Finding the real user need

On a recent assignment to transform a legacy application to cloud we came across a good example in finding the real user need. As with many IT migration projects this incident tracking application had a tight deadline and a set of assumptions about user needs.  ‘Lift and shift’ was the mantra and the idea of going out and talking to end users about their workflow requirements met with raised eyebrows.

To be fair the incident reporting process was regulated and so well understood by end users and internal staff and accounted for a good 90% of the story backlog.  But there was one epic, folder management, that had a wrong smell. Some years ago as incident volume grew user’s had complained they could not find their incidents and they wanted a way to organise them like files in a folder. So users were given a folder management feature where they could name their own folders and move incidents in any taxonomy structure they liked.

It was a popular feature with over two thirds of the user base having a named folder and many having dozens. User’s folders were private and internal staff did not know how they were being used just that users were grateful. Building out a new folder manager and migrating existing structure to the new cloud application would be possible but time-consuming. But what did users really need?

As we had access to the folder metadata it was possible to look for patterns in the names used. Not surprisingly dates and names relating to incident types were the most popular along with user’s names and various ad-hoc names to organise. But why make users move incidents into dated folders when we could give them a dynamic filter in the cloud?

There was already a story to filter incidents by reporting date and type so it was easy to extend and demonstrate the idea. Conceptually filtering things and placing things in folders achieve the same user goal albeit with a couple of caveats — user’s viewpoint and persistence. The preset year and type filters replaced the static date folder hierarchy and incident type hierarchies. No need for users to manually curate their things – a win for users and a win for the business no need for folder manager feature. But what about the ad-hoc names they used for folders?

Given a way to create their own filter criteria as tags users could apply ad-hoc filters just the way they did using folders. Tagging would still need a new feature though. Initial discussion with the main users of folder manager approved the new approach. So much so that all representatives thought the new set of preset filters would be all they would ever need. Crucially they suggested a simple notification when first using the cloud application to highlight filters to the wider user community. A simple broadcast message feature was already in the backlog.

As the retro for this project makes clear – remember to ask your users what they really need and beware of requirements disguised in a design. Files and folders were a wonderful metaphor in Windows but need not apply everywhere.