Software and advice that’s not of this verse

Keeping Customers Engaged Early

The early stages of a software development project are brilliant for a designer/developer and painful for a customer. For the developer, the challenge of design, the joy of programming the core functionality, and the absolute bliss you get from making something great keeps the developer engaged. The customer sits and waits. And waits.

Traditionally, that wait lasts a long time, all the way until Alpha builds are available. Even with agile programming techniques, there really isn’t much to show the customer during the early stages. Even in iPhone development, you rarely send out builds until late-Alpha stage. And it’s hard for customers to remain excited and engaged when they cannot see, touch and feel the product.

A lot of developers, including myself, alleviate the customer’s boredom with weekly project status reports. We write about all the new features we added this week, the design changes applied, the bugs wrestled and defeated, and all the other things we developers find exciting. To customers, it’s just a pile of text that means very little to them. Oh they do read it, and they do discuss it. But, its just text.

What is needed is ‘Show and Tell’, not just ‘Tell’.

To create the ‘Show’ we invested in ScreenFlow, a screencasting application. Not only do we send the weekly report, but we also regularly attach a screencast showing the application in action in the development environment. We show the new features, we run the workflows, we point out the changes made, we show the bugs that have been squashed.

And customers love it. They watch each screencast several times, they call up to discuss scenes and things they saw on the screen, they give feedback, question decisions, and get heavily engaged in the product development. They show the screencasts to their colleagues, showing off their proud new software as it grows. They keep the screencasts long after the application has been delivered to show others how the application evolved.

Screencasts also help when trying to explain a feature. We’ll often create a single scene video and send it out to help clarify a point or to explain our thinking. If the customer can see what’s happening, they find it easier to understand it, discuss it, question it and provide feedback on it.

It does take you away from developing to create these. But with practice, and the fact that we’re not making a Hollywood production, we have managed to get the production down to a few easy steps:

  • Create a point form list of features to show. Its easy, since this already exists in the status report.
  • Use Screenflow to capture the a scene for selected key points.
  • Use Photoshop to create the static pages, like the introduction slides, scene breaks and the end credits. This is easy since we have a template, so we just change a few words and export to PNG, change a few more words, export again.
  • Assemble the scenes and images in Screenflow, and add a few transitions, to produce the initial movie.
  • Load the movie into a new Garageband podcast project and record the voice-over (We do it in one take - remember, not Hollywood), add a few zingers, and we’re done.

Up until the moment you can hand over the first build of the application for the customer to play with, sending them screencasts is the next best thing. They can see the product, see how it looks and works, show it off and be part of the evolution of their software. They can save the video to review later.

An engaged customer is a happy customer. An engaged customer makes us better designers and developers. An engaged customer leads to a better product.

So next time you write a boring project status report, make a quick video as well.

You’re welcome.

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