Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When they can't articulate, innovate.

In the last post I talked about using NPS (net promoter score) to focus on what your users are telling you they want most. When your users are telling you what they want, encourage them to tell you what problems they need you to solve rather than suggesting solutions. Why is that important? Because unless you understand the problem, you can't provide the best solution. There may be far better solutions to the problem than those the user is suggesting. The user doesn't always know all the different ways you might be able to solve the problem. So I should take this opportunity to ask those of you that use our products to please describe your problems when you report a bug or suggest a feature.

What do you do if the user can't articulate the problem they have? I don't mean they can't find the words to describe it. What if the user is simply living with a problem that they didn't know you or anyone else could solve? Let me take you back to a place a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away: the 1980s. I was a computer consultant and a big customer of mine had just merged with another large company. One day, while strolling through the sea of cubicles, I noticed a temp worker sitting at a computer doing some data entry. What I found interesting was that the data she was entering was clearly coming from a four inch stack of computer paper. She was entering data into one computer that came from another computer! I asked my contact where the data on the computer printout came from. He pointed to another computer just across the room. Looking at the stack I figured it was going to take at least a week to enter all that data. I asked him if it would be worth $500 if I could get the data into the new computer without any of the mistakes that the diligent, but also human, temp worker was bound to make and get the job done today instead of a week from now. The answer was an enthusiastic yes. We don't think twice about this today but back then it felt more like magic to most people so it never occurred to my customer to even ask me if I could solve that problem. I assume they found something else for the temp worker to do...

When you solve a problem that users can't articulate or perhaps are not even aware they have, that's innovation. While users like it when you solve the problems they tell you about, they REALLY like it when you doing something truly innovative. In order to see these problems, you really have to walk in their shoes. If you can use your own product, like we do at REAL Software, that makes it a whole lot easier. But if you can't, then spend the time with your users to see how they use your software. Ideally, this would be done on-site so you can watch them work. If not, screen sharing over broadband works very well these days. Take extensive notes but resist the temptation to show them how to solve a problem when you notice one because you won't be sitting behind them every moment of every day. If they are doing something the hard way or the long way with your software, then perhaps the better way is not intuitive enough. If there is no better way, then you may have an opportunity to innovate.

Once you've identified a place to innovate, the next step is to come up with your innovation. The solution is not always obvious. Sometimes, it looks like there is no solution. This often happens because we limit ourselves to what is most obvious. Instead, use your imagination. Keep your mind open. Brainstorm about solutions with a co-worker or friend if you can. Many of the most innovative solutions have come from imagination and brainstorming. If anything were possible, what would the solution be? That's a good place to start.

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