What Do Users Really Want? Part II: The 30-Day Letter

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Cornell University Library]On: 17 November 2014, At: 14:15Publisher: Taylor & FrancisInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of Information Systems ManagementPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/uism19

    What Do Users Really Want? Part II: The 30-Day LetterGerald M. Weinberg & Daniela WeinbergPublished online: 31 May 2007.

    To cite this article: Gerald M. Weinberg & Daniela Weinberg (1985) What Do Users Really Want? Part II: The 30-Day Letter,Journal of Information Systems Management, 2:3, 39-41, DOI: 10.1080/07399018508967768

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  • What Do Users Really Want? Part II: The 30-Day Letter Gerald M. Weinberg and Daniela Weinberg

    While we were writing this article, Jerry was reading proofs for his new textbook on business data processing. Jeny would much rather write than proofread, but the U.S. Postal Service kept delivering an unbroken and seemingly endless series of Express MaiP packages, each containing proofs and each accompanied by a nagging letter from the editor. Jerry was so re- lieved when the deliveries stopped that h e failed to notice that the final batch of proofs did not arrive. When the proofs were three weeks overdue, his editor called, screaming. Jerry screamed back that the proofs had never ar- rived. The editor didn't seem to believe him, but she put another batch in the mail,

    That same afternoon, Jeny received a call from the Postal Service. "We just found an Ex- press Mail package here addressed to you," the postmaster apologized. "It should have been delivered 30 days ago, but we lost it some- where. Don't worry, though- we'll refund the express postage."

    A few days later, we were dining with a cli- ent, Stu, who is a DP project manager. Jerry told him the story of the 30-day letter, and Stu seemed to take it very personally. "That's so darn typical. How can they possibly imagine that the refund made up for a 30-day delay? Don't they have any idea how important the

    Gerald M. Weinberg and Daniela Weinberg are principals in Weinberg & Weinberg, an international consultant company bcated in Lincoln NE.

    mail they carry is to their customers? Any idea how people feel about such so-called service?"

    "Well," Dani asked, H o w do your custom- ers feel when you deliver a project 30 days late?"

    Stu chuckled, then said, "Oh, they'd be de- lighted if one of our projects were only a month late. They know what to expect from data processing. "

    "Yes, but you know what to expect from the Postal Service-you said that Jerry's story was typical-and you're still angry."

    "That's different. Delivering a letter on time is easy. Delivering a piece of software is not. "

    "And you think your customers care how hard it is?"

    "They should. We're reaHy putting ourselves out for them, so they ought to understand a lit- tle delay on our part."

    "Perhaps 30 days is not a 'little' delay to them. "

    "Then why don't they say so?"

    Why indeed? Why don't customers tell con- sultants what they really want?

    Reducing Uncertainty Perhaps one reason customers don't say

    what they really want is that no one really asks

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  • them. If you ask someone "What do you really want?" you simply communicate your annoy- ance. Customers usually snap back with some- thing like, "We really want everything. Why d o you think we asked for these things-because we didn't want them?"

    You can avoid exchanges of this kind by asking customers what they fear. This reverses the emphasis from what customers want to what they don't want. But nobody likes to look like a coward, s o you can't directly ask custom- ers what they fear. Besides, you already know what they fear: they fear change. Everybody does-even those who welcome it. You can of- ten unearth this fear by converting the focus of your question from change to constancy: "As we implement this plan, what is the one thing that you want to be sure doesn't change?"

    The most important word in this question is "sure." Most fear is based on uncertainty, and the future is uncertain. No one knows whether a plan wili work until it has been implemented. Customers are usually wiser in this regard than we are; people who are realistic about risks don't get in the systems development business.

    If the fear is based on uncertainty, it can be overcome by techniques that reduce uncertain- ty. To identify the source of the uncertainty, try this simple test: The next time your customer meeting is laden with unspoken fears, suggest that the implementation schedule be extended by six months. If everyone sighs with relief, you'll know they are uncertain about whether the project can be done. If, on the other hand, everyone becomes more anxious, you'll know they are uncertain about whether the project deadline can be met. In that case, focus on re- ducing the amount of work to be done-but don't ask "Which function are you willing to give up?" because that will raise the anxiety lev- el. Instead, ask "Which function absolutely must be in the system?" and go from there.

    If customers say they want the extra time, find out if they really need more time or if they just need less uncertainty. You can discover which by eliminating uncertainties about the precise details of the plan. Sometimes we work so intuitively that we leave our customers dazed and wondering what the devil we're talking about. Recently, a client brought us back to earth by asking, "That number 30-does it mean 30 people or $30,000?" If our communi-

    cation was that poor, it is no wonder that the client wasn't getting through to us very well.

    Insurance After you have cleared away the uncertain-

    ties arising from poor communication-and these should never be underestimated-an ine- ducible residue of uncertainty will still remain because the future is never known until it has become the past. If your customer can't tolerate this residue, consider modifying the plan to in- clude some form of insurance against the risks.

    This insurance must provide satisfactory compensation to customers if their fears are rei alized. For example, agricultural agents in de- veloping countries sometimes overcome peas- ant farmers' resistance to a new technique by guaranteeing the farmers' income. If a farmer agrees to use the technique, and this year's in- come is lower than last year's, the agent pays the farmer the difference. If this year's income is higher, the farmer pockets the surplus.

    lnsurance need not be dollars, however. The Postal Service's offer to refund Express Mail postage was not adequate insurance be- cause we feared the loss of time, not the loss of money. Adequate insurance might have been a promise from the publisher to send the material by facsimile if the Express Mail was not deliv- ered in one day.

    In one of our consulting assignments, we discovered that people were afraid to join a high-risk project. We created insurance by see- ing to it that each participant was given a writ- ten guarantee of a specific job if the project was terminated. prematurely. In a similar case, a cli- ent gave each participant vouchers good for specified amounts of company-paid training, which they could use for any courses they de- sired whenever they desired. Both devices minimized the participants' personal losses if the projects were unsuccessful. The participants were afraid for their careers, s o the insurance had to insure their careers.

    One of the most successful forms of insur- ance is to avoid burning bridges. It doesn't mat- ter how lousy you think the present system is, or how much you think they'll love the new one, or how much it costs to create back-out plans for converting back to the old system. Make sure your customers can get back to their

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  • The User interface

    original system-their lousy, unfriendly, and costly but familiar system-and make sure they know they can get back.

    Wants Versus Expectations The most important factor in finding out

    what the customer really wants is keeping the lines of communication open. You must there- fore always avoid arguments because even if you win the argument, you'll place customers in a position where changing their minds or giv- ing you new information is a form of losing. The risk of losing face in the here-and-now al- ways seems more important than the risk of los- ing a million dollars in the there-and-then.

    Service organizations are especially sensitive to the risk of losing face because their image is their business; moreover, the million dollars that may be lost isn't their money. When com- munication seems frozen, chances are that you are frozen, not the customer. In identifying the source of the chill, start with your own cold breath.

    Sometimes we argue with customers be- cause they don't seem to understand what is reasonable or even possible from a technics! point of view. We're afraid that if we let them say they want X, we'll have to build X for them. We therefore try to stop them from saying what they really want and steer them toward things we can supply. The secret to avoiding this im- passe is recognizing the difference between want and expect. It is perfectly reasonable for customers to want anything-100 percent on- time delivery of Express Mail, for example, or a thousand user-friendly features delivered on time and carrying no risk of failure. It is not rea- sonable for customers to expect to get every- thing they want or expect to get something for free.

    If you think a customer's wants are getting unreasonable, you can keep the lines of com- munication open by saying, "Keep telling m e exactly what you want, and when .we've got it all down on paper, I'll work out a cost estimate. Then, if you like the price, we'll get to work to build it for you." Most people understand that if they don't like the price, they have to shorten their want list. Those who don't understand this can be sent to alternative suppliers; you'll be better off not trying to satisfy them.

    Lefflng Go

    Sometimes we can't hear our customers saying what they want because we don't believe that they have the right to d o so. But whose system is it, anyway? Our purpose is to help customers solve problems, not to demonstrate 'our superior intelligence or dominant will. You may think of it as your project, but it doesn't belong to you any more than an Express Mail package belongs to the Postal Service. You may be embarrassed by a late or damaged de- livery, but you are merely providing a service, and your effect on your client's success or fail- ure is minor at most.

    So don't be overcome by delusions of gran- - dew. If you can't get past a sticking point, don't take it personally; if you do, you'll stay stuck, or the customer will make up something to tell you just to please you. Experience has taught us that the best thing to d o when you reach a sticking point is simply to let go and announce, "I'm afraid 1 don't know what to do. I feel that 1 don't understand what you really want, but I can't think of anything else that might help m e find out."

    Letting go is very difficult, primarily because of the fear of losing the customer's respect. But this fear, like most fears, is irrational. Every time we have admitted that we're stumped, the customer's respect for us has increased because we have shown that we are powerful enough to' admit that we're not omnipotent. '

    The most amazing things happen when you let go and admit, without blaming the custom- er, that you are having trouble understanding the customer's requirements. Even more amaz- ing things happen when you sincerely say, "I'd be really grateful if you could help me": the fear dissipates, the resistance collapses, the atmo- sphere thaws, and information flows.

    The fear dissipates because what the cus- tomer feared most was looking stupid in front of the all-wise DP specialist. The resistance col- lapses because it's hard to resist when no one is pushing. The atmosphere thaws because two human beings are talking, rather than one hu- man being and the representative of a metal box. And the information flows because there is no longer any reason to hold it back.

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