The challenge has been clear for 30 years; it's past time to act!
It's been 30 years since Grudin's law/paradox/problem was created, yet it remains largely unresolved.
A collaborative software pioneer, Jonathan Grudin was interested in why enterprise applications that management thought had value failed to take root.
He theorised that "a factor contributing to [an] application’s failure is the disparity between those who will benefit from [it] and those who must do additional work to support it."
Grudin described what has become a familiar challenge for many people, who still find themselves sat at desktops interacting with software that ranges from unintuitive to downright unusable.
As he identified, things never seem to improve much on that front because the people that buy the software aren't the people who have to use it. Once unintuitive software is in place, the onus is on users to adapt to its idiosyncrasies and processes. Many times users simply don't bother, take-up stagnates and the software is dropped.
It's past time to break that cycle, but the good news is there is clear movement.
An increasing number of organisations are embracing a human- or user-centred design approach.
Australia Post began its user-centred design journey in late 2015. It tackled the change of address notification process first, designing a digital interface for users and involving them at every stage of the process. The constant feedback and testing with people who would use the service was seen as critical to making it a success.
"Having the customer front and centre makes you more accountable for developing solutions. You don’t make assumptions, you have hypotheses which you prove or disprove. This shortens product development time and is more accurate," it said.
Federal and state governments in Australia are also user-centred design proponents. "Developing empathy for your users ensures any preconceived ideas about the problem and solutions are removed, and your team designs and builds the right thing in the right way," the South Australian government advises.
I’ve seen firsthand that the better an enterprise software company is at listening to customers during all stages of the product development process, the happier the customers are with the final product.
There isn’t an objectively right way to build a customer-centric product development strategy, but I've found four key questions useful when formulating a strategy or approach.
- How are you sourcing customer ideas and feedback?
If companies want to get serious about improving the customer experience and becoming more customer centric, one key focus must be on sourcing customer ideas and feedback.
There are endless places where you can capture customer ideas for both new and existing products.
For instance, you can collect data not just from existing customers, but also from prospective customers.
Make sure your product development teams are getting feedback from sales teams on what prospects are asking for, and put in place the appropriate systems to track this feedback. Conferences and events are another great place to capture ideas from prospective customers.
When it comes to current customers, the above two points also apply. In addition, you can take a critical look at how you’re surveying customers.
You’ll want to capture feedback on their ideas for new products, as well as on existing products, in a way that allows you to segment the input by group, geography, and language. Classify the feedback, and meet with your team at least every few months to go through the top findings.
- How closely do you work with customers during beta testing?
I deeply subscribe to getting your top customers involved with beta testing.
You can talk them through everything from product requirements, to the architecture of how the product will be built.
You can show them a first proof of concept, as well as a hard-coded demo, and alpha and beta versions. The best products I’ve worked on were built with this level of customer involvement.
This may sound like more of a commitment than you’re used to asking from your customers, but you’ll find that many customers want a high level of involvement in product development.
From their perspective, if they are investing heavily in your companies’ products or services, they will want to be brought in on day one of your product development to make sure their problems are being solved.
- How are you getting customer feedback on your products post-launch?
Just because you got a lot of input from customers during the designing and testing phase doesn’t mean you should stop listening to them after launching.
One approach that has worked well for my teams is establishing a customer advisory board, where you bring together a group of customers to meet every three to six months.
During these gatherings, you show them what your company is working on, while also seeking feedback on the products that are in the market today.
This kind of model is also increasingly being run through web-based communities. These kind of closed forums are increasingly common in many large companies.
- What is your approach to incorporating customer ideas into your products and services?
Listening to the customer is critical, but doing exactly what a customer asks you to do can be misguided. There is the typical way of acting on customer ideas, and then there’s what I’d argue is the right way.
The typical way is building exactly what each customer asks for. I’ve found that more often than not, this ends in chaos.
If you accommodate every product development request without thinking it through first, you end up with a lot of custom developments that might work well for that company, but won’t scale to others.
Instead, I suggest continuing to listen to your customers, look for commonalities in what they’re asking for, but then figure out how to develop a solution that will work effectively across a number of companies.
Another factor that will determine how you incorporate customer feedback into your products and services is the type of additions the customers are requesting. A minor feature or modification might be easy enough to incorporate, but anything that requires a major uplift or new version may create challenges, not least because big change is hard, even when it appears users want it.
Ultimately, the key to building the right solutions is continual and constant customer feedback. Providing frequent demonstrations to customers to validate decisions and to bring in the customer perspective are the secrets to building great experiences. Your customer might surprise you and say that you have enough value to release earlier than you had planned. Or they might tell you that the feature you deemed most important is not required.
Focus on creating an organisation that understands customers’ needs and can meet those needs quickly and creatively. This is why we’re in business after all - to provide value to our customers. Regular customer feedback will help you build it right and build it fast.
By Brendan Maree, Vice President Asia Pacific at 8x8