November 6, 2016
Real Immersion is the Key to Understanding Your Customer's Needs
I've long been a believer that the key to producing good solutions is understanding the problem.
This is something that developers will nod their heads in agreement at. But I'm not sure they fully grasp what I mean by "understanding the problem".
I have a background in model-driven approaches to requirements analysis and solution design, and am no stranger to the meetings, documents and diagrams dev teams use to describe problem domains. I would even go so far as to claim to be something of a dab hand (in a previous life).
And that's how I know that traditional approaches to domain analysis are usually entirely insufficient to the task. To illustrate what I mean, imagine a non-developer sat and listened to you explain how you do software development. They write copious notes. They draw copious diagrams with boxes and arrows on them. And at the end of all that, do they really understand how you create software? Is an explanation sufficient?
And if they came back and said "we've come up with a better way of developing software", would you find that credible?
Now let's turn the tables back the usual way. You're asked to write some software for, say, an estate agent. You sit in meeting rooms while they explain estate agency to you. You take copious notes. You draw copious diagrams. And then you come back to them and say "we have solved your problem". Credible?
What gets missed in all those meetings and all those documents and diagrams is the complexity and the nuance. Submerged beneath the explanations is an iceberg of tacit knowledge. That's the iceberg that sinks many projects.
My own experience has taught me that teams have come up with much better solutions after they've seen things for themselves, and - even better - tried things for themselves. If an estate could write software, they'd probably write much better solutions for estate agents than we could.
What developers need to do is become the end user, even if it's just for a while. Shadow domain experts and watch them do their work. Try key tasks for yourself, if that's possible. Books on software analysis and design talk about "immersing" ourselves in the problem domain. But I do not think that words means what they think it means. To me, it means becoming the customer - walking a mile or three in their shoes.
Some domains, of course are very complicated. Walking a mile in a brain surgeon's shoes is not practical. It would take years to understand things as well as a brain surgeon does. In these specialisms, we should probably approach things from the other direction: some brain surgeons should learn to write software.
But most problem domains - most jobs - aren't as complex as yet. It maybe takes a day or two to learn how to operate a supermarket checkout. It maybe takes a week or two to learn how to schedule classes in a school.
In the majority of cases, it's practical for developers to spend time on the "shop floor", observing what goes on in the business activities the software will be used in, and learning how to execute those jobs themselves to at least a basic level.
Not only can it clear up a lot of potential misunderstandings - I've seen months of business analysis blown away by just a few hours spent on the shop floor - but it can also help us to empathise with our end users, as well as build relationships with them that will help us when we need their input and feedback. It may also make us think twice about creating software that will affect these people adversely.
The meetings and the diagrams happen as a consequence of this real immersion. Discussions about what can be improved happen a lot faster when every dog has seen the rabbit.
Of course, there'll be lots of devs still nodding in agreement. It is good form to care about the end users and about solving real problems that make their lives easier.
But, although the results of real immersion can be spectacular, but you may have to drag teams kicking and screaming to experience it. We're highly educated professionals, not supermarket checkout operators, goddamit!
In XP, I've found that this is the first step to an on-team customer: making yourself the customer, if just for a while. Climbing inside their heads requires us to start by experiencing first-hand what it's like to be them. For anything but the most rudimentary of tasks - and, as programmers who automate stuff, we should know by now that there's no such thing as a "rudimentary task" - we can no more build a true understanding of the problem through explanations than we could build a true understanding of the colour orange from reading books.
Now, I get on this hobby horse every once in a while, and developers nod their heads and mutter words of support, and nothing changes. I can't stress this enough, though: this is some powerful voodoo. It makes an enormous difference.
You will no doubt agree in principle, but will always find an excuse why this is not possible or desirable in your team. The hidden objection, once you strip away all the excuses is simply: "we don't want to do this".
Try it. I dare you.
Posted 1 year, 9 months ago on November 6, 2016