Jul 062009
 

My alumni association did it to me again today. They sent a very nicely worded message, to me and thousands of others, saying that they are retiring their social networking website… but not to worry, a much better one is coming up soon. Some of our information, such as profiles, will be transferred, but other information, such as past message threads, will not.

I am also on the Board of one of the alumni clubs, with about 1500 members, and I manage the membership list. The same alumni association offers “tools” for people like me to manage mailing lists, dues payments, etc. That would be nice, except that these tools do not do what we need. For example, I cannot send an email to everyone whose ZIP code starts with 94 (that’s the San Francisco Bay Area). And they also tend to move, once a year, all the members who haven’t given us any money into a “lapsed” category, which prevents us from getting everyone in a single download of the directory. A few years ago, the answer was: “Don’t worry, we know this software has problems, but we’re going to replace it with something new and improved. I said “fine, I don’t really trust you on this, but if you want me to be more positive, then involve me in reviewing your specification and/or beta-testing the new site.” Guess what? I never heard from them again. The software changed, the problems persisted, and now… I heard that they’re preparing a “revamp” of the system, but I don’t care anymore. We have decided to move our member management to salesforce.com, which offers a good deal to non-profits.

You may also remember the backlash against the Facebook user interface changes a few months ago, or the storm created by LinkedIn when they took away the ability of group managers to download a CSV file of their members’ information.

What’s the point of this rant? In fact, there are several points:

  • It is not up to the provider to say that the current version of a product has drawbacks and that a new version will be an improvement. It is up to the users, stupid! Both the need to make improvements, and the fact that a new design is better, need to be based on user inputs.
  • There is no reason, in this day and age, to have to tell people that the current site is “being retired” on a certain day, that some information will be lost, and that the new site will open some time later. The technology, including domain redirection and mashups and what-not, totally permit a seamless transition from one stage to the next, possibly with a choice of interfaces between “Classic” and “Modern” during an interim period. But it won’t happen unless it is written into the requirements, and the user’s convenience is prioritized over that of the developers.
  • The first time a provider makes these changes without consultation and whets my appetite in vain, shame on them! The second time they do it, and I believe that what’s coming will be better, shame on me!
  • Why build a new social networking capability today? Would it not be much better to create a well-managed group within Facebook or LinkedIn, and perhaps work with those companies to see how the visual branding of the group can be improved? I understand that my alma mater may prefer “MySchool Alumni Association” in big letters, and “powered by Facebook” in small characters below, rather than the other way around. Have they even asked? Could they please condescend to explain to their users why they decided to do what they are doing? Again, we’re talking about a form of contempt for the users here.

These are general principles of user-oriented design that all software/service providers ought to follow. That you can find a reflection of these principles, or rather of their ignorance, in a seemingly minor action by a well-intended organization is a worrisome sign that it is still common for users to be subjected to despots who decide for them what’s “good.” The IT and software industries will not really be mature until we see this approach disappear. “Management by humility” seems in order.

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Claude Baudoin

Claude Baudoin is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business & Enterprise Architecture and Data Insight & Social BI practices. He is a proven leader and visionary in IT and knowledge management (KM) with extensive experience working in a global environment. Mr. Baudoin is passionate about quality, knowledge sharing, and providing honest and complete advice.

Discussion

  2 Responses to “New and Improved — Who Says?”

  1. Claude –

    I agree with your rant and I think your lesson is applicable in many areas of life beyond IT. I would add one caveat though which is that being only user-led may not be ideal either. If you only do what your users ask then you are not innovating.

    So I believe that a difficult job for the manager is to balance the provision of an efficient and reliable service that is responsive to the requests and needs of its users as you advocate with the willingness to take risks on something new with the potential to delight users with services they didn’t know they needed or wanted until they experienced them.

    The context is important in finding that balance. Providing social networking for alumni networking has far less demand for innovation than a competitive service offering social networking commercially for instance.

    Great article, I look forward to more.

  2. Good points, Trevor, and as usual I readily agree with your “friendly amendments.”

    Note that I didn’t directly address the issue of users not requesting innovation. Indeed, another pet issue of mine is that users or business managers who don’t know enough what what the technology allows will not request innovative capabilities, and that IT people do not try enough to propose such education to them — and we know there is a vicious cycle in this. But my point, regardless of the innovative content of an application, is that the user has to agree that a new version is improved, it is not for the developers to decide this on their own.

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