A tale about customer feedback

Probably you have also heard the constantly repeated mantra of many agile gurus: “Get real customer feedback. Get it early. Learn from it.”
And probably you also know these “agilized” projects with lots of of sprints and reviews and a go-live at the very end of the project. And unfortunately no time to talk to customers.

Let me tell you about a different experience from my last project.

The client was a small company that needed a highly specialized editorial system. They needed to support a distributed staff of editors in creating and enhancing the readability of a large set (we speak of 10s to 100s of thousands here!) of partly identical product leaflets. Obviously the key to success was the intelligent re-use of the created content across different product leaflets.

It was a still warm late autumn day, when I arrived at the client site for the first time. The beautiful rural setting with some ducks from the neighboring farm crossing my path on the way in provided a nice contrast to the challenge lying ahead. After an introduction to the vision and some preliminary screen ideas we decided quickly to to go with Scrum, mainly because of the intense learning that we knew was needed to arrive at our goal.

Even though the hard deadline for the product delivery was 15 months later, we agreed to involve our users as early as possible. Soon the technical setup was underway, while we carved out the first user stories and drafted a minimal viable product.

Looking back I am still impressed with the courage of my client. After much discussion, some architecting, some infrastructure setup and some coding, we we went live with release 0.1 only six weeks later! It looked plain, but nice. And it contained little more than a list displaying some aspects of the imported raw data, a selection mechanism and a data entry form with a single text field. At the time my goal as an architect was to create a walking skeleton and to identify tech-stack-, infrastructure and operational challenges.

Real feedback from our users I didn’t really dare to hope for. But it happened! One of the editors told us about the one feature she’d like to see in the new product. A feature that we hadn’t even imagined. But a feature that was certainly doable. Having access the real raw data we did some SQL magic and some number crunching and … wow!!!! This feature would make our product about 3.6 to 10 times more efficient than we had originally planned. Admitted, it would require a complete re-vamp of our (still mostly imagined) data architecture. But that would be easy considering how little we had already built. This idea really made sense! So we went to work. It took us two releases, but four weeks later, the first version of the new feature went live. And the customer was delighted!

The new concept is going to carry us through all the way to the end. It has become the foundation of the whole system. And now, more than a half a year later, I can only be greateful for our decision to ask for real customer feedback that early in the project. And now I can not only repeat the mantra, which I’ll happily do…

“Get real customer feedback. Get it early. And learn from it.”

… I can also tell a story about it.

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