developing software nobody wants

Developing software that nobody wants is a classic mistake.  Joel Spolsky once said that if he had listened to what his customers wanted, and created a product with only their suggestions, they would not have came up with as many nice features (I paraphrase from an episode of the stackoverflow podcast). However, maybe his logic is slightly skewed. Why? Well he is developing a product for software developers (FogBugz). Therefore, his target market is essentially the same people who are writing the software. This makes developers a great source for feature suggestions.

However, consider on the other hand the average software developer. They are not creating a product that is used by other software developers. Instead, customers can range from a highly technical audience (say Matlab), to a secretary with little computing knowledge. Clearly if we are creating a product aimed at the latter market, a software developer is the last person you should be asking for feature advice.

Unfortunately, misaligned product requirements actually happen in the wild. I have been involved a project that forced a user into making around 10 clicks to achieve a particular goal. Each step was valid, and allowed the user fine grained control over a feature. However, the user didn’t need this level of control, and they simply selected the same options every time. There was great difficulty convincing most of the developers that this kind of fine grained control was not required. Thus: developing software without thinking about how a customer is going to use the software should be high on the list of UNFORGIVABLE sins.

Some problems, like the one described above, are hard to grasp for us programmers. As programmers we are taught to generalise, and I think we find it difficult to turn this off in our heads. This can be seen in many applications that drown us in XML configuration. Product managers, and CEOs have less room for excuses.

So how do we ensure that we are not developing software that nobody wants? It just seems obvious to me that you have to ask the people that will be buying your software. This seems so simple right? Can you even believe that it doesn’t happen? Is it beyond the realms of possibilities that somebody, somewhere, is developing a piece of software for a market without asking that market the features that they want? You’d better believe it. It happens all the time.