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Moving forward with Composr

ocPortal has been relaunched as Composr CMS. ocPortal 9 is superseded by Composr 10.

Head over to for our new site, and to our migration roadmap. Existing ocPortal member accounts have been mirrored.

Relating to customers, be a customer to understand customers

Relating to customers, be a customer to understand customers When creating something it is incredibly hard to put yourself in the shoes of the user or customer.
  • Resetting your mind and imagining yourself coming into something new from a point of zero knowledge is virtually impossible. At best you are able to think really hard and analyse particular words and instructions to make sure there is a logical progression to them, but that's not good enough because it doesn't take into account exactly how people learn and the pressures they are under.
  • Generally it's really difficult to really know how much a user already knows, how they will learn new things, how fast they can learn, what specifically they will be trying to do in what order, and what their capabilities ultimately will be.
The obvious solution to this is user testing, but that is time consuming and expensive, so we want to minimise how much we need to do that. We need to find a way to better understand the needs of users prior to usability testing.

As I wrote, getting a complete understanding of how user's will see things is impossible. But it is possible to get closer than you probably are.

For me personally, a difficulty I had a few years ago when developing ocPortal 4 was that I had worked insanely hard for a number of years, and not really been much of a customer to other companies. When relating to customers it helps a lot if you have actual experience being a customer of something that is likely to come with a similar kind of complexity and a similar (or higher) kind of level of expectation. It helps build an appreciation for what you need to aim for, and what to avoid.

It's for this reason that I decided to go through the experiencing of switching to a Mac, back when Macs were just starting to gain mainstream popularity amongst serious computer users but were still a bit mysterious. I decided to be ultra-critical, to expect a perfect experience, and to let 'negative' emotions run if things weren't perfect and 'positive' ones when I found things a pleasure to use. Apple had a reputation for a joyful experience, so it was a great field test for all this, and a great opportunity to learn a thing or two.

Using a Mac exposed me to some very different computing concepts, and some really great user interfaces (as well as some not so great ones). I'm not sure if it led me to make many specific changes to ocPortal (a lot of changes would have happened regardless, as the web design industry has moved forward together in terms of quality), but it generally raised the sophistication of my outlook. It proved to me that computers should be (and can be) fun, and if an experience is enjoyable then users are more likely to be patient during the learning process. It taught me a thing or two about visual metaphors too. Generally, it gave me a new way to look at user interfaces and gauge them.

So my advice to anybody reading is to try something similar. Measure your own business/website through the lens of something else. Don't just head to a competitor because that is never going to be a new and pure experience for you, there will be too many emotions and too much pre-knowledge (this said, you should always monitor competitors, for obvious other reasons).

My next step for better relating to customers was even crazier…

I had been programming computers for 18 years around this point, and it had been quite a while since I really had to learn anything significant that was new. Sure, I'd taught myself a few business disciplines, and kept up to date with professional stuff, but I hadn't done anything really hard. If you do something long enough, you start to forget how hard it actually was to learn. Especially if you'd started really young and weren't under any kind of pressure back then. It's very easy for an experienced programmer to think “well, I'm here writing hundreds of thousands of lines of code, architecting this complex project, building up knowledge of dozens of technologies and programming languages, tracking changes across whole industries – how hard can it really be to learn just one product that has a graphical interface”. The truth is that 18 years of programming makes you more than expert, and your abilities and technical learning rate are going to be utterly incomparable (i.e. not even on any kind of shared scale) compared to people without that. So, it was time to really come out of my comfort zone and see what it was like to learn a new discipline.

This is why I decided to learn the guitar. It worked very well as a way to pull me back down to Earth, playing (no pun intended) to many of my weaknesses: multi-tasking, subconscious coordination, non-qualitative memory, and patience (I'm very impatient doing things if I'm not making something that I can see taking form). I am proud to say I am a pretty dreadful guitar player. I can play a few basic things, but I'll make a mistake about every seven notes/chords.

This was very effective in giving me a fresh perspective and letting me see again just how hard it can be to pick something up that is new, especially if you don't have a big natural talent for it.

So, try new things, push yourself, step outside your comfort zone. It's a great technique!

This was article 7 of 8 in my "Entrepreneur reality check" series of blog posts.

If you think it's good advice, please share this link with others. If you think I'm wrong or have something to say, please discuss below.

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