Good software design and development starts with customers' needs

Discovering customer needs isn't a simple query and response. It takes some work to get the information your design and development efforts rely on.

It's important to consider customers' feedback, but software developers can't always follow customers' advice. Customers tend to ask for old solutions to new problems, but those old solutions rarely work, according to Agile expert Pollyanna Pixton. Starting a new product requires new thinking. At the recent joint Better Software Conference and Agile East event in Boston, Mass., Pixton explained a repeatable method for fostering new ideas and determining which ones hold the most value.

If you want to see some people flip out, ask them to turn in their mobile devices.

Pollyanna Pixton

Pixton is well-qualified to speak on the topic of product management. She has nearly forty years of experience working to increase effective collaboration and leadership in many different organizations. She is a founding partner at Accelinnova LLC and also the president of Evolutionary Systems and director of the Institute for Collaborative Leadership.

She quoted Henry Ford saying, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." At the time, Pixton explained, most people were unfamiliar with the technology behind automobiles. They wouldn't be able to describe a working automobile and would revert to talking about horses, which were more familiar.

Pixton's approach to delving beyond customer feedback and into the customer's real need starts with four questions that we should all be able to answer about the company we work for. Who are our customers? What do our customer's need most? How do we provide value for our customers? What is the best way for us to provide that value to customers?

Create decision filters

Answering these questions helps product managers decide how to prioritize the team's various goals. Pixton highly recommended developing "decision filters" for the company. A decision filter is a simple question tied to the answers of the four questions above. "What mission statement would you put on a billboard?" Pixton asked, "It has to be short and simple, so people can read it and understand it as they drive past."

Southwest Airlines, for example, strives "to be the low-cost airline." Southwest understands that its customer base is people who fly on a budget. The customers need a low-cost option to get from Point A to Point B. Southwest provides that by reducing its operating costs wherever possible to provide the lowest possible airfare. Its research showed that the biggest single cost to the airline is the time its planes spend on the ground.

From there, they could develop easy to follow decision filters. "Will this help us be the low-cost airline? Will this reduce time on the ground?" Pixton said these questions can make or break decisions from meal choices (less to load onto the plane is better) to baggage prices (free luggage checking encourages passengers to check their bags preflight and helps reduce loading times).

It's important to let those decision filters cascade throughout the organization. Bring up these concepts early and often. Focusing on creating value for customers early in the process helps avoid the need to analyze the product's failure later.

Apply decision filters from the start

Pixton recommends starting any new products with a product inception meeting. This meeting should include representatives from every group that's important to the process -- developers, QA and operations, but also customers, marketing, sales, finance and maybe others, depending on the product.

It's important that these individuals are not just present at the inception meeting, but that they participate as well. Pixton asks attendees to do without their cell phones for the duration of the meeting. "If you want to see some people flip out," she said, "ask them to turn in their mobile devices." People will balk at first, according to Pixton, but the results are worth it. People get much more involved and productive when they let go of their mobile devices and the distractions that come with them.

The product inception meeting is important because it sets expectations for the whole project. It should cover the entire product lifecycle. Taking a holistic approach to software design and development is difficult, but it's also rewarding. "Sometimes we get so focused on our own little piece," Pixton said, "That we might forget we have to focus on the whole thing."

The main focus of the product inception meeting is brainstorming and creating initial stories. Pixton said it's important to put the stories through the company's decision filters immediately. If they don't pass, then they're not worth starting development on. Keep working on redefining the story until it meets the company's needs before assigning the work to developers.

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