Thinking Like a User: The Bank Analogy

Like every software organization, we have trouble getting our developers how to think like users.  It’s a time consuming process, and when you’re in an industry like healthcare, it can often be extremely difficult to visualize exactly how a product is going to be used or how a process might affect a user.  You’ve certainly never been to med school, or worked in a pharmacy.  These things are utterly foreign.  However, visualizing a user’s workflow or responsibilities is often the difference between a mediocre product and a great product.One method that I’ve found to be illuminating to our engineers is to restate every message, function, or process in terms of a bank, with them playing the user character.  Instead of the error message being “Purchase Order Alert: We’re sorry, but there were one or more items missing from your recent purchase, click here for more details“, rephrase it as “ATM Deposit Alert: We’re sorry, but there were one or more checks missing from your recent deposit, click here for more details.“Makes a difference doesn’t it?  Now our verbose, overly-polite alert text seems almost ridiculous.  Tell me what happened with my checks! Don’t make me click through for more detail!  Especially if I’m on a mobile device!  That’s my money and it’s important!“ATM: 1 check for $100.00 was returned.”That’s much better.  I feel notified and in control as a user, and it was short and sweet.  Very cellphone friendly.“Order 123: 1 item shorted: Tylenol 20MG”The point is that users actually use the products we build.  Things like error messages and process flows are important.  As developers, we often think of these things as control points, or logic trees, and don’t stop and relate what’s going on from a user’s standpoint to any of the important systems or applications that we ourselves use.  The bank analogy should help you get in the habit of stepping aside and thinking outside your code for a bit because it pulls the process or message into the realm of your experience.Even the process of constructing the analogy can be very instructive.  If you can’t quickly pull together an analogy that describes what you’re doing in terms of your own life, you probably have no clue what you’re doing.  In other words, you’re probably doing it wrong.Next time you’re solving a problem, try restating it using concepts you’re familiar with in your own life.  You might be surprised at how useful this technique can be.Updated: Sunday, 12/5/2010Today’s New York Times Magazine had an article on Jamie Dimon (I think it requires registration) that talked about his management and conversational style.  One of his favorite things to do was equate banking principles back to ordinary life.  Seems like we’ve got company on the other side of the fence too!

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