My users! No, MY users!

One set of design challenges when working on enterprise products is the number of different people and roles involved. Many designers and product managers are familiar with the buyer vs. user split where the people using the product aren’t the same as those making the purchase decision.

Product teams have historically given more weight to the buyers and their opinions, requirements, etc. This is for good reason – if the buyer doesn’t buy, your product goes nowhere. Catering exclusively to the buyer usually results in a lousy product that sits on the shelf or is despised. With ever more SaaS products that are sold on a subscription basis, ignoring the end user will result in poor adoption and renewal rates.

Anyone practicing user-centered design knows the importance of studying and working with the people doing the actual work. So, why is it so hard to get access to these people?

While I was working on an enterprise file sharing product, I realized it wasn’t just a simple case of finding the right person to interview. Many of our contacts were IT staff either administrating or evaluating our product. I had many good meetings with these folks, but my frequent requests to meet with our product’s end users often went nowhere.

One day, an IT contact’s comment finally provided the insight to why I wasn’t getting past IT. IT departments are responsible for evaluating, purchasing, and maintaining their company’s systems. So, IT is also responsible for understanding their company’s employees’ needs. Asking to interview the users was either being interpreted as redundant or, worse, insulting!

Getting through these gatekeepers is challenging and requires persuasion and persistence. There are a few approaches to try:

  • Explain the importance of getting access to end users and how your research methods and first hand data are crucial to providing the best product for their money.
  • Treat the IT staff as surrogate users. Conduct interviews, usability tests, and other research and design activities  with them. However, push the boundaries of their knowledge and look for the opportunity to get access to actual users to answer outstanding questions.
  • Recruit representative users from outside the company. You’ll avoid possibly wasting time but may not discover needs and design solutions to help your actual customers.

Share your experiences in the comments.

A Humane Review

Jean-Louis Gassée is onto something here.

A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:

  • First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we’ll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
  • Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
  • Third: We’re sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I’m about to make. Now let’s talk…

Also see his follow up article on how to fire poor performers