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Avoiding Project Disasters

I’ve been spending some time thinking about how projects start recently, and looking at the ideas that are generated to create new products. So I thought I’d write a post on this to give some hints and tips on ensuring you build the right thing.

Here are the two key stages that occur when starting projects:

StartingaProject1

So this is obvious? Well you’d think so, but we can go badly wrong with these steps because of our assumptions:

StartingaProjectAssumptions

Let’s deep dive into this…..

ProblemsUsersHave

Assumptions about Problems:

Let’s start with the assumptions made about the problems that users have. Here we’ll look at some silly examples (OK if these turn out to be the idea that becomes the next big thing just give me a cut of the profits):

  • Cyclists can be seen most of the time but not necessarily heard and need something that makes a constant noise.
  • Walkers need a mobile gaming system they can play whilst being able to see where they are going.
  • Setting up dates is a pain so what people need is a service that takes them to a random local place to meet.

Subtle Assumptions about Problems:

Some start-ups have died off because of crazy assumptions about what a user needs. However although the crazy examples are often easy to spot, things can be FAR more subtle than that:

  • Customers aren’t buying on our system because they can’t do one click credit card payments.
  • Customers love our products but are put off with the decor in the shops.
  • Our customers aren’t happy with our current paper process because they hate filling in forms.

Our assumptions can creep in all over the place and some of these can cause costly mistakes. These are hard to spot, they sound sensible and logical.

How to Avoid Assumptions about Problems:

This is where user research comes in. There are many techniques such as surveys, ethnography (going and seeing what they do in practice), interviews, group discussions etc. All of these seek to validate assumptions:

  • Customers aren’t buying on our system because they can’t do one click credit card payments. Real problem: Cost of postage is very high and when they come to pay they drop out.
  • Customers love our products but are put off with the decor in the shop. Real problem: Two large security guards at the front door are putting people off entering.
  • Our customers aren’t happy with our current paper process because they hate filling in the form. Real problem: We don’t warn them to bring ID then when they get here they have to do two trips.

Any project that runs with unvalidated users needs is at risk of failure or even making things worse. Your product owner can mask serious issues by sounding like they know what they are talking about. They are not the user, make sure you validate any opinions.

To Summarise….

Get your  users to tell you what they need, and if you are trying to improve a product ask them where their current pain points are.

HowAreWeGoingToSolveThem

Assumptions about Solutions:

Typically having validated the needs of the user we then look to create a solution. Those solutions can be completely unsuitable. Let’s use some real ones!:

  • My dog needs water
    • Create flavoured bottled water for pets
  • People like to smell nice
    • Harley Davidson cologne

OK those flopped, so let’s look at some more subtle issues where solutions appear to be very sensible:

  • A loan system where you have to use sliders to see costs. Result: Doesn’t work well on mobile devices.
  • A system that is accessed with a password on a computer keyboard. Result: Doesn’t work well in a dirty environment.
  • A tablet application for airport staff. Result: Doesn’t work well outside.

How to Avoid Assumptions about Solutions:

Again this is where the disciplines of UX design and interaction design can help. There are many techniques such as prototypes – high fidelity interactive / paper, wireframes etc.  All of these seek to validate assumptions about the solution(s). Seek rapid feedback on your solution(s). The best feedback is when the product is live!

To Summarise….

Get your users closely involved when designing your solution until they get what they want. Get your product out there as fast as you can by cutting down features, you can add more when you know you’re succeeding.

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