Monday, November 16, 2009

The Stupid Shoe Analogy

“To really understand your users, you have to walk in their shoes.” Yeah, yeah…

The shoe analogy has got to be the oldest and most tired business cliché of our time. Everyone knows it, but customer service and user experience generally sucks, doesn’t it? Products fail all the time. Honestly, I have nothing to say about walking in your customers’ shoes, or eating your own dog food, or walking in the shoes of your dog, or any variation of the above, that you haven’t already heard. Yes, you should do it. It will open your eyes and possibly depress you, but you should do it. You know that.

Maybe there’s a different way to think about the shoe analogy that is a little more insightful and more specifically germane to agile development. I’ve worked for companies who invest significant time and resources on defining, scoping, designing, building and launching products that aim to serve an eager market. It might be fair to describe these efforts as user-centered or customer-focused, because a great deal of study, market research and customer advisory board interaction goes into the process. Tremendous planning and logistics are required to prepare the organization for the launch of the new product and to tell the market that finally the product they’ve been waiting for is here. Sometimes the organization is prepared and the market rewards them by adopting the service, making it a success. But on as many occasions I’ve seen the organization stumble and the market respond with indifference.

It’s beyond me to know why some of these efforts succeed while so many others fail. Is it luck? Timing? Key contributions by particularly gifted individuals? Perhaps some or all of these factors are causal, or perhaps none of them are. In the last 10 years, I’ve typically been involved in a different sort of effort that involves focusing on a small but very concrete target with a well-understood use case and delivering a product that just barely satisfies the requirements. Obviously the solution has to be complete enough to make it a differentiator for the early adopters, but the first and subsequent releases usually involve some amount of pain and discomfort (for both me and my customers). But without a lot of fanfare, we have a shoe that basically fits.

What happens next can be at times tumultuous and instructive, painful and rewarding. You will either develop the skills that lead to transparency, commitment, agility and trust, or you will suffer and fail. I’ve frequently done the former while thinking I was doing the latter. By being transparent about what your product does and does not do, committing to stay close to your customer to feel where the fit is poor, and being agile enough to deliver improvements quickly and repeatedly, you develop trust. And when your customer comes to trust you, they give you permission to fix what’s broken and deliver to them new solutions to new problems. Your offering grows, and while your competitors are conferring with their customer advisory boards, you are on to the 2.0 release.

So my take on the shoe analogy is to make a shoe that basically fits a particular foot. Feel where the pain is and shape the shoe while you are walking. Become sensitive enough to know where the blisters will form before they actually do, and adjust as necessary. Shaping shoes is not as glamorous as talking about them or deciding what trends will be in fashion next season, but that’s what we do.

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