By Vladimir Collak
I recently had an opportunity to ride with a driver delivering full truckloads to commercial fuel customers. The driver who works for one of our customers (as well as the company itself) graciously allowed me to share his day and let me observe. Perhaps like many typical technologists, I have often lived in a bubble where I can create products, understand them on an intellectual level, but have never really connected with the very people who will use them. However, having an opportunity to ride with a potential user allowed me a chance to better understand his/her world and hopefully really understand the problem and the solution.
By really understanding, I don’t mean having just some intellectual knowledge about the problem domain — it’s to deeply understand the problem we are trying to solve, as well as deeply understand the users who will be using the product. In both cases such insight is not created in a vacuum. It’s not even created in meetings. It’s done by observing users and asking a lot of questions. Even better, it’s done by walking in their shoes and doing their job.
Unfortunately, this approach is not how typical technology products are created. If you are unlucky, the product you may be using will be created by someone who simply took down some requirements from a potential user. If you’re lucky, that someone is at least an experienced business analyst, designer and User eXperience (UX) expert. This so-called expert understands how software should function so it’s easy for the end-user to operate. He/she gains such understanding by having design meetings and asking users about the requirements, needed features and UI implementation. However, the problem is that inevitably there will be a loss in translation. The designer and the user may be speaking the same words, but their understanding of those words comes from a different context that’s not carried over.
This problem is well understood by many great consumer and enterprise products companies. Perhaps as a result, the way companies like Apple create products is not by conducing bunch of focus groups with users to tell them what to design and how to design it. Apple creates awesome products loved by the entire planet (or at least those fortunate enough to afford them) by creating products for themselves. They are the users and builders all at once. They deeply understand the users because they are the users.
Whether it’s creating consumer software, enterprise software or some other piece of technology, designers can follow the same principles practiced by Apple and other great companies. In a best case, they need to be the users. In a worst case they need to be with the users. Doing that will hopefully eliminate below strategic mistakes technology companies often make:
- Product is not actually solving a real (must solve) problem. The problem is perhaps nice to solve, but does not create a necessary value for the business to adopt a solution.
- Designers have a poor understanding of the problem. Designers were told what the problem is, but only understand it on a superficial intellectual level. If someone tells them something contrary to what they “know,” they will probably believe that too.
- Designers have a poor understanding of the user. They think the product will be easy to use, but have actually no real understanding of how the product will be used in the real world.
- Expectations are not aligned (within business, between customer and vendor). Different people within the problem / solution domain have a slightly different understanding of the problem and the solution. Not everyone is fully aligned.
Vladimir Collak has a broad range of experiences in managing technology organizations with a passion for creating transformative solutions. He currently serves as a President and CEO of Ignite Media, LLC. (www.ignitedev.com). Ignite’s mission is solving business problems through technology. Vladimir can also be found on his personal blog as www.collak.net.