Key Principle: Develop Business Focus

Learn the importance of helping your team, including its developers, develop a business focus.

There are no silver bullets in software development, but one business-oriented practice is close, and far too few organizations employ it. The practice is simple, and its benefits greatly outweigh any implementation difficulties.

What is this near-silver bullet? It is simply putting every single developer in direct contact with actual customers, the actual users of their system.

Some businesses resist putting developers in contact with users because they fear that the great unwashed masses of developers are, well, literally unwashed. They treat the Product Owner (or Sales, or Business Analyst) as a shield between developers and users. This is a mistake and a significant lost opportunity.

For a developer, experiencing direct contact with users is often a life-changing experience. A developer who previously argued for technical purity (whatever that is) and viewed users mainly as an annoying source of illogical feature requests becomes a vigorous advocate for ease of use and user satisfaction.

Business leaders who expose developers to real users invariably report that the benefits from understanding the user perspective far outweigh any risks they were concerned about. Technical staff members develop an understanding of how their work is used in the field, how much their users depend on it, what frustrates users, and how much impact their work can have when it really addresses their users’ needs. There is a strong interplay between exposing developers to users and the “Purpose” part of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. This practice delivers both product-quality benefits and motivational benefits.

Here are ways you can connect developers to users:

  • Have developers listen to support calls for a few hours at a time, periodically.

  • Have developers field support calls for a few hours.

  • Send developers to observe users using their software in the field.

  • Have developers observe users in a UX lab through a oneway glass or TV monitor.

  • Have developers accompany sales staff on customer visits or listen in on sales calls.

These practices are not treated as rewards or penalties but as part of maintaining a healthy business. They apply to senior developers, junior developers, newly on-boarded developers— everyone.

It’s important that user contact be implemented as an ongoing program, not just a one-time experience. Otherwise, developers can become overly fixated on issues they observed in one user interaction. Ongoing exposure is needed to provide them with a balanced view of user issues.

The Product Owner role is the weak link in the chain in many organizations. While developing a business mindset in the technical staff is not a replacement for a good PO, it can soften the failure mode of having a less-than-perfect PO.

Putting developers in direct contact with users is an incredibly simple idea that is practiced far too seldom, yet it yields significant results whenever it’s done.

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