Authored by Drew Beckley
Humans are inherently averse to any type of change. A typical technology system modernization project will be replacing a system that has been in place and functional for at least a decade with minimal updates during its lifecycle. The people who have been utilizing the system are usually very comfortable with the old system—In the actual words of a client: “It’s like an old truck: It ain’t pretty, but it’s comfortable and it works.” The people weary of change are usually the ones running your system, so they should be heard and understood. That’s why end users should be the first considered during any large system modernization.
Most companies utilize some component of MVP when delivering software. An MVP (minimum viable product) is a product with the fewest amount of features necessary to fully function and that will enable testing feedback from users. Under a waterfall methodology, you release one product at the end of a development cycle and then slowly and enhance it after it is complete. Fortunately, we’ve moved past that, and are now in an age where we can develop components and release each component as its own MVP. But how do you decide where to start? A typical approach to MVP is to figure out what the smallest group of features that can be released that will allow the system to function. What often gets lost in this approach is the subsequent meeting of end-users’ needs. A user-centric MVP approach, however, will put the project on the path to faster adoption and smooth what can be a rocky transition for users.
Smooth curve over cutting edge
When I started working with clients, I wanted to design systems that would blow their socks off. However, when we released such “cutting edge” systems, users would feel that it was too much to absorb at one time and would wind up asking if we could return to the old system. This was my first exposure to the ups and downs of the adoption curve.
The adoption curve is a process that all companies must contend with when updating or replacing a system. When users first get their hands on a new system, they’re overcome with joy: All of their work designing and testing the system is now paying off! It’s pretty; it’s new; it’s everything they’ve dreamed of. This enthusiasm typically lasts 1-2 days, then users slowly start regretting their choice to reject the old, sturdy system. It’s at this point that the hardest work for a consultant starts: pulling users out of their despair and getting them to use the new system. After training, bug fixes, some tears, and a ton of work, users begin to understand the system and start to use it again. This is the trajectory of the adoption curve for big bang approaches to modernization. Every effort should be made to avoid this dropoff and recovery time and to lessen the turbulence when modernizing a system. The easiest approach to overcoming the adoption curve is to introduce users to the product little by little—starting with an MVP.
One system modernization project we worked on was a system composed of multiple user portals, account creation screens, reports, administrative screens, customer correspondence, and more. Learning all of that right off the bat was overwhelming for existing users. However, when starting with one component, such as reports, and iterating from there, modernization becomes much more palatable. You have one component to design, build, and test, thus shortening the delivery and subsequent feedback cycle.
If we return to the truck metaphor, an MVP approach to modernizing might be illustrated by replacing the seats to start instead of buying a whole new truck. This allows users to try out one new component first, without needing to switch over and adopt an entirely new vehicle. We can then take the feedback on that component and apply it to the next parts we are going to build. For example, maybe the user loves the feel of the new seat but dislikes the color. We can adjust the color of the seats and apply that scheme to the rest of the truck. We continue this approach, getting approval and buy-in on each item as we move through the modernization phases.
The simplest thing that matters most
The key to gaining buy-in and speeding adoption is starting with the feature that matters most to both users and stakeholders. In the real-world client scenario, if you understand their initial pain points, you can align the first component to that which drives immediate business value. In the case of the client mentioned earlier, one of their major pain points was an inability to view and analyze the data that existed in the system. The reporting was static and didn’t facilitate any analysis. By starting with the reports feature, we were able to show them what could be produced from their current data set, which facilitated feedback on the input mechanism as well. We may need to ask additional questions about the main part of the application; We may need to update the data structure to be more robust. The point is that we have the ability to adjust future modules based on feedback we receive early on.
Not only does this offer early visibility into the system by allowing the users to dive in, it also allows them to provide valuable feedback that can be rolled into future components. The offshoot of this is that it also drives adoption. By experiencing the valued nature of their feedback, users start to understand how important they are to the modernization effort. As a result, they end up with a system that is more tailored to their specific needs, one which they are connected to and bought into from day one.
User-centric development earns you the competitive edge
When undergoing a system modernization, your company has a choice: either streamline and enhance the business or spend large sums of money on a product that people won’t use. Utilizing a targeted, user-centric MVP approach will enable the business to develop a product with user needs built-in. A shorter adoption curve drastically speeds modernization effort and results in more engaged users. This gives you a significant advantage over competitors who are still struggling to get up-to-date or make change stick within their own businesses.