Your Users Don’t Know Their Requirements Until They See Them

In my previous post, I explored the dilemma of a service organization creating a website or web application: while you’re the one whose goals the site has to support, you aren’t the ultimate user of the site. This isn’t unique to nonprofits and government, but it is harder because there’s no easy metric like sales to let you know how well you’re doing. If you’ve figured this out, congratulations! You’ve gone a long way toward making your site successful by focusing on the end user. But there’s a problem: your users can’t often tell you what they need, and when they tell you what they want, they’re likely to unintentionally lie.

Humans are notoriously bad at predicting what they will respond to. That simple fact has given rise to parts or all of the fields of behaviorism, psychology, user experience, efficiency, human factors design, and psychometrics. It turns out that we often state what we’d like to be true of ourselves and then do something different when forced to act. Economists have a term for this: revealed preference. The upshot is that we’re really bad at doing something like looking at a wireframe or design for a website and accurately predicting how we’d use it and if it will solve our problems.

Agile methodology illustrationSo how do you create a successful website if you can’t test it on yourself and you can’t simply ask users what will work for them? There are of course general principles of user experience, and any good developer should steer you toward them. But those principles are notoriously hard to apply perfectly in every case. Fortunately, the software world has been aware of these problems for some time and has developed several methodologies to help, collectively known as Agile.

Even though details vary, all agile processes share one insight in common: users don’t know what they need until they try working software and their requirements change quickly over time. The goal is to quickly get out the most important features to users and let them begin working with them, and use metrics and usability tests to assess how well that version is working. By doing this over and over (iteratively, in Agile terminology), you can make small changes, measure their impact, and change accordingly until you get the feedback you want.

This is a big mind-shift from how nonprofits are used to operating, but it’s one that can make the difference between a website that you can demonstrate to funders actually fulfills its mission versus one you simply hope gives you good results by the next grant application. I’ll explore some of the challenges in adopting it unique to nonprofits in a future post, but meanwhile, Google and this article can get you started on understanding how selecting a developer who uses an agile methodology will make your project more successful.

This month, be sure to check out my company’s Kickstarter campaign and consider backing us: we’re developing two new productivity tools that will help non-profits.

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