Business Case, Information Technology, User Analysis, User Experience

Usability starts at the top

We now understand that the first step in making a successful software product is to know your users. But even before that, we need to get the clearance from the stakeholders to gain access to users. They play an important role in managing the product development, budgets, customer expectations and user experience. In short, stakeholders are the gateway to users and are responsible for the software product’s life. To gain better understanding about stakeholders, we need to imbibe ‘product thinking’ and shun ‘project thinking’. While this is hard to practise, I think that this ‘product and not project’ perspective makes a great deal of difference in the context of software product or application development. By stating this, I am not undermining the importance of projects, nor do I underplay the contribution of project managers. However, for all of us who are working as Analysts, Designers, Developers and Testers, this product perspective helps get more clarity about the stakeholders, product, customers and users. We will discuss this in greater detail perhaps in a separate post later.

Who are stakeholders?

In every organisation, large or small, privately-held or listed, belonging to any industry or domain, there are certain critical areas that have specific roles. They focus on functional areas such as business, operations, customer, finance, product, technology, user etc. The following list could provide an indicative set of perspectives and the related profiles:

  • Business and Operations – Managing Director, CEO, Chairman, Owner, Partner, COO
  • Customer – Business Development Director, Sales Director, Professional Services
  • Finance – CFO, Head, Finance and Accounts, Accounts Director
  • User – Sales Manager, Consultant, Customer Service Representatives
  • Technology – CTO, Technical Architects, Developers

These are the commonly defined roles, but the titles and designations may vary from organisation to organisation, depending on the industry, nature of business and size. You might have why do we need to know about each of them and how does that help us improve the product’s users experience.

Why do we need to know the stakeholders?

Unless we know the business objectives, product vision and customer expectations, how can we ever provide ‘expert value-add’ to the product? I seriously doubt the real value of the so-called ‘value’ coming out of superficial knowledge gained from secondary providers, out-dated documents and far-from-reality portrayals from third-party sources. Besides, knowledge of the stakeholders helps us get the big picture and start with a grounded knowledge about the business and with a context.
Let me give you an example. In the late 1990s, in a car manufacturing unit of Toyota, the management had a strange problem. They found a steadily increasing defect rate in the assembly unit section, where nuts and screws are fitted to the panels. Research studies then showed that the job was monotonous and considered too menial by the workers. Then they realised that the worker out there did not know how important his job was. They had arranged for guided tours across the factory for all the workers. All the workers then realised that the nuts and screws they are fitting actually go into the most important parts of the car and that they are contributing equally well like all others in the making of a car. No wonder then that the defects went crashing and the quality improved radically. This is applicable for all of us playing different roles in the making of a software product.

Users are not stakeholders!

Though generally speaking users of your software product are in fact the most important stakeholders, we do separate them in the context of user experience as a separate segment. Because product’s success hinges on users and the software development is supposedly centered around users, I prefer to treat users specially and with utmost care and hospitality that they truly deserve. Just so that we can clearly qualify and specify users from other stakeholders, I suggest not to include users in the list of stakeholders.

What are the benefits of knowing stakeholders?

Like they say, ‘Quality starts at the top’, so does User Experience. Knowing the stakeholders and talking to them helps us build relationship, get their buy-in into the usability implementation and most importantly gain management support and commitment for championing the cause of user experience in product development.

For instance, in a recent project involving a portal development, the stakeholder buy-in helped a lot in gaining access to users and ultimately in gaining their confidence in our other offerings. The customer organisation has a current product to deliver their content to the end users. In the last few years, they realised that they had to develop a new product to deliver their content in easier, quicker and better ways. However, the stakeholders could not arrive at a conclusive approach for the new product development. This was due to the differing views and opinions amogst the stakeholders. Then, with the help of our sales person, I could meet the key stakeholders a.k.a., project sponsors and convince them of the true value of usability and how it can help them get started on the new product development. With good number of meetings and discussions with the stakeholders, we could get the go-ahead to conduct stakeholder interviews, and the end-deliverable was a report consolidating all the views from stakeholders of different perspectives.

What are the challenges involved in identifying stakeholders?

I think the biggest challenge is to believe and convince ourselves of the importance of the stakeholder knowledge and their buy-in into the product user experience process. Another bigger challenge is to identify from amongst all the stakeholders, who to select for our interactions. My suggestion to overcome this issue is to refer to the Organisation structure or hierarchy of the company and understand the power centers, decision-makers, influencers and so on. During one of the projects, I also faced another problem, of the number of stakeholders to be identified for the studies. As a rule of thumb, practically it is better to consider between three to seven persons spanning the key perspectives such as business, product, customer and technology.

Coming up next!

After the stakeholders are identified, we should start planning and conducting the stakeholder interaction process. Just wait till the next post to know more about this. Until then, ciao!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *