A familiar story
The board or business owners decide the website is not good enough. It looks old-fashioned, it doesn't work properly, is difficult to update, or the web developers have disappeared and no one knows anything about anything. The same feelings are often directed at software developments, extranets and other web-based applications, whether used internally or for interaction with clients. The reasons decision makers give for not liking a website or development is usually based on gut reactions however, rather then any hard statistical information or facts.
More often than not, the reason websites or developments perform poorly is because they are not (or are no longer) serving the "end user" well. This end user could be employers, suppliers and, more importantly in the case of commercial websites, this could be the client or potential customer. The reasons presented to justify the need for change are seldom based on the realisation that the user is no longer well served. That's probably because identifying a lack of customer understanding can be painful to admit. You may have experienced some of the following yourself:
Recognised by Government
It probably went unnoticed by many, but the Technology Strategy Board (a government funding body under Vince Cable's Department for Business) has been keen to address this issue. Through part-funding, they encourage collaborations among businesses, researchers and technologists in order to encourage activity in areas indentified by the Government as important for the nation. Just a few weeks ago, they started assessing applications from groups presenting research and development ideas to help them in their aim to "reduce the amount of software that is produced that is unfit-for-purpose, because it is developed without a real understanding of the contexts that users are working in, or their cultures and behaviours, and so does not meet user requirements." Why is this under focus? It has been realised what a waste of company resources and compromise of profitability (and tax!) the whole process is. More importantly, how much more competitive would our British nation be if this could be sorted out?
As far as the mantra from the government is concerned, software which performs poorly for users or clients is usually as a result of "inaccurate specification of requirements, where the context of use is not fully understood or appreciated." What reasons can there be that there is such a disconnect in software or web development projects between the client, developer and end users? As a company, we've designed websites, software and web applications for 15 years - mainly in projects with some customer-of client-facing aspects involved. As a very young company, we developed software in a way that fitted with our skills and technical knowledge and our view of the world.
Passing our software or content management systems over to clients, we often then watched them a) struggle with it b) avoid using it c) wreck it d) all of the above. It didn't take us very long to realise that, although the project goals were clear to us and the client was happy with delivery, we'd not assessed the context, knowledge or requirements of the end user fully in order for them to take best advantage of the new development. "Many software development teams lack the right skills to fully appreciate user context, cultures and behaviours, or they lack the ability to translate this understanding into workable requirements," says the brief from the government. Is this because programmers understand the programming environment, not the user environment? Or if anyone at any time did understand the user environment, it hasn't got through to the programmers. Maybe the client doesn't understand their own user environment? But this highlights another issue.
To understand the user context takes time and experience. There's usually a cost attached to time and experience. Many of the Small or Medium Enterprises (SMEs) who order software or web developments are looking for savings. In looking for the best quote, SMEs often don't see value in any other part of the process other than in the coding and creation of the development itself. To fully take account of the user context is not difficult. Statistical analysis, prototyping, testing and user surveys combined with proper planning with stakeholders and developers provides clarity. Of the above, interaction with the end user is key, but often avoided. - It may reveal painful information about the staff or client view of the company; - The process takes time, much thought and thus is a lot of hassle; - Maybe the project doesn't have enough staff resource or budget available to spend the time. -Egos no doubt can play a part. So often the user is forgotten. The point of view of the client commissioning the project is usually taken as the "User View" for development delivery, although often this isn't the case.
A successful outcome
In the government's view, "Capturing real user requirements and understanding user cultures and aspirations is vital for effective software design. It shows a forward thinking process in the Department of Business to recognise this issue and it is commendable that they have thought it worthy to back collaborations to investigate the issue. It will be momentous indeed if the government-backed studies which succeed in getting funding produce new methodologies which can aid SME software and website commissioning and development. But surely the main reason that so many projects aren't fit for purpose is that SMEs are not willing to invest the money, time or expertise to actually engage in these processes.Will any study be able to change this? Hopefully so, possibly not.