Written by Page McNall

The Voice of the Customer is more than just a buzzword. The customer is the reason we are in business and why our products succeed. If you want to fail, just ignore the customer. Write your own requirements and deliver applications that you think they want. Don’t bother asking for feedback; it will only slow down the development and testing cycles because the end user always wants too much and they are always changing requirements while the product is being built. Have you heard that before? Well, maybe you have even said it before.

But the customer is really what it’s all about and they must be involved from the very beginning, all the way through the design, testing, implementation and sustainment phases of the lifecycle. Before I go any further, let’s take a moment to define a few terms. “The customer” represents and should be a fierce advocate for end users. End users include both functional and technical users, such as system administrators, trainers, and the very people using the application every day. A “key stakeholder” may influence the project; either positively or negatively, and often represents a more strategic perspective than the end user. I believe that identifying the right customers and stakeholders is crucial to make sure that the end users’ voice is heard throughout the project. Project managers, designers, and developers must embrace the customer and bias their decisions in favor of the customer. But this is a shared responsibility and end users must be engaged, even passionate about their contributions to the project starting with requirements, and extending to the design of the screen, usability and navigation of the application. A smart project manager will look at customers as a vital part of the team, recognizing that without customer support, their project will fail. Keeping customers close is an absolute must. Keeping stakeholders informed and included in decision-making is important from a business perspective since they are influential and can be very helpful in clearing obstacles. Without good communications, stakeholders can also put up roadblocks, which take a lot of time and energy to get beyond. Before I move on, I feel compelled to talk about the delicate balance between “the customer” and “key stakeholders.” With human nature and group dynamics being what they are, the true Voice of the Customer may fade to a quiet murmur due to the loud pontification of important stakeholders. Make a concerted effort to remain an active listener and keep your customers and stakeholders informed so that the service you provide and product your team delivers really meets the customer (end user) expectations.

In my perfect world, the right customers are identified and engaged right from the start in gathering requirements. In fact, they are passionate about the project. The initial requirements are more than a list of technical requirements; we must understand the customer’s functional needs. What is the workflow? What other systems do they use? What is the simplest and easiest way to satisfy their needs? Never assume that you know what the customer wants. If in doubt, ask. After the functional requirements are broken down into technical requirements, circle back around with the users to make sure we got it right. Never assume. After we design the application for the computer or mobile screen, invite the customer to check it out. Did you get it right? Make changes early. Invite users and stakeholders to sprint demonstrations. Fail early. Make changes early. Sounds like Agile Development, but that’s for another day. Build on your relationship with the customer. Invite customers to test the product. Does it make their job easier? Is it simple to learn? Is it easy to use? The Voice of the Customer should be clearly heard throughout the lifecycle. Users should be excited about the product’s release and be telling their friends about it.

In our world, the customer is king and we serve to give them products that fit their workflow, are easy to learn and use, and gets them home earlier at the end of the day