The Importance of Understanding Workflow

Back when educational technology came in the form of a disk, I was a higher ed political science textbook editor looking for a killer competitive advantage.  I had the good fortune to work with a developer who knew some tricks and had more than a passing interest in politics.  We set out to build a super cool Congressional simulation that let students try to pass a bill through Congress.  We didn’t have a ton of resources, but our management liked the idea. “Cool,” they said.  We showed some of our colleagues.  “Cool,” they said.  We showed the idea to some of our authors.  “Cool,” they said.  We were pretty excited and asked some faculty if they thought it was cool, too.  And they said, “Yes, totally cool.” So, naturally, we went off and built a pretty cool simulation (for a textbook company in the 90’s).  It failed.  What had gone wrong?  Hadn’t everyone told me it was cool?

Everyone but Professor Petrie.  Professor Petrie taught American government at a state university.  The course was part of the required social science curriculum so it was a large lecture course.    He was my bread and butter; my target customer.  And when I asked him if he thought it was cool, he said “Yes… but I would never spend that much time discussing ‘How a Bill Becomes a Law.’  And see right here in the book, this flow chart actually works great.  Students read it, they understand it, and it serves as a roadmap as we discuss particular policies.”      And he didn’t care that it was cool.  It didn’t fit his workflow.  I had asked the wrong question. 

Today’s digital solutions must fit into the workflow of your customers, especially in the classroom.  What is she doing just before she uses your product?  What will she do after?  How does your product make that easy (or hard)? Does your product eliminate the need for something else she is using?  Does it require her to add something? What does integrating your product into her workflow require her to change?  Is the reward great enough?   

Too much of the time companies ask customers how they would use their product but not how their product would fit into their day.  They ask about how work flows in the product but not how their product flows with their work.  And when you don’t know that, it is worse than not cool; it leaves you out in the cold.