Are you being told the truth?

I’ve spent the last two weeks listening to users, understanding their requirements, drawing boxes and arrows, swim lanes and all that good stuff to show process flows. But is what they say the whole truth?

When we are doing analysis we are building our own mental model of the work, and potential solutions to problems we are hearing. But unless we can see what is going on, how grounded in reality will our solutions be? Anyone who has sat in on focus groups and observed consumer reality will know that what people say and what they do are often at odds with each other.

Finally this morning I had access to the users in their “real” environment. The user sat at his desk in front of his monitors and I sat slightly behind and aside him, watching over his shoulder what he did. Half an hour’s observation brought the boxes and arrows to life. More importantly, it highlighted how long he spent on each task, and the need for efficiency in the interface we are developing.

In a workshop he can ask for stuff, but when you see him working it is clear that that stuff would just clutter and get in the way of him accomplishing his goals.

Most striking is what is left out of the process discussions. Sometimes we forget about those things that are so obvious, so mundane. We assume that they just happen. Only by observing can you get a real feel for the requirements (and also how they should be prioritised).

So go on, take a half an hour break from your development activities and go and watch the users working “in the field”. You never know, you might just learn something.


  1. Brijesh Khergamker · Thursday, 25 January, 2007

    Couldn’t agree with you more about “spending half an hour on the field and you might learn something”. This “something” is mostly related to optimization/automation of a low level process in which the field staff is involved.

    The funny thing though, is that if you dont study higher level processes and identify bad processes, then you may end up making a bad process faster.

    Its like a problem that i am facing in my current assignment. We want to do everything agile, and so we are doing all the nice things like estimation, planning, moving stories accross the wall , brun up chart, etc. The stories however read something like “Make Architectural document” or “Finalize the UI framework”. We are now producing useless documents at a very fast rate in the most efficient manner possible 🙂

  2. Josh · Thursday, 25 January, 2007

    You’ve succinctly described one of my dreams for TW’s (and other) developers. I just finished a Contextual Design-based assessment of a tool that TW built. (Hopefully I’ll blog about it soon.) I got a free pass into the users’ workspaces and was lucky enough to be able to hang out with them while they did their jobs. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING more enlightening than sitting with the users that will use the software you are designing.

    So anyway, my dream is that one day developers will be present in these sorts of “real-world” situations. It’s so enlightening, and makes the daily grind of software development so much more meaningful.

    And also, I’m a firm believer that people are inherent liars…but not on purpose. It’s just that we have a hard time explaining the stuff that we’re really good at. The flow of day-to-day life is ingrained in who we are…and trying to define that (then extracting software “requirements”) is really an impossible task.

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