Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why independent user groups are a good thing for a software company

These days I am talking quite a lot to the national TIA user groups as well as our international user group. One of the topics we discuss is the relevance of a user group and what the focus of such a group should be. In TIA context our user groups have our customers as members. Naturally I can only have an opinion because as the software vendor TIA should not be driving the user groups. However my opinion is as follows.
Any professional software developer need and should want candid feedback about the products they put on the market as well as the plans for new products and enhancements. In fact, getting customer feedback and opinions should be priority one for the software vendor since it is a key relationship ensuring the right product. And as anyone knows - if you don’t have the right product someone else will - and you’re out.
I have sometimes met the following excuses for not listening to customers (although typically not said out lout) :
  • We know what they are going to say already
  • We don’t like what they are saying
  • We don’t want to raise false expectations and
  • We don’t want to commit to anything…
I think these are very common perceptions – not at least in developer communities populated by engineers who tend to know everything already – and I can safely say that because I am one myself. We are designing solutions behind our desks with our fingers bleeding, and by golly - if we could just be left in peace to get that final bug fixed!
The problem really is that even though engineers THINK they know everything, they of course really don’t. We may be smart as hell about many things, but with a profound wish to be left alone with the technical challenges, we typically overlook the most obvious stuff to (real world) users. To proof my point just think of the hype around Second Life . An imaginary world obviously designed by a bunch of engineers going crazy about the fantastic possibility of (non) interacting with other people whilst sitting alone behind their screen. No wonder these things come - and go again. Even engineers – most at least – prefer the blood and flesh from real people.
I believe there is an analogy to user groups here. Even though you can carry out surveys, support and similar things from the safe haven of your chair, you really need to talk directly to customers to understand the true priorities and concerns. This is where user groups are relevant and good for you as a software vendor. And they should of course be independent – shoving words down the throat of your users brings you absolutely nowhere. Organized well and inhabited by engaged members, as a software vendor you can count on getting the truth about your product – and you better listen. Even though you have heard it before, even though you do not like it and even though you really can’t commit to fix their problems at any time soon, you WILL be wiser listening and you SHOULD care.

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