Do Users Know What They Want?

Steve Jobs Quotes from MacStories in what I think of as his thoughts on users/customers:

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” –  Inc. Magazine

“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.” – CNNMoney

“So when a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know – just explore things.” – CNNMoney

That first quote has really stayed with me ever since I first heard it during the Steve Jobs media flurry that occurred just after his death.  I think this is because it applies so aptly to what I do as a Business Analyst on projects.  It is my job to determine how to deliver what customers really want, to understand how they need to use the system.  Of course, working with management up front before selecting the tool would be optimal but most of the time the tools have been selected beforehand and that is a constraint.

That reality aside, this process sounds easy right?  You just ask them.

Well, most of the time it doesn’t work that way at all.  Why?  Well, because most users only understand some aspects of their job and although they understand the steps they go through to get what they need every day, they can’t really visualize what the best way to do their job is.  They can’t really see the possibilities and they freeze up in the face of change.  Oh they may seem confident, but if you’ve ever sat down and gone through the process of documenting what they say they want just to have them see the reality and figure out that they didn’t want that at all, you understand that they really don’t know.

Projects want to deliver value to customers, or in the IT world what I think of as users.  Projects management is all about defining objectives, scope and requirements.  The unspoken assumption behind all of these tasks is that the users (or customers) know what they do, why they do it and what they want.

In my experience high level managers want effective investments with positive ROI through cutting costs and increasing efficiency.  They also need to keep up with competitors, and this often means investment in keeping up to date with their product offerings and technology.

What do most users want?  Well they want to be left alone to do their jobs, and to do them the way they always have.  Sure they may complain about small aggravations, and they’d love to have them go away, but most users do not want the stress and effort that comes with redefining the way that they do their jobs.  They don’t want BIG change.

So what is to be done then, if we cannot rely on users to tell us what they want?  I think that it is important to ask them, what is it you need to do your job?  At the end of the day what value do you produce for the business and how does that tie in to what others do?  Then we need to say okay, I understanding the tools available, how would I want to produce what is needed?  If I was the one doing that job how can I make it easy.  Of all the possibilities, which way makes the most sense?

Once you have this worked out you can engage the people involved and explore all the different aspects of it.  Criticizing a new method is much easier than developing it.  What you will find is that presenting a fully fleshed out process allows users to draw on the knowledge they have to figure out flaws in your design so that you can work out the details.

So what do you think?  Have you found ways to deliver what customers really want?  Have you also found that often they don’t know what that is until they see it?

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