Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.” – Steve Martin
Take a look at the websites of many major businesses and you will probably be able to find some statements about their values. In many cases, you probably won’t have to look very far to find that they mention customers. Some organizations “put the customer at the center” of what they do, whilst others put “the customer first” or emphasize “service to the customer”. In Amazon’s case, they go as far as a to claim a “customer obsession”.
As customers who use products and services, we are frequently asked for our feedback. Would we recommend companies to our family or friends? Were our needs met? What could be done to make the experience better? Retail companies send out links to web surveys, telephone contact centers ask us to rate the effectiveness of support calls, and simple touchscreens can be used to assess anything from waiting times at government offices to the cleanliness of toilets at airports.
Our responses matter to the organizations asking us because they provide a bridge to the thoughts, ideas, and opinions we have on our experiences. It gives businesses a way of measuring how effectively they met their stated objectives to focus on customers and source clues as to how they might improve.
Meanwhile, our lives have become ever more intertwined with technology. The products and services we use are often supported or enabled by devices, apps, and websites, which we have become accustomed to using whenever and wherever we like. Whether we are catching up with friends or the latest news via social media, passing the time by watching a favorite TV series, or carrying out more mundane activities – perhaps paying a bill or booking an appointment with a doctor – we often rely on the underpinning technology to carry out those actions.
Our experiences as customers can be greatly influenced by technology, and so too can our perception of the organizations who provide it. A positive customer experience can provide a competitive edge, and well-designed, thoughtful, or imaginative technology can play a big part in this. Meanwhile, a negative experience with an app or website may hinder our trust for brands and make us reconsider going to them for our needs in the future.
Given the emphasis on Customer Experience and the role which technology plays, it’s surprising that when we talk about Quality in software development, we don’t always think carefully about the real people who will be using products and services.
In fact, we sometimes don’t really think about what Quality means at all. Over the last couple of years, I’ve discussed this subject with people working on software development in many different organizations, from private companies to government departments. Whilst all of them felt that their organizations considered Quality to be important, few had a definition of Quality or discussed what Quality really meant to them and their customers.
Often there is an assumption that requirements or User Stories will represent the needs and desires of customers, and that conformance to requirements will result in a ‘quality product’. On the occasions that project teams do discuss Quality Criteria, the conversation may not get much further than a cursory discussion of ‘non-functional requirements’ and a need to carry out some Performance Testing.
In Changing Times: Quality for Humans in the Digital Age, I introduced a model intended to offer a different perspective on what Quality might mean to customers. The ‘Three Dimensions of Quality’ model suggests a number of different aspects which could affect a customer’s perception of a product, expressed in the kind of language those customers might use. The dimensions and aspects can be used at any stage of a product’s life, by anyone working on that product, to consider and discuss what Quality might mean to customers.
For testers, the model can be used to consider products from a human perspective, and the different aspects can be used to generate test ideas or to identify potential problems.
Customer Empathy – Some Simple Suggestions
There are other ways in which we can free ourselves from the shackles of expected results and acceptance criteria and actually think about the real people who may use technology. Customer Empathy does not always come easily, so here are five suggestions it might help you to consider:
- Customer Intimacy – Do you know people who use or might use the product? Can you spend time with them? If you can, then this is one of the best ways to understand them, their needs, and their relationship with the product. Even a conversation about what they like or don’t like – such as the features they rely on or the ones they avoid – can help you begin to develop an even deeper understanding of how people actually use a product, rather than how we think they should use it.
- Follow your feelings – Emotional responses to technology can be powerful messages. Quality is subjective and whilst there are no guarantees that what you like or dislike will be consistent with the way others feel, neither should you dismiss what your feelings tell you. There is a good chance that if you find something confusing, others will find it confusing too. If you feel like taking a sledgehammer to your computer or phone, others may well feel the same way. Feelings might not be captured in Acceptance Criteria but may be realized in your personal criteria, so it is worth speaking up if you feel something isn’t acceptable.
- The Generation Game – Observing the ways in which different generations use technology can reveal significant differences in how products are used and perceived. Younger people may instinctively find their way around devices and apps – what does this tell you about usability? Older people may get benefits from help features or information which is ignored by teenagers who are more familiar with technology, or they find more issues related to accessibility – does this tell you anything about how well supported your own prospective customers might feel?
- Listen, Watch, and Learn – Clues about what people might like or might not like about technology are all around us. Your colleagues might be chatting about a great new app they have discovered. What do they like about it? How does it help them? A friend may be telling you about a good or bad experience they had with a company. Did technology play a part in this? You may see someone confused by something they are using in an everyday activity – perhaps a ticket machine or a supermarket self-service checkout. What seemed to be confusing them? How could it have been made easier for them? Take note of your daily interactions and think about how you can apply them.
- Empathy by Design – There is much to be learned from the techniques adopted in design work. Spend some time studying some of the methods in ‘The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design’, or familiarize yourself with the ‘Seven Principles of Universal Design’. Take a look at how cities and urban environments are designed to meet human needs by reading about Urban Design and, if possible, the characteristics described in the book ‘Responsive Environments’. All of these provide insights into how the needs of real people can be addressed and could be a source of inspiration for testing, too.
When we’re testing, we have an opportunity to explore and evaluate technology, and to represent the interests of many different people. If those people include the customers who depend on our products, finding ways to consider who they might be and what might matter to them is crucial.
The good news is that clues are all around us. The people we work with, our friends, our family, and their human responses to technology can all help to understand how customers might react. We just need to pay attention to them.
About the Author: Rich is a software testing and quality consultant based in Sydney, Australia. He has worked in software development and implementation in the UK, Australia, Europe and the USA for organizations across many different industries.
Rich is a keen writer and this year published his first book, “Changing Times: Quality for Humans in a Digital Age”, which weaves a human-focused story with insights on software development and Quality. Rich regularly writes blogs for his website richrtesting.com and the site also includes a monthly Q&A featuring people involved in testing around the world. He can also be found on Twitter @richrtesting.