Your customer isn’t a single entity

time to read 4 min | 751 words

An interesting issue came up in the comments for my modeling post.  Urmo is saying:

…there are no defined processes, just individual habits (even among people with same set of obligations) with loose coupling on the points where people need to interact. In these companies a software can be a boot that kicks them into more defined and organized operating mode.

This is part of discussion of software modeling and the kind of thinking you have to do when you approach a system. The problem with Urmo’s approach is that there is a set implicit assumptions, and that is that the customer is speaking with a single voice, that they actually know what they are doing and that they have the best interests. Yes, it is really hard to create software (or anything, actually) without those, but that happens more frequently than one might desire.

A few years ago I was working on a software to manage what was essentially long term temp workers. Long term could be 20 years, and frequently was a number of years. The area in question was caring for invalids,  and most of the customers for that company were the elderly. That meant that a worker might not be required on a pretty sudden basis (the end customer died, care no longer required).

Anyway, that is the back story. The actual problem we run into was that by the time the development team got into place there was already a very detailed spec, written by a pretty good analyst after many sessions at a luxury hotel conference room. In other words, the spec cost a lot of money to generate, and involved a lot of people from the company’s management.

What it did not include, however, was feedback from the actual people who had to place the workers at particular people’s homes, and eventually pay them for their work. Little things like the 1st of the month (you have 100s of workers coming in to get their hours approved and get paid) weren’t taken into account. The software was very focused on the individual process, and there were a lot of checks to validate input.

What wasn’t there were things like: “How do I efficiently handle many applicants at the same time?’'

The current process was paper form based, and they were basically going over the hours submitted, ask minimal questions, and provisionally approve it. Later on, they would do a more detailed scan of the hours, and do any fixups needed. That would be the time that they would also input the data to their old software. In other words, there was an entire messy process going on that the higher ups didn’t even realize was happening.

This include decisions such as “you need an advance, we’ll register that as 10 extra hours you worked this month, and we’ll deduct it next month” and “you weren’t supposed to go to Mrs. Xyz, you were supposed to go to Mr. Zabc! We can’t pay for all your hours there” , etc.

When we started working on the software, we happened to do a demo to some of the on site people, and they were horrified by what they saw. The new & improved software would end up causing them much more issues, and it would actually result in more paperwork that they have to manage just so they can make the software happy.

Modeling such things was tough, and at some point (with the client reluctant agreement) we essentially threw aside the hundreds of pages of well written spec, and just worked directly with the people who would end up using our software. The solution in the end was to codify many of the actual “business processes” that they were using. Those business processes made sense, and they were what kept the company working for decades. But management didn’t actually realize that they were working in this manner.

And that is leaving aside the “let us change the corporate structure through software” endeavors, which are unfortunately also pretty common.

To summarize, assuming that your client is a single entity, which speaks with one voice and actually know what they are talking about? Not going to fly for very long. In another case, I had to literally walk a VP of Sales through the process of how a sale is actually happening in his company versus what he thought was happening.

Sometimes this job is likely playing a shrink, but for corporations.