Focus on the consumer

The latest Briefings Direct: SOA Insights podcast is now available. In this episode, we discussed semantic web technologies, among other things. One of my comments in the discussion was that I feel that these technologies have struggled to reach the mainstream because we haven’t figured out a way to make it relevant to the developers working on projects. I used this same argument in the panel discussion at The Open Group EA Practitioners Conference on July 23rd. In thinking about this, I realized that there is a strong connection in this thinking and SOA. Simply put, it is all about the consumer.

Back when my day-to-day responsibilities were programming, I had a strong interest in human-computer interaction and user interface design. The reason for this was that the users were the end consumer of the products I was producing. It never ceased to amaze me how many developers designed user interfaces as if they were the consumer of the application, and wound up giving the real consumer (the end user) a very lousy user experience.

This notion of a consumer-first view needs to be at the heart of everything we do. If you’re an application designer, it doesn’t bode well if you consumer hate using your application. Increasingly, more and more choices for getting things done are freely available on the Internet, and there’s no shortage of business workers that are leveraging these tools, most likely under the radar. If you want your users to use your systems, the best path is make it a pleasant experience for them.

If you’re an enterprise architect, you need to ask who the consumers of your deliverable are? If you create a reference architecture that is only of interest to your fellow enterprise architects, it’s not going to help the organization. If anything, it’s going to create tension between the architecture staff and the developers. Start with the consumer first, and provide material for what they need. A reference architecture should be used by the people coming up with a solution architecture for projects. If your reference architecture is not consumable by that audience, they’ll simply go off and do their own thing.

If you are developing a service, you need to put your effort into making sure it can be easily consumed if you want to achieve broad consumption. It is still more likely today that a project will build both service consumer and service provider. As a result, the likelihood is that the service will only be easily consumable by that first consumer, just as that user interface I mentioned earlier was only easily consumed by the developer that wrote it.

How do we avoid this? Simple: know your consumer. Spend some time on understanding your consumer first, rather than focusing all of your attention on knowing your service. Ultimately, your consumers define what the “right” service is, not you. You can look at any type of product on the market today, and you’ll see that the majority of products that are successful are the ones that are truly consumer friendly. Yes, there are successful products that are able to force their will on consumers due to market share that are not considered consumer friendly, but I’d venture a guess that these do not constitute the majority of successful products.

My advice to my readers is to always ask the question, “who needs to use this, and how can I make it easy for them?” There are many areas of IT that may not be directly involved with project activities. If you don’t make that work relevant to project activities, it will continue to sit off on an island. If you’re in a situation where you’re seen as an expert in some space, like semantic technologies, and the model for using those technologies on project is to have yourself personally involved with those projects, that doesn’t scale. Your efforts will not be successful. Instead, focus on how to make the technology relevant to the problems that your consumers need to solve, and do it in a way that your consumers want to use it, because it makes their life easier.

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