One of the biggest challenges that our clients have is that they find it difficult to develop systems that truly meet the users’ needs. In the typical Fortune 500 corporation, “the business” consists of all the people who do the job of making money. This could be manufacturing, distribution or sales. IT is the group that develops systems that in some way are meant to help “the business” either to make more money or to save money. In this corporate world, “the business” is the customer. In most organizations, “the business” behaves as true customers. They express needs and IT has the responsibility to deliver systems that meets those needs. What we have found is that many times IT does a poor job of understanding the needs and “the business” refuses to accept the developed system. This manifests either as extreme user dissatisfaction with the system or even outright refusal to use the system. These are two critical problems that waste tremendous amounts of time and money. We all want to get the users more involved, but it is incredibly difficult to do so when you have a large distributed user base. You certainly can’t interview everyone.
You may have heard of a field called Prediction Markets or Predictive Markets. A few years ago some researchers discovered that when people put real money on the outcome of events and enough people placed bets, the group was often times better at predicting outcomes than experts. You can find some background on Prediction Markets at Wikipedia. It wasn’t long before Prediction Markets were used to aid in software development. Both Microsoft and Google use variants of prediction markets to predict launch dates and to prioritize features of products.
One company that has fully embraced direct communication with their user community is Salesforce.com. Salesforce has created what they call their “IdeaExchange.” In the IdeaExchange, users can discuss features, recommend features and then vote on the features that other people have recommended. In addition, when new releases come out, users can vote and make comments about their satisfaction with the releases. This becomes real time feedback to the developer population to create a much tighter community and to create releases that are much more in tune with what the users actually want. These systems have been around for a few years now, but we haven’t yet seen significant adoption in our clients.
While these tools and methods are no substitute for strong Product Management, they can provide a significant aid to Product Managers in prioritizing features and getting a measure of how well their systems met the needs of the business.