Five Challenges to Agile Planning: Part 3 of 5

Jonathan Kuipers | January 23, 2012

THREE: Not Building in Real Customer Feedback Loops

The Challenge: A major tenet of Agile from the Agile Manifesto is, “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer.” However, let’s be clear. The Product Owner is NOT the customer. The people in marketing are NOT the customer. The CEO is NOT the customer. The only person that is the customer is… well… the Customer. This may sound like a “duh” moment, but this is by far the biggest challenge to Agile development teams working on market-focused products. When Agile first got traction with IT and internal development efforts, bringing customers directly into the Agile process was relatively straightforward. Just take a completed iteration down the hall and sit down with the “customer” to get their feedback. However, as Agile spreads to more open-market solutions gaining real customer feedback in a timely manner is more difficult, and is particularly challenging for a new project that doesn’t have any paying customers yet, and even more challenging for consumer-based products, where the “customer” often feels like a mass market of people.

There are several reasons we see why teams find it challenging to bring in real customers during the Agile development process:

1. The perception these activities will slow the team down.
2. The input is fuzzy, so often ignored.
3. Uncertainty of who the customer really is.
4. They just don’t know how or try to rely on traditional surveys or focus groups.

Because of these challenges, it’s easy for developers, or even Product Owners to take shortcuts and use personal opinions statements such as, “I’d want this feature,” “It should work like this,” or “The customer will need this,” to drive product decisions, rather than build in real customer feedback.

The Solution: To be truly Agile, it is critical to bring customers into your efforts at the right points and with the right methods. While gaining real customer insight throughout Agile planning and development may seem challenging, it doesn’t need to be. We use three simple and equally important steps to gain Rapid Customer Insight that support Agile development efforts. These steps are:

1. Access: You must find and identify a set of target customers that you can rely on to provide accurate, timely insight. These are often early adopter customers that will not only share their insight, but want to be part of your success. Successful Agile requires developing a well-maintained customer panel or advisory board.

2. Listen: Once you have direct and rapid access to customers, you must build skills to actively listen to them. This isn’t running a focus group, launching a survey, or asking them what they want. Although these methods can also be used, having high-quality interaction with your customers, either in person or through appropriate collaboration tools is critical, probing them for real needs, problems, desires, and objective feedback. Listening is also being able share early designs to learn how your customer is thinking, how they would prioritize elements of your solution, and the tradeoffs they are making in their head.

3. Communicate: This learned insight into your development efforts through clear and prioritized use cases, the relative value of each feature, and building test cases that reflect how your customers would want to experience your product.

Read part 1, 2, 3, 45 or download “The Five Challenges to Agile Planning” whitepaper.