Understanding our Customers and Avoiding “Traditions of Communication”
It always amazes me how much information is captured, processed and conveyed during the process of checking in, boarding and flying on a plane.
I’m sure there is much more that happens in the background too, that we don’t see, as pilots co-ordinate with air traffic control to agree the flight path and get a take-off or landing slot.
I recently reflected on a journey I’d taken and it struck me how important when designing any service, process or system that we truly understand our customers, stakeholders and users, and in particular that we identify their information needs. If we bombard people with information, they’ll tune out (and may miss something important). If we don’t communicate enough, then people often get frustrated, confused or anxious, and tend to call in or contact a representative. Of course, it’s easy to say ‘we need to communicate just the right amount in our processes’, but it’s quite another thing to actually do this. There will be some information that we need them to know, and other pieces that they want or need to know. It’s a tricky balance, and layered on top of this is the fact that these types of considerations can get clouded by traditions of communication. This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example:
Traditions of Communication: Who cares which runway we’re taking off from?
Think back to the last time you travelled on an airplane. I’d guess that at some point the Captain or First Officer made an announcement to introduce themselves, and they may well have told you a whole range of details about the upcoming flight. I’m not entirely sure why they make this announcement, and I wonder if it is some type of aviation tradition. Perhaps there was once an important reason for the passengers to know this, or perhaps it is just for interest or courtesy. On a recent flight I was on, the announcement included which runway we’d be departing from, the initial direction we’d be heading, the fact we’d be taking a ‘turn’ mid-way through the flight and so on. These are details that are crucial for the pilots, but perhaps not so crucial for an average passenger to know.
If you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to tune out during those types of announcement. I guess that some people are interested in which runway we’re taking off from, and whether we’ll be approaching the destination from an Easterly or Westerly direction, but since I’m not an aviation enthusiast, this is information that flows straight over my head. In fact, three things I generally do want to know which aren’t always mentioned are:
- Will there be a food service, and if so roughly when (so I know whether to have that chocolate bar I bought in the terminal now or later)
- What will the approximate time be that we get into the terminal (flight time is useful, but what I really want to know is what time I’ll be at the terminal collecting my bags. In fact, I really want to know the estimated time I’ll be leaving the terminal so I can check my onward plans still work!)
- Roughly what time will we be landing (so I can make sure I finish any work up and put my laptop away before the seatbelt signs go on—nothing worse than having to frantically save a document mid-thought when the air steward is asking you to urgently put all bags under the seat in front of you!).
Now, I realize I’m probably not a typical traveler, but I can’t believe I’m the only one that would find these pieces of information useful. Of course, providing them requires co-ordination with other organizations (e.g. the destination airport), so providing them might be tricky, and even then it’d be tricky to provide the information only to those that wanted it. However, a broader point here is that there is a process communicating information that at least some service users are tuning out from, and there is other information that isn’t being provided that some service users would find useful.
The Relevance for Business Analysis: Understanding Customers, Users, Stakeholders and Beneficiaries
This is a general pattern that seems to exist in processes and services (whether online or offline) more generally. Check in to a hotel and the receptionist will often launch into a pre-prepared script about the features of the hotel, rather than asking what the traveler wants to know. Log in to many online systems and there are confusing dashboards of information that provide every conceivable piece of information, ironically making any one specific piece of information virtually impossible to find. (We’ve probably all used platforms where the navigation is so poor you have to go to the ‘search’ or ‘sitemap’ or ‘FAQs’).
All of this points back to an important facet of business analysis—that is the importance of understanding the customers, users, stakeholders and beneficiaries of a particular system, process or service. We need to call out and challenge traditions of communication. Just because we have ‘always done it that way’ doesn’t mean that it’s the most efficient or effective way. We ought to keep our customers front-and-center and ask what information they need and want.
In fact, we are rarely specifying and designing a service for one ‘generic’ customer type—there will be many. Researching and understanding their goals and also their information needs is key. By doing so, we can ensure that we ‘serve up’ appropriate information to them at the right times, so they feel fully informed and comfortable. This will also reduce the amount of failure demand where people ask for clarification of unclear information. Techniques such as personas and journey mapping are useful tools for us to utilize in these circumstances.