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Why more technologists need to know marketing

Published on: 2011-11-16

Editing note: I wrote this post before I found out about User-Centered Design, which is close to the approach I was looking for when I originally wrote this post.

I have to admit: before I got my MBA I had very little respect for marketing as a profession. I thought of marketing as a combination of advertising and sales, and I didn't have much respect for either. I thought the result of advertising was to inundate us with commercials and magazine ads that did little to entertain and even less to sell a product and I thought of the sales process as the attempt to ram as many products/features down a customer's throat as possible, without regard to that customer's needs or wants. My MBA studies taught me that marketing should be so much more, and what I had witnessed was marketing done badly.

This is important to point out because technologists, as a whole, know little about how to delve into the mind of the end-user/customer. One result is that during the requirements gathering process for new software projects, I see a lot of implementation teams create a solution that matches as close as possible what the business stakeholder asks for. The questions during this process are not "what problems are we trying to solve?" and "how do the users solve those problems?", but instead are "with what technology should we implement this functionality?". To illustrate what the differences are between these two approaches, here is a quote from Henry Ford:

If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse".

Ford's customers wanted easy transportation, and were used to horses. They couldn't conceive of transportation solutions other than horses (or wagons drawn by horses, oxen, etc.). Instead of going to his customers and allowing himself to remain within their experience, he met their underlying needs with a novel and unexpected solution (affordable automobiles).

How does this apply to software development? Here are some examples of common development efforts and how they commonly don't match the user's needs:

  • Designing a form for data entry needs to be specific to the type of user expected to be in the system. I can say from personal experience that different types of users want different things in their user interface. A form that would work for a typical engineer would be downright confusing to a typical retiree, and something a retiree would like would be cumbersome to a typical software developer. Software developers and designers need to start being more sensitive to these differences.
  • Upgrading an application from a legacy technology to a newer one should involve a redesign. Most legacy systems have been "organically grown", which is a euphemism for "when stuff is added, it is put wherever there's space". (Yes, I've been on all sides of that situation.) Business stakeholders in this situation usually ask for a strict move to the new technology, since that saves time and money in training in the short run. But as long as you're rebuilding, why not redesign the application in a way that best meets your user's needs? That way you can save money on training in the long run.
  • The technologies or platforms used for a particular project are often chosen based on product familiarity rather than user's needs. The best example I can come up with for this is that I read somewhere (and I wish I remember where) that if you're trying to target teenagers, you'll get a wider audience by creating a Facebook site than a traditional web site using a Content Management System. Yet how many software developers, when tasked with creating a site for a company that caters to teenagers, would have implemented a Content Management System first before even thinking "Facebook"?

The bottom line is that in order for software developers to create better applications, we need a better understanding of marketing. If that doesn't convince you, consider this. Of the five trends in IT for the next half decade, three (Social Computing, Mobile Computing, and the Consumerization of IT) are all directly related to Marketing. The need for more marketing in technology is here, so it's time to get on board.

This article was originally posted here and may have been edited for clarity.