Posts tagged “user needs”

FreshMeat #8: Everyone Remembers Their First Time

FreshMeat #8 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat. It’s free as a bird now, so join in!
A lazy journey through mistakes made and lessons learned

It was a hot Toronto summer, late in the 1980s. I was
wearing shiny dress pants and a sock tie, sitting in a
big downtown office tower. I can’t imagine it, but I may
very well have been fresh-faced.

Yes, I was a summer intern.

I worked in the computer support department of a bank
that had offices across Canada. I provided technical
support for anyone who had a computer problem, be it
hardware, software, DOS, what have you. This was
pre-Internet, so there was no way to know anything
about the state of their system except what they were
able to tell you. It was a challenging job, and gave
me a real sense of user empathy.

As part of my internship, I was asked to develop an
application for one client, a woman who was using a
spreadsheet to manage data for her investment

A spreadsheet, for those that haven’t used Lotus or
Excel (or VisiCalc), is basically just a bunch of
columns of data. Across the top may be headers such as
name, date, opening balance, etc. For example, I use a
spreadsheet to manage my collection of live music
recordings, so I have headers such as band, date, venue,
number of discs, comments. Each row, therefore, is a
different “record” in the database. It’s quite cool
because you can sort it by any field, or look at certain
subsets of all your data (originally, spreadsheets were
described as “what-if” programs).

We decided to move the program from Lotus (a spreadsheet)
to dBase IV (a database program that had the ability to
write programs that would add, delete, sort, search, etc.

The client sent me her spreadsheet (I guess she must
have put it on a floppy disk and mailed it to me) and
I sat down and spent several weeks putting together my
dBase program (to be really trivial, I think we used
something called Clipper that made actual “programs”
out of dBase code). I built in all the great functions.
ADD a new record. DELETE a record. And, the good ol’
standby, CHANGE an existing record.

I did a really nice job. The program offered you three
choices (ADD, DELETE, and CHANGE) which you could
select by pressing 1, 2, or 3. I think I was wise enough
to include a function that would let you quit the program.
When you made your choice, you would see a new screen
that said something like “Enter the number of the record
you would like to delete” and had a little space to type
it in. I’m sure I even had confirmations before deletes,
and feedback to tell you that your record had been added.
All this without a single course in user-interface design!

A few days before the end of the summer, I delivered it
to the client, still never having met her, or discussed
her expectations. I got a very nice phone call a few days
later. She was very appreciative of all the effort, but
she politely informed me that it wouldn’t be much use to
them, because of the way they used their current solution,
the spreadsheet. They would typically scroll very rapidly
through the data, looking for “flags” that they had
embedded – two or three character codes they placed in
front of the customer’s name to help them anticipate
certain actions. My wonderful front-end made that entirely

And thus endeth the summer. Many successes and one failure.

But it was to be more than a year before the reasons for
the failure really became clear. Back in school, I
encountered my first course that considered the human part
of software – the user. I was struck with a ton of bricks
when shown that the people who make any kind of stuff
(revolving doors, stairway railings, library searching
software) are responsible for ensuring that their intended
users can actually make use of the thing.


And then my software development experience came into sharp
relief. I had made dozens of assumptions without realizing
it. I had never before grasped my own responsibility to
step outside myself in order to understand how that program
was going to be used. This second ton of bricks hurt just a
little more. But it changed forever how I looked at the
process of designing anything.

FreshMeat #7: If I Had A Hammer…Would Everything Look Like A Nail?

FreshMeat #7 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

If you build it, will they articulate their user needs?

Many years ago, some friends and I climbed a hill
overlooking the Pacific Ocean and talked about the future.
We talked about the Internet – this technology that was
going to likely change something, somehow. This could have
been a scene from a Douglas Coupland novel, but we were
more of a cynical bunch than the introspective protagonists
he favors. In sneering giggles we hypothesized various
ridiculous uses for the Internet.

“Oh, in the future, you won’t pay money to people, you’ll
just send it to them…through the INTERNET.”

“Yeah, yeah, and in the future, well, you’ll be able to
do ANYTHING. On the INTERNET. People who do research with
consumers will do their research on the INTERNET!”

Ahem. Does wisdom = attitude plus time, or is it simply
that there are no ideas so bad that someone won’t try
them? Because that skeptically envisioned future is here

In fact, the largest consumer of market research, Procter
& Gamble, held a press conference back in May to announce
their plans to do even more research, much of it
ethnographic. The best article I saw on the topic was in
the WSJ (“P&G Plans to Visit People’s Homes To Record
(Almost) All Their Habits,” May 17, 2001), describing P&G’s
history with this type of research, and the scope of their

Almost as an epilogue, the article described P&G’s ultimate
goal, the creation of an online library of indexed,
searchable video that could be accessed by marketers
from the comfort of their own desks.

And now, from September’s Fast Company comes an article about the future of online customer research, suggesting that eventually, all qualitative and quantitative research is going to move online. Quicker, cheaper, and more convenient, apparently.


Who said that getting closer to your customer was
supposed to be EASY? It’s hard, it’s very hard. If it comes
easy, that can be very dangerous, giving an organization a
false sense of empathy without really requiring anyone to
see something new, something beyond the unspoken assumptions
about their customers. This is often delivered as video
ethnographies turned into rock music videos, a collage
of quick cuts of “everyday people” chopping broccoli,
layered deliciously with a stirring P. Diddy soundtrack.

But at least there you get some (albeit false) version of
empathy. How much empathy can be created when you only
know your customer as Jeff_The_Best, SuperDiva, or
sexygirl2041? Online focus groups as qualitative research?
Say goodbye to all the rich unspoken cues – the body
language, the nervous laughter, the false starts, the eye

So video is better, right, it’s richer? It’s got all that
cool visual stuff. You can see how customers chop broccoli.
But anyone who’s ever watched a video ethnography knows the
insights are not simply flopping around waiting to be
scooped up – it requires inference, extrapolation, and
synthesis, more than simply watching. These are special
skills. If it were that easy, people like me would simply be
video camera operators – shooting some video of the clients’
customers and handing the tapes back to them. Innovation in
a box.

The truth is that there are a variety of tools to get at a
variety of data, to solve a variety of problems. Early
adopters of new methodologies would do well to keep a suite
of tools at their disposal. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow,
(or was it the Indigo Girls?) “If it seems too good to be
true, it probably is.”


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