Project Practitioners > A Lesson from a Calendar

A Lesson from a Calendar

By Margaret de Haan

From the time that my twins were born, I have created a yearly calendar for the northern contingent of my family to keep them off of my back about sending pictures.  For those of you with kids and family that live 2,000 miles away, I know you understand why I go through the hassle every year of spending hours on-line yearly, as the few hours spent gets me a year of less complaining.  In the past it has taken me about two hours tops to complete, this year it took six, and that got me thinking... what's happened to quality in this economy?  Where has the "U" in User Acceptance Testing gone?

I usually go to a major retailer's website every year and upload my photos, customize the calendar using their interface, order them and then pick them up.  I have used the same retailer for the last few years and have watched the quality and functionality of their site grow to be quite user friendly.  However with such a big family and everyone fighting over these calendars, I order more than ten and it can get pricey at $15.00 to $20.00 a pop , so this year I lunged at a $9.99 sale from a competitor.  Big mistake.

Now, this competitor that I used has also had an on-line service doing this for a number of years, so I don't understand the huge gap in functionality and usability that I experienced in comparison to my prior vendor.  I mean, they use this interface to provide a service that eventually produces them revenue, so why was it so difficult to navigate?  Why was I unable to edit a photo once it was placed on the page?  Why was I not able to rotate pictures?  Why could I not save my work until the blasted thing was actually complete?  (Which, by the way, was the main problem, I almost got finished twice but the system kept on crashing and I lost all progress up to that point, everything else I had found a way to "get around").  It got me thinking, was this interface tested by real users?  People that were going to be the ultimate consumer of this functionality and pay the company for the end result?  In my opinion I would have to say no, it couldn't have been.  So I thought back and realized that there have been quite a few Projects that I have worked on where the UAT was done by members of the Technology team, or Managers of the departments and not actual users.  We get the clearance on the Business Requirements being met, but no input on the usability of the solution.  The end result is a Project that is looked upon as successful because it met the Business Requirements, was on Schedule and stayed within Scope, but was it usable and friendly for the actual users in the trenches?   Are we as Project Managers making a point of championing the users?  Or are we catering to management?  So, what can we do to make it better, and therefore, an even more successful Project?  I have a few ideas:

1)      Enforce the need for actual user testing.  Find champions in each department that will give you a few hours of user's time, and give them a script to run through, and get their feedback.  Take the feedback and correlate it into usable data to identify areas of concern and then evaluate the findings for improvements.

2)      Bring the need for a user focus group to everyone's attention up-front.  Try to get buy in from management early by putting together a plan that will incorporate the time and resources needed so that you are setting these expectations early.  This will also allow for some padding with time if required.

3)      Go external for input if necessary.  If anyone with this year's calendar retailer had reviewed the competition, or asked anyone that was going to use it, I am sure that the end result would have been a more user-friendly comprehensive product.

We all know that any product from a Project that is difficult to use or understand will be avoided.  As well, future fallout from the users could result in a lack of cooperation in the future if the output that you provide is seen as a problem and not a solution to the business issues.  So, my advice is to make the users happy, and in doing that you not only have a successful Project, but have set a path for future Project successes as well.  Don't allow the importance of user acceptance to be ignored.  Actual user satisfaction should ALWAYS be added to the Risk Management Plan and managed accordingly.


Margaret de Haan   PMP, MBA

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