no looking back since then. Similarly, Sony Walkman was born out of understanding the users’ real needs and their context of listening to music on the go. So, understanding their users help businesses define their product or service offering in a more practical manner that makes the product a huge success. For the product development teams too, this knowledge goes a long way in defining the scope of the product, designing and developing it, so that it suits the needs and thought process of users.
What are the benefits of understanding users and their needs?
Knowledge about users, their needs and the usage environment helps us in setting better business goals for our product in a more realistic manner. Also, in most of the product development scenarios, the user needs, usage and context information help defining the scope and functional requirements of a product. For instance, our initial studies of the Financial and Accounting directors of small and medium enterprises in the UK helped us better define the scope and functional requirements of a Financial Planning software application. Also, the studies we conducted on the students, professors, researchers and librarians in the US, UK and China helped one of our customers define the vision, roadmap and scope for the online content delivery platform. For the development teams in both the projects, this understanding about users created a significant base for making significant design decisions such as branding, layout, structure, navigation and interaction. No wonder, the outputs in the development processes are software applications that offered remarkable experience to the users and in effect, delight to our customers.
What are the challenges involved in gathering user information?
Having understood the importance of gathering user knowledge, let us examine the hurdles in this process. Firstly, there is a clear lack of awareness amongst the stakeholders, about the significance of knowledge of users. To me, this is the biggest challenge one should address early in the project. This can be addressed in two ways – 1) Get a Usability expert talk to the stakeholders both internal (management and development teams) and external (client and their teams) and convince them of the value of Usability implementation and 2) Assess the next steps in the roadmap for implementing usability in the specific project. This is not an easy job though and I can vouch for the number of calls, meetings and discussions that I had with the stakeholders to make them aware of the Usability value-add and its benefits.
After this is done, we should start addressing the other ‘small and niggling’ issues such as procuring access to the users and starting some user studies. We shall discuss this in the next post. Until then, have fun!