Twelve tips for customer development interviews

Twelve tips for customer development interviews

In the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of mentoring at the Lean Startup Machine in London. Saturday morning is when the teams first ‘get out of the building‘ to do customer development. It is easy to preach that mantra of getting out and talking to customers, but how do you do it?  How do you get the most out of customer development interviews? What do you say? Here are twelve tips that I’ve presented.

1. Go fish where the fishes swim

I recently heard this from an agency pitching social media work (take your proposition to social networks where your customers are, rather than assuming they’ll come to you) but the statement holds true for customer development. It’s not enough to get out of the building and hope to randomly find people that care. You’ve got to go to where your target market hang out, and better still, find them in a place where your questions will be relevant. If your idea is related to movies, go hang out around cinemas. If your idea is focussed on high end retail, there’s little value in talking to people outside a down-market outlet.

2. Have a plan

Be clear who you want to talk to. You may learn interesting stuff from talking to random people on the street, but how relevant is what they say to your proposition? How will it provide useful insight or validate your assumptions?

Once you’ve framed in your mind who you are going to talk to, be clear what you want to learn. This means documenting your hypotheses and crafting an interview checklist to test these against. The checklist may be on paper or in your head; it’s a list of areas you want to address. It’s purpose is to give you a clear and consistent framework to structure your questions around so when you complete the interview you’ll have data that will contribute to validating or refuting your hypotheses. It is not a list of questions, rather prompts to work with and keep you focussed.

For example, probing recent cinema experience may lead you to ask “tell me about the last time you went to the cinema”. Having the cinema experience prompt will help keep you on track and avoid the person deviating on their passion of rom-com movies.

3. Talking to strangers is unnatural

So you’ve got a plan and you are out prowling the streets. The first thing to do choose your target. Know who you want to talk to. Having created a persona may help paint a picture of what they might look like. Seen someone? If they are harried and clearly in rush you are wasting your time. Look for people who are waiting, people who don’t have purpose in their gait.

You’ve now got to do something totally alien to you. Approach a complete stranger, persuade them in a split second that you are friendly, (not interested in their money) and engage them in a conversation.

The opening move is simple. Smile! Have an opening line, for example say who you are, why you’ve stopped them “Hi, my name is John, “I’m building a new widget and would love to ask some questions about what you think about widgets”. Don’t start with “do you have a minute” because you want to be talking to them for more than a minute. Be succinct, practice before you go out and be prepared to be sidestepped. Once you’ve engaged them, have an opening question, maybe something general around the topic you are exploring before focussing into the pain points and problems they face.

4. Ask open ended questions

You don’t want them answering yes or no, you want them to answer questions with dialogue. This is easier said than done. If I ask you “do you brush your teeth twice a day”, there can only be one answer; yes or no. But if I say “Tell me about brushing your teeth” I don’t give you the opportunity to abruptly end the conversation, you have to talk.

Undoubtedly you will find yourself inadvertently asking a closed question and the response is an abrupt yes or no. Don’t worry, follow up by probing for an explanation of this response. For example ‘why do you say that?’ Why is a beautiful word, let it become your friend and ally. So good in fact, it needs expanding upon. Cue Tip Five…

5. Ask Why? (And other ‘W’ words)

Children’s minds are like sponges, they have an insatiable appetitive to learn and discover the world around them. As a parent this becomes obvious when they discover the effectiveness of ‘why’. Go back to your childhood ignorance and learn to love the word why again. It can be used to great effect, and is a core analysis tool for understanding the root cause of a problem. The “Five whys” is one of the techniques championed by the Lean movement. When you ask someone “why” there is an issue, their first answer will rarely be the underlying reason. You’ll get a superficial answer. To get to bottom of the problem you have to ask why repeated times. The Wikipedia entry describes the process well:

Problem: The car won’t start

  1. Why? The battery is dead
  2. Why? The alternator is not functioning
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken
  4. Why? The alternator belt was beyond its useful service and not replaced
  5. Why? The car was not maintained according to the recommended schedule
  6. Why? Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle

Solution 1. Start maintaing the vehicle based upon the reccomendeted service scheule (5th Why)
Solution 2. Purchase a different car that is maintainable.

Don’t stop with the why though, there are a few more words that begin with W to introduce into your questioning.

Who… Who does it?
When… When do they do it?
What… What do they do? What is the trigger for them doing it?
Where… Where do they do it?
With… With whom do they do it with?

And How. How do they do it.

For each of these questions probe around their needs, wants and desires (see my post about customer value proposition for more insight into this).

6. Avoid hypotheticals, lengthy or creative descriptions

Imagine you wanted to know more about a brand, and you had your phone to hand and you’ve got our app on it and you take a picture of the brand – the actual item- and overl-layed on the picture is rich information about the brand – do you think that would be a good idea?

You are creating a hypothetical situation that has no relevance to the person, describing a need that they don’t have (as you ask the question), using language they don’t understand (‘ brand’), a description that means nothing to them (put an app on my phone and take a picture to display information… eh?) Ending with a closed question. They will either be polite and say “yeah! sounds great” (the most likely response given your passion and enthusiasm) , or “no, I can’t see myself using it” (and that response speaks volumes. They can’t see them-self using it. If you were to show them…)

7. Show don’t explain

Words are slippery things that are easily misunderstood. I often ask a group of people to, behind their back or under the table) tear a sheet of paper in half. Without fail almost everyone tears it like this.

Paper torn on vertical plane

I’ve torn mine like this.

Paper torn across horizontal plane

Same words, same instructions, totally different result. Without something concrete or tangible to frame the product description against, your description could easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is more likely when you are passionate about your product or service. You’ll find it easy to wax lyrical about it, probably framing its description around your personal experiences and assumptions of what is good (see above). They say a picture tells a thousand words. So use a picture to explore your concept. Build a prototype. A sketch. Use that to frame the questions. I’ve used post-it notes to simulate a mobile phone – screens are scribbled on each page and they are pulled off as the user moves through the experience.

8. Listening is uncomfortable

Listening is hard, especially in an interview when you need to be doing three things:

  1. Receiving information
  2. Making sense of the information you are hearing
  3. Then asking the right follow up question.

Watch people in a conversation in the pub and you won’t see much of the first two of these happening. People hear a soundbite and get fixated on that, preparing to talk on that point rather than listening to all that is said. This is lazy listening. You need to be an active listener. What does that mean?

Listen & show you are listening. Nod your head, gently grunt uh-huh. Repeat what you’ve heard.

You said listening is uncomfortable. What do you mean by that?

9. Love the uncomfortable silence

Normal conversation is often just banter, a statement by one person, a retort by another. That’s easy. But it’s not listening. If you are really listening, it is OK to take time to absorb what you have just heard. Far better than cutting them off mid-sentance. Learn to love uncomfortable silences, it gives you more time to think. In fact, last the person your talking to feel uncomfortable with the silence – Let them break it, not you.

10. Keep them talking

Of course there are some people who are monosyllabic whose responses give little away. “Tell me about your most recent visit to the cinema” “I saw a film. It was OK”. That’s hardly a conversation. These responses can be off-putting and appear that the person is just not interested. Often they just need a little warming up. Luckily there are a bunch of prompts that you can use to probe deeper and open them up to your questioning:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you explain that a little more?
  • What else do you do?
  • Why do you say that?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What are you thinking

11. Stop them talking

Conversely you’ll find some people are yakerty yak and just don’t stop talking. Worse, they’ll take an initial idea and take it to places you have no interest in going. Ask them about their trip to the cinema and before long they are telling you all about the partner they went with and how they are no longer associated with them. You need to interrupt their flow in a friendly and endearing way. Don’t appear bored or agitated by their narrative, just nod, smile and then take control

That’s really interesting. You said earlier that…
I know what you are saying! [smile & nod]. Can we return to what you were saying about…
Can I please stop you there for a moment and go back to…

12. They (could be) a customer

At the end of the interview thank them for their time. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask for their contact details if you can promise to follow up with something. Give them a flyer, provide them with a URL, invite them to try your website. Remember, they could be a future customer, and having seen you (and liked you) they could become a passionate advocate for your product.

Good luck as you get out of the building. And maybe double up the twelve tips to twenty four, looking at Giff Constables twelve.

Lean startup machine and the problem with parallel dating

Can you build a business in a weekend?  Can you take an idea, validate it through customer research and launch it to market in forty-eight hours?  Can you pivot in the process- realise that your proposition isn’t as compelling as you thought to your target market and either fail fast or change direction and build something even better?

Eric Reis has written about Lean Startup Machine in a blog that suggests you can.

Inspired, I travelled to NYC over the weekend to experience what Lean Startup machine is all about. I was blown away.

Here’s what happened.

The event kicked off at 6pm with networking then presentations on Lean startup and what it is all about.  Anyone who had an idea was given a minute to pitch to the group.  These were voted on and the best 12 ideas were selected.  People self selected the team they wanted to join – six per team.  The team I wanted to join had seven people, rather jet lagged I agreed to leave and move to an under-resourced team – at the time not my first choice of product to start up, but oh what fun it was to be.

First step was to document our hypothesis and assumptions. Our hypothesis was that men and woman who are active daters have problems with remembering / keeping track of their dates.  The customer value proposition was essentially a dating CRM system.  So I’m happily married so not the most obvious of product choices for me, but this is what the weekend was all about; coming up with a proposition and challenging it.  With a clear hypothesis, at midnight we hit the streets of New York to test it on our target market.  Interviewing people in the lines outside clubs and on the streets around we sought to understand whether there is in fact a problem.  We assumed that people date many partners at the same time and that they would be open to a system to help them manage their relationships.  Our hypothesis was partly proven, there’s clearly problem that is felt more by men than women.  Any solution would be targeted at men.   There are workarounds that men use, for example using fields in their phone address book to capture data such as place met, key features.  And the more ‘advanced’ parallel dater does indeed have a “little black book”.

To back up the qualitative data we built a surveymonkey questionnaire.  This would further validate the concept and capture insights into what data parallel daters need to remember their dates.  To drive traffic to the survey we planned on using Amazon Mechanical Turk to place ads on Craigslist personals through the night.  Unfortunately on Saturday morning both services had rejected us so the survey didn’t get as many responses as we’d have liked.

Our first Minimum Viable Product was a landing page using unbounce. A little more than twelve hours after the initial concept being pitched we had a product, live in the market.  BeBop was born (another variant was datingCRM was also launched to test the URLs and the effectiveness of the calls to action).

Landing page created using unbounce

At this stage the product was a landing page and a call to action “I’m interested”.  Clicking on that took the user to a form that included an email capture address and an option to sign up to the free version and to be notified of the paid-for ‘pro’ version when it comes available.  This way we could judge if the idea would easily generate revenue.  (All the people who completed the form indicated an interest in the $5 a month version).  The idea was to drive traffic to the landing page using Google adwords, but google didn’t like us and this was denied as well.

With our learnings from the previous evening’s customer research we did some design thinking.  The team sketched up ideas of how we could solve the problem.  This exercise was repeated six times – people are precious of their first design, by the sixth they are clutching at straws and this is when left-field ideas can brew up.  And it did.  Why did the product have to be an application?  We’d seen some non-smart phones the night before; an iPhone on Android app would be of little utility to some of target market.  What about an SMS texting service.


The afternoon was spent building a texting service based upon the Twillio platform.  Customers could text their name to a number and they were signed up.  All they they need do is text the contact details of their date to the service and it would be stored.  They could retrieve it by sending a message “info: name” to get that contact texted back to them.  We included some gamification to encourage usage.

The phone texting interface

Saturday night and we hit the clubs and bars again.  This time putting the concept into the hands of potential customers as well as handing out cards with the telephone number.  More customer research.  More often than not our target market was with women, so it was hard to gauge interest.  One guy pretended to throw away the card when the girl he was with expressed shock at the concept – with a slight of hand he tucked it into his shirt pocket as he brought his hand back.

Sunday morning and we reviewed the results.  Some vanity metrics – 150 cards handed out, around 50 meaningful conversations with more customer validation, 15 sign-ups and 7 messages sent.  Was this success?  Hard to tell.  We’d also built a basic MVP android app that we launched Sunday morning and the next step is to test this MVP with customers (the issue we had is that our target market is best found at night so customer testing in the daytime would be hard).  We talked about pivoting again and exploring taking the product to a wider market – do people with non-smart phones have problems managing richer contact details other than just a name and number?  One girl who’d seen the datingCRM product said that she’d use it for that.  But by now time had run out to test this new idea.

Three thirty on Sunday afternoon and each team had six minutes to present with three minutes of questions.  We were first.  It went well.  But how did we do?  We came third overall and joint best MVP.  But it wasn’t the competition it was about, it was more the experience.  It was a real privilege to work with such talented and smart people.  David Young-Chan Kay, Yan Tsirklin, James Washington and Mikhail A. Naumov were an awesome team to work with.  More than that, the whole NYC startup movement is infectious and inspiring.

It didn’t end with our presentation.  There were some other, awesome startups with even better stories that were hatched over the weekend.

One team started with a hypothesis around supporting people hook up with mentors to help them choose the right career path when they were starting out or unsure of the path they are on.  The concept bombed with both the target market and mentors.  In an hour of desperation they realised there was a common theme they were hearing.  People love to bitch and moan.  And thus on Saturday night jobstipation was born, an anonymous place to vent fury and angry about your workplace.  When they presented, ideas of monetisation and tying the concept back to their original ideas were suggested.

Screen shot of jobstipation

The team that won the weekend worked on the hypothesis that teachers spend a lot of time prepping classes, that they spend a lot of time searching for decent materials on the web and that they’d pay for a service that would provide them with quality teaching materials.  Research with teachers validated the assumption that teachers spend a lot of time (thirty hours a week) preparing for lessons.  But the idea that they display economically rationale behaviour was refuted.  Teachers would not pay for the service.  But their principals might.  Pivot.  The team asked the teachers for examples of lessons they have hassle preparing for – geometry was one example.  So they built an MVP that demonstrated searching for quality geometry resources.  They trawled the web to find the information and on sunday morning called the teachers again and showed them the website they’d built.  It may have been ‘smoke and mirrors’ but it worked.  The teachers loved it sufficiently to recommend the concept to their principals – the people with money who would pay for it.  All this in a weekend.

A tale of two innovation approaches

Last week I attended the kick-off meeting for the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board initiative “Collaboration across digital industries: creating sustainable value chains“.  They have £5.8m (of tax payers money) to award to “Successful collaborators… to demonstrate how their proposed activity improves or creates new value chains and networks, and show where value is to be created from information, content and services.”

In plainer English, they are looking for companies / universities to come together to develop new digital products.  They talked about “pipes” (the ISPs), “Poems” (the content) and “people” (customer demand), with the sweet spot projects being at the interaction of all three.

Last Monday was the kick-off and the competition (document filling) starts on 14th March.  The funding will not be awarded until 19th August.  Five months before any innovation actually starts.  The funding is to support projects that “are expected to last 12 to 24 months”.

During the kick-off, attendees were invited to present their innovation product ideas.  These were then voted upon.  None were particularly earth-shattering (but then I suppose no-one was going to be putting their best ideas forward in a public space).  Moreover, none of them seemed to justify this long and over-engineered process.

Now compare that with this story.  Following the floods in Queensland, Australia, on a Thursday afternoon three ThoughtWorkers  came together to build a product that would support a Government Telethon to collect donations to help the flood victims.

They had “a little over 48 hours to develop, test and deploy an application that was expected to handle thousands of users. Not only that but an application that, should it fail, would prevent millions of dollars from reaching the people in need in Queensland.”

On Sunday the Telethon aired.   “720 requests per minute… with fast response times…  In about two hours [they] had over AUD$2,000,000.00 (two million) donated through [the] website”.

It has gone on to raise over $25m.

Another story.  Another 48 hours.  This time LeanstartupmachineEric Ries has a great write up on it. Teams get together and in 48 hours strive to get a customer validated product to market.  In some cases this meant ‘pivoting’, discarding the original idea to focus on something else it spawned.  (Flickr is the classic example of this, it started out as an online multi-player game, but the photosharing proved to be more feasible and the game was ditched).  Eric writes:

In one notable case, a team was able to conclusively invalidate a business that I have been pitched by venture-backed entrepreneurs many times – with a full day to spare. Compared to entrepreneurs who’ve blown millions of dollars pursuing the same vision, this is a way better outcome. Since they had extra time, they tried a pivot into a much more promising idea. By the time of the judging, they had an MVP in the market with real customers signed up.

The UK government has the best intentions with the Technology Strategy Board.  But do they need all the process?  Why can’t they do what these two case studies did?  Indeed it’s the same with most large organisations, innovation is rarely rapid in the way it could be.    Bring on the entrepreneurial enterprise that nurtures a culture of rapid experimentation, test, learn; confidence to fail and desire to invest in the successes.  Bring on Lean Start Up thinking into the enterprise.

Act like a startup

I recently presented at the AOP Forum on secrets of product success.  Twenty minutes to get through sixty two slides was fun; part of me tells me I need to slow down, be more considered and reduce the messages I want to get across.  Another part of me just says meh!

I ended the presentation with the below takeaway slide that is worth replaying here.  I believe that product owners need to start thinking more like entrepreneurs and their seedling product ideas more like start ups.

Think big: Start with a big picture, a vision, where you want to get to. This should be unconstrained thinking, divergent thinking before converging on the specifics.

Start small: Easier said than done, but this is the getting to a minimum viable product.

Fail fast: Get stuff to market quickly, test with your consumers and be ready to fail. If you fail early you fail cheaply. Realise that you have customers, users who are already passionate advocates of your brand. Take them on the journey of development with you. You not assume that everything you need to take to your customers must be polished and perfect. Don’t underestimate the positivity than can be accrued by engaging users in the development process

Grow success: Do not see the end of the project as the end of road. Getting to a first release is only the first step. Successful product owners will be engaged in a virtuous cycle of continuous design and continuous delivery. They can come up with an idea, a new feature and get it in to production in hours, or days rather than months.

Vision, passion and personal investment

Something that is common with the start-ups I’ve been involved with, and stories of entrepreneurialism you can read is the passion of those involved.  They have a drive and desire to succeed, backed by enthusiasm and belief for the product they are building.   More often than not, they are personally invested in the project; maybe it is a problem that they feel needs addressing (Dyson), or an opportunity in an industry they are familiar with. It almost always it goes beyond just a job, it is a hunger to bring change and make a difference.  They have a vision, it what drives them, yet they are willing adapt the original vision and move with agility as circumstances dictate.

FlickR started its life as a tool in a role playing game.  The game was not successful and ultimately shelved (fail fast) with the photo sharing capability being developed; the team realised where the value was rather than sticking to a failed big up front plan.  If you go back in time to 1999 and look at how google described itself:

Google Inc. was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make it easier to find high-quality information on the web.

Nothing there about browsers or phone operating systems or word processors or spreadsheets.  Twelve years to go from a search engine to the Google we know today.  Place that lens over most enterprises and how have they managed to adapt to the changing world?  I know of several enterprise projects that are three plus years in, (that’s a quarter of Google’s life) and have still yet to start delivering value.  You don’t get that with start-ups, or places where vision, passion and personal investment drive the product strategy (thinking Apple and Steve Jobs for example).

I’ll lay the fault at Enterprise Culture.  Silo thinking and career progression through the ranks.  So an individual is personally invested in delivering documentation that specifies the system.  When she delivers these she is done.  What happens next is someone else’s problem.  Reward is rarely for delivering the overall vision, why should it?  How often do all stakeholders involved in a project have a strong grasp of the what’s and why’s of what they are doing?  They are only rewarded on the how they deliver the fragment that they are responsible for.

When IT becomes a supplier rather than a partner, no-one has ultimate responsibility for delivering a coherent holistic vision, it becomes a contractual relationship rather than a passionate obsession.  Funding projects is all to often a charade and a nonsense.  The business submit their funding requests (a line item for a potential project) for the forthcoming financial year in the autumn / winter.  Budgets are finalised in the Spring with the new financial year and months have elapsed due to internal budgetting and accounting formalities rather than the ability to respond to the market.  Contrast that with the start up model with seed funding to get started and if the projects shows viability second round funding follows.  If the project is not viable it is suffocated before wasting cash.  (There are interesting perspectives on this leaner model at Beyond Budgetting).

I wonder if in these lean times we are going to start seeing lean thinking applied to enterprises and a start-up culture being nurtured.  There is certainly a growing interest in agile, beyond the practitioners and from C level executives.  But agility in software development is only the first step.  To be really successful it needs to spread through the whole organisation, not just paying lip-service to the word “agile”, but devolving responsibility to individuals and collaborative, cross-organisation teams who can share the vision, passion and are personally invested in getting the right quality products to market at speed.

Don’t blue-tack the walls

Story wall picture

Agile is messy.  It is untidy; it clutters desks and dirties the walls.  Progress is not hidden in spreadsheets and gant charts in Microsoft Project.  No, it is on the wall.

Walls are central to agile.  Indeed any visual thinking process that uses ‘information radiators’ as central to communicating information (rather than circulating documents) will make use of walls, sticking cards, posters, post-its, stuff up for all to see.  When you start to use walls, good things happen.  Other people become curious, they walk to wall, they look and see.  When you have wireframes stuck to the walls they go arrrr!  that’s what you are building! There is a palpable excitement, a buzz to organisations who start (and continue) to use walls.

That is, until the detractors come along with demands to tear down the wall.

These usally take one of three guises.

The first, predominantly found in financial services is compliance.  Increasingly clear desk policies are being rigorously policed to ensure documents are not leaked between departments and this often finds its way onto the information radiators.

The second is facilities management who seem to think that their clean whitewashed walls are delivering greater value to the business than anything untidy that is stuck on them. Their knee-jerk reaction is to ban the use of blue-tack and get a whiteboard permanently drilled to the wall to hold the cards.

The third and final detractor is the IT manager who is dazzled by technology and insists on using technology to solve the problem.  Out goes the card wall and in comes a plasma screen with an excel spreadsheet displaying the cards.  This completely misses the point of the wall, of the human element.  Richard Durnall tells the story of his experience at Ford where they employed a technology based process for managing inventory at the plant.  “Unfortunately this process had a problem; it was rubbish.”  He contrasts this tech-centric system for that employed by Toyota:

When the guy on the line started a new box of parts, he’d take a card off the top and put it into a letterbox. Every 10 minutes or so another guy would drive around in a little truck and collect up all the cards. He’d then go to an office where he had a card sorter connected to a computer. He’d put the cards through the sorter, which at the same time sent messages on usage to the supplier network, and then he’d go and fill up his truck based on the cards that he had, returning the cards to the boxes.

Managing inventory with cards.  Using paper in a paperless office; not everybody gets it.

Knowing that you will have detractors to the paper walls is a first step in managing expectations and getting everybody on board.  Talk to compliance, facilities, and let them know what you are doing.  Ensure an executive sponsor can override any petty bureaucratic blockers.

And before you know it, the information radiators will have moved out of IT and into the way the business manages its tasks as well.

Critiquing the critics (usability rant part 1)

Michael Winner may be a good food critic, but if you were looking for someone to cook you the finest meal for your budget, I doubt he would be your first choice.Same with film critics, they may be able to write an insightful and critical review, but would you want them directing a film for your budget? Would you want Jakob Neilsen, who is essentially a usability critic, to design your website? I mean, take a look at his site!

When you are building a product, you get a usability company in because you know that usability is a good thing that you want to have. If usability companies are the critics, what are you expecting?

The first usability test I ran was in 1991. I’ve set up usability labs, I’ve observed hundreds of people interacting with technology and products. My passion has always to do things at speed, turn around results ASAP and engage all stakeholders in the process.  But I’ll talk about that in a later post.  For now I’ll draw on experience of working with organisations that have commissioned usability companies to review their products.  I’ll breakdown the process I have often observed from usability testing vendors, considering both the elapsed time and the actual ‘value added time’ taken.

Day one

The client (usually the business) engage the usability company to audit the usability of the product that is being developed. The consultants will come in and understand the user tasks, roles and goals; the target audience will be identified for recruitment. ‘Value added time’ = 1 hour.

Day two

The team go away and produce a test plan and a recruitment brief for a research agency to find participants. They promise to get it back to the client in a couple of days. They contact their preferred agency who set about recruiting people (let’s assume this is a simple brief for a retail website targeted at young mothers).  Produce test plan (value added time = 3 hours). Send to client for review.

Day three

Client return test plan with a few comments. Update test plan. Value added time = 30 minutes.

Days six-ten

Twelve usability sessions, each an hour long, they do three a day, that is four days of testing. Value added time = 12 hours

Days eleven – thirteen

The team spend three days analysising and synthesising the results, pull supporting video clips and produce a detailed report. Value added time – 15 hours

Day fourteen

The client sees the report for the first time. (Value added time = 2 hours). Interesting results. (IT representation were not invited, they did not commission the report, the product owner wants to see the output first before sharing it with IT).

Day sixteen

The product owner informs the dev team of the changes that need to be made in the light of the usability report. Project manager sucks air through his teeth and says “you’ll need to raise a change request for those items… ha! quick wins they say? hardly… Hmmm, OK, change the labels in the field, we should be able to do that…”

Value added Vs. Elapsed time

The usability company has delivered and their engagement is complete.  From the start of the process to the recommendations hitting the developers who must ultimately action these, for this not-too-fictitious scenario sixteen days have passed, of which only four were spent on value-added tasks, actually doing stuff.

Day n

The product goes live. The usability company are aghast that so many of the changes they reccomended have not been implemented. They place the blame fairly and sqaurely at the door of the developers and reinforce their belief that IT just doesn’t listen, or worse, care about usability. The critics have critcised from their armchair, like the pigs and chickens they are the chickens, participated not committed.

Usability rant part 2>


I’ve written in the past about the government’s abysmal track record on IT development.  I met with the local MP to discuss the issues but he didn’t really get it; he sent me away to write a policy paper for him which I really had time for…  So good news that someone is doing something about it with a petition on the Number 10 website.

In his recent update on the progress of the petition, Rob Bowley mentions the Rural Payments Agency project.  I can’t attest to either have been an ‘expert’ or to have had a salary anything near what he mentions, but I was a consultant on that project so nod in informed agreement.  That experience gave me a benchmark to compare ‘bad’ ways of going about an IT project to compare with the ‘good’ world of lean and agile that I now inhabit.

Please sign the petition.

Why it pays to think about the whole system, not just your local function

Ability to do bulk price mark-downs? Nice to have.

Today we are looking at a large UK supermarket stock control system.  At the end of the day the staff mark down prices on the short-life items (sandwiches etc).  They have a hand held scanner with a belt printer.  Scan item – print label – stick label on item.  Well that’s what the process is supposed to be, only this takes time (20 seconds per item) and when you have a whole shelf to do is a chore (12 items takes four minutes).  Far easier to just write down the new price on a ‘discount label’ with a sharpie and stick it over the barcode (do the whole shelf in less than a minute).

Where’s the problem in that?  In fact three minutes of waste (waiting time) has been eliminated.  Only it is a problem

The customer takes the item to checkout and the mark-down label is covering the barcode.  The checkout colleague tries to peel it off to scan, but it doesn’t peel cleanly.  So she manually enters in the SKU. And the mark-down price.  And this has taken 2 minutes for one item and the queue has grown and because of the ‘one in front’ policy they have to open a new checkout and suddenly that small problem at one end of the value chain is replaced by a bigger costlier one at the front end.

But had we not observed this we would never know that bulk price mark-downs on the hand-held device is not a nice to have, it is million dollar requirement.

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