For those of us in the product development field, that moment when our software...a piece of us that we have poured ourselves into for months or years...finally gets into a customer’s hands is an incredible day! It is filled with overwhelming excitement and just as much fear. “What if they don’t like it? What if our understanding of their needs was not accurate?”. We spend so much time getting the user experience just right, tweaking the location of buttons and text so that it is optimal for the user, wordsmithing text, moving commas, deliberating over the minutia, but how can we be sure that we have hit the mark?
It is actually pretty simple. We need to listen intently to our users. We need to let our users drive our decisions...in fact, we need them to build our products for us and if we go about it correctly, they are happy to do so. The challenge we have is that we are all familiar with good software. We have all had that experience with a tool that has made our life better or just been so beautifully crafted that we “know” the elements of that system can be reused with great success in our product. We also have the issue that we are all former pathologists, scientists, teachers, students, laboratory technicians, travel agents, etc. or have been around them long enough that we think we may as well be one of them. This is a double-edged sword for product development.
It is very dangerous to rely on our knowledge of our field of expertise as the source of inspiration for how we deliver value and meet the needs of our former colleagues and current users. As much as we know from first hand experience where there were true pain points in daily work or what goes through the head of a [fill in the blank user], we are still FORMER experts in this field. We have knowledge from a snapshot in time when we were doing that job. Things change. Time passes and technology improves. Workflows change with ever evolving external and internal pressure. What you knew is most likely different now and it is a huge risk to bet your company’s future on what you KNEW to be true back in the glory days.
The best advice I ever received when I was helping build the world’s premier patent search tool for experts in the field was, “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” It is so true. I am not a user today...as much time as i spend with users, as many conversations and hours i have spent trying to understand their needs and desires, I am not a user. I do not have first hand experience of what a patent search expert struggles with in today’s world. We need to rely on our users via open sharing of early designs, paper sketches, mockups and wireframes and hear their reactions. We need to let them put their fingerprints on our work as early as possible. This is the only way to mitigate the risk of a product being built to solve the problems that use to be important instead of the ones that actually are.