In most organizations, the people using the technology, buying the technology and developing the technology, don’t tend to communicate frequently (if at all). At times, it feels like an extended game of “telephone,” with the essential elements of the conversation getting garbled along the way.
I sat down with Oleg Mysyk, a Product Manager and leader in application development at Nokia, to gain understanding of how direct observation can overcome these challenges.
Here’s what he told me:
- Ask for stories rather than requirements.When talking with customers about their needs, it’s tempting to just ask them for a wish-list — what features would they like most?This approach is sometimes effective, but it has an ugly downside: What happens when a customer’s requests don’t align with your capabilities or roadmap? Now, not only are your customer’s needs unmet, they feel ignored, too.
Instead, let your customer tell you stories. Ask them to talk about the job they do and the obstacles they frequently face. When you take these stories back to your team, you can put yourselves in problem-solving mode and work on solutions from the customer’s point of view.
- Observing your customers in person is crucial to understanding their needs.
I recall one particular project I had worked closely with for a year, and I was quite happy with it. As far as I could tell, it fit our customers’ needs like a glove. I then did something a bit unorthodox: I took a three week “shadowing tour” to observe some of our actual users. Not to make a sale, not to train them, but simply to watch. The results were both astonishing and painful. On one hand, I gained a whole new understanding of who used our software. On the other; I realized many of our assumptions were wildly off.In many cases, the insights gained from this “fly on the wall” approach were simple yet powerful. For instance, our software was designed for use by a single user. After a week of observation, though, we realized our mistake — many different people were using the same piece of software, and information was constantly changing hands. Seeing this, we adjusted our assumptions about the customer use cases and added functionality to ease transitions between a variety of users.
- Outsourcing customer observation can obscure the longer term vision
Doing the in-person shadowing described above can be incredibly valuable, but it’s not easy. Not only is it time-consuming and a scheduling nightmare, the travel costs of visiting many clients can make it downright expensive.At one point, we tried to outsource this shadowing within our own company and asked our regional sales teams to do the observation days instead. As it turned out, big mistake. The reports we got from the sales teams, as you might expect, were entirely focused around short-term insights needed to close sales – not the farther vision needed to develop tech that stands the test of time.Whenever possible, I now try to do customer observation directly. It may be painstaking and expensive, but I’ve found the insights we gather are always more than worth our time.
Thanks, Oleg! After hearing what you shared, it’s hard to imagine going about technology design any other way.
Of course, there was one more question I had for Oleg: “Star Trek or Star Wars?” “That one’s easy,” Oleg told me. “I watched Star Trek all the time at university — that’s my pick!”