In search of “the right question”

I made a promise to myself years ago that I would never work in a Dilbert-like cube farm, yet here I was.

In my defense, I was there on a special mission.

I blinked under the fluorescent lights and shifted uncomfortably in a chair that had a tendency to slowly sink downwards at the slightest provocation.   I was talking to some very nice, but somewhat bored older ladies who had been designing forms for 25 years.  They had started out using light tables, and valiantly learned new technology as it came out.  Now their department was investing in some big, scary, expensive new forms business process engine .  It was clear that they were not sold on this new thing-a-majiggy.  My special mission was to figure out what they needed this product to do so that the technology could help them do their jobs, rather than hinder them.

You might think that this would be an extremely boring interview but it wasn’t.

Whenever I do product requirement interviews, I always try to get to the heart of what their job is about.  I don’t ask a lot of questions about features.  This is because people use products because it helps them get stuff done.  They care about their goals, not the product features.

I always design my interview protocol to stay focused on the underlying goals that frame their day-to-day interactions with the product.  Sometimes however, being extremely tuned in to your participant and going off-script can give you the best gold nuggets.

I talked with these ladies about how they designed the forms, the tools they used and what they thought about.  I noticed that they were intimately familiar with their forms.  The differences between a B-4627a and a FZ-231 (not their real names) was like night and day.

On impulse I asked them “Do you have a favorite form?”  And their eyes lit up.  “Oh yes!  The B8-WEN definitely.  That’s the maternity leave form.  I always know that people are happy when they are filling out those forms.”  Then they started talking about how the forms all had a different personality.  “This one is filled out by farmers.  Farmers have big hands and they are filling them out on the back of their truck.  You have to give them lots of space.  Also, you can’t just give them a block that says “address”.  You need to spell it out for them, because they might end up giving you a weird answer.”

Then it hit me.  I had let stereotypes of older female civil servants get in the way of what was now plain to see.  These women were not adverse to the change just because they didn’t like change.  They were not afraid of the technology as I had initially presumed.

Their concerns were that the technology would not let them make the kinds of customizations they felt were essential.  While I saw government forms as a way to feed the insatiable maw of faceless bureaucracy, they saw them as completely the opposite.  They saw forms as the way that ordinary citizens interact with their government.  Because there are many reasons to interact with their department, the forms had to reflect each unique purpose, and be understandable to the people using them.

Here is the key point.  Understanding the goals and even the world-views of the people using your products will help you build better products for them.  When you talk to customers, make sure that you make room in your conversation to find out about those things.