Back in the early 2000s, Toyota had a vision of building the number one best selling minivan in North America. Their current minivan, the Sienna, was small, underpowered, and badly needed help. Yuji Yokoya was given the job of re-engineering the Sienna. There was just one problem, Yuji, lived in Japan. He did not know the people or places that he would be engineering for. Believe it or not, Japan is nothing like North America. So, what does a chief engineer do in a situation like that? He packed up his team and flew halfway around the world. He made a commitment to drive through every state in the US, every province in Canada, and Mexico. He met the people and drove the roads that the Sienna would be driving. And guess what, what he learned on that trip revolutionized the Sienna. The innovations he made, sent the Sienna to number one. Why? Because he knew who he was building his product for. He knew, why he was there.
Let me ask you this, do you know why you are building what you are building? As a member of a product team, can you tell me how your product will be used in the real world? As you are writing code, building test plans, writing stories, or any of the other project tasks, can you picture the face of a person who will be using what you are building? All to often, the answer to those questions is, no. Why is it important? Because, every day, project team members make assumptions. Over a given project, it is safe to say project team members will make thousands of assumptions about what they are doing. And all to often, those assumptions are not quite right. Its not that they are not good at their job, its just that they don’t really know why they are there.
So, what to do? First and foremost, stop doing what you are doing. Yes, really. Schedule some time to go visit the people who will be using your product. Don’t invite them to you, go to them. Watch them work. Interact with them. Ask them questions. Maybe even try it out yourself. This serves two purposes. One, It shows them that you care about them. They will be far more engaged in your project if they feel like you care. And nothing says you care more that spending some time. Second, it gives you the proper frame of reference for you work. It gives you something tangible to go back to as you are building your product. As you make the thousands of assumptions that you will make over the life of your project, it gives you something to see in your mind that makes it real to you.
Ultimately, setting a proper frame of reference is critical to the overall success of a project. The funny thing is, it really does not even take that long. In most cases, a 2-3 hour session will give you most of what you need to get the right insight. For the project, it will be the best 2 hours you could spend.