Leveraging The User To Improve IT Solutions

By: Rich Ptak, Managing Partner, Ptak, Noel & Associates LLC

I’ve spent the last 20 years analyzing the Information Technologies market. My work with vendors has ranged from developing business strategies and honing messaging to defining product requirements and identifying significant trends. My work with IT enterprise decision-makers has been to help define requirements, identify and evaluate alternatives, and recommend solutions, etc. We’ve always worked closely with our clients to understand first what they are trying to accomplish, then providing the advice, support and services that we believe will be most effective in achieving those goals.

Over the years I’ve noticed there are recurring cycles to solutions and how they are developed and sold. Certain themes which reappear are: centralization of resources vs. decentralization; work from customer wish-lists but don’t miss the next ‘big thing’! My personal favorite of the recurring themes is ‘listen to and understand the customer’. This is actually really good advice, but it must be executed correctly. It requires active listening, interaction, and learning in-depth how the customer uses the product as well as what is not being used. Clearly its time in the cycle has come around again.

Over the last 18 to 24 months, I’ve seen more of our clients spending significant time making a concerted effort to work with and gain feedback from customers. They’re not shy about discussing the depth and breadth of their efforts, and the rapid, recursive changes to the product that we find interesting and highly beneficial.

So, what’s the big deal about listening to clients? There are a variety of ways to acquire and process data from customers. The issue isn’t about a failure in these but in the changes taking place in the processes of data is collection, the focus of the inquiry and how the data is used and applied.

Data Collection: Social media, agile development and consumerization change it all! What was once a structured and prolonged process of meetings, discussions and eventual integration into a development plan, has become a looser, more interactive and faster track to development and integration of new features and capabilities. Social media facilitates and speeds communications between the vendor and the user. Agile development allows user comments and requests to more directly influence the product and feature development process and workflow. One client described how data from users were streamed into their process of continuous development. Teams were able to make incremental adjustments during the development process. Customers provided ongoing feedback about what worked, didn’t work and what almost worked based on evaluating snapshots and prototypes. Today’s technologies and workflows allow for a continuous input to improve the product during the development cycle. It turns out that it can be economically more efficient to facilitate potentially disruptive communication that allows those adjustments to meet customer needs, than discovering a major gap between delivered functionality and need at the end of the development cycle.

Focus of the Inquiry: Speeds n’ feeds don’t cut it anymore! It used to be about shaping tools, adding features and functionality. Today, changes in technology, capacity expansion and the change in the operations environment shift the focus to simplicity of use, integration of capabilities and consistency across platforms. Users have more responsibility and, frequently, less training. Over-specialization makes less sense from both an economic perspective with the advent of virtualization. IT staff need management and administrative tools that integrate tasks and functions and leverage the capabilities of the technology to to optimize the delivery of reliable services. They need solutions that will help them to anticipate, and identify the source of disruptions wherever it occurs and help them to provide the best user experience. This means vendors must work more closely with their users to acquire deep understanding into how their products are used and how to improve them.

Applying the data: Integration, intelligence and leverage what is known! Features and functionality enhancement remain important, but now the focus is easier to use and to apply to changing circumstances. IT staff need to be able to use and integrate what is available in terms of data and tools, as well as usage patterns, customer behavior, and knowledge about change. The focus is on moving beyond simply collection, aggregating and reporting to using patterns, analytics and acquired expertise to make the user more effective and proactive (when appropriate) in the use of the tool. The extension can be as straightforward as building the ability to group, search, correlate and manipulate massive amounts of data or feedback with a new user interface. Or, it can involve the automated correlation and analysis of data to pinpoint a potential failure during a simulated service delivery, then using simulation to suggest repair or work-around alternatives to avoid the problem.

The point of all this is that vendors and users are becoming more closely linked. The consumerization of IT and penetration of social media provide more opportunities for interaction and collaboration that benefits both. The partnership between vendors, channel and technology partners and the consumer provide a rich ground for cooperative efforts that will benefit all three. In our practice, we are seeing more and more of such collaboration. It is both highly welcome and much needed. The results that we have seen so far lead us to believe this will continue.