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spike bullet August 2015 ~ Rule #1 - Respect Your Customers

Rule #1 - Respect Your Customers
Example 1:  A technology project well done
Example 2:  A technology project no so well done
Some tips for doing a technology redesign project well 
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)
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color bulletAugust 2015 ~ Rule #1 - Respect Your Customers

What is the definition of a business?  Answer: Someone with a customer.

Without customers, no business can survive.  Many have tried and many have failed.  Even with all the information about business success widely available, some businesses make the same mistakes over and over and over.

We have recently been reminded of the importance of respecting customers and listening to them.  Companies who don’t listen do so at their peril.

When making major technology changes, there are good ways to roll out changes and not so good ways to roll out changes.

Well managed projects do things differently than not-so-well-managed projects.  Well managed projects make changes based on the needs of their customers, keep customers well informed about changes, what is coming, when it is coming and what to expect.  There are no unpleasant surprises for customers when the technology changes.

Not-so-well-managed projects roll out unfinished technology to their unsuspecting and unprepared customers, without respecting the needs of their customers.  When companies do roll out unfinished software, customer backlash is a normal and expected reaction.  That also makes the technology conversion process more difficult and lessens the customer's respect of the company.  These are well-known and well-documented facts about technology projects.

Doing it right the first time is much less costly.  One estimate says: if you fix a problem in the technology design stage, it costs one dollar.  If you have to fix a problem at the testing stage, it costs $1,000.  If you have to fix a problem after it is implemented, it costs  $10,000.  It is much better and cheaper to learn from the mistakes of others and do it right the first time. 

Example 1: A technology project done well

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) used to have a website that was organized like many government websites – by functional department.  Customers had a hard time understanding where to find things on their website.

In 2002, a project was initiated to redesign their website to focus on the needs of their customers.  "L&I embarked on this project after a study that indicated up to 75 percent of the people visiting the site couldn’t find what they were looking for." (*)  Website usability experts were brought in to train the agency’s staff in usability testing techniques before the redesign started.

Usability testing usually involves several key components:

  • A group of actual customers representing different areas of the business are asked to test a proposed new website design and provide feedback.  
  • Each volunteer is given a list of specific tasks to complete using the website.  
  • A technology consultant sits with each customer to listen to the customers talk as they do each task.  The consultants are not there to teach the customer how to use the technology, just to listen and observe.
  • The sessions are video-taped so that many people can see how each session went.  The cameras record the customer’s mouse movements and key strokes on the computer screen as well as capturing their verbal descriptions of what customers are doing and why.

This process showed clearly how the customers were thinking and their expectations of the website as they tried to perform their tasks.  Several rounds of customer testing were done to make sure the proposed design was understood by customers who would use it.  After each round of testing, the website was changed to better fit the customers’ needs.Mama bear enjoying a cup of coffee at the computer in her robe and bedroom slippers

As a result, the final website design ( allows customers to find what they are looking for much more easily than the old website.  Since the redesign, usage of the website has increased greatly.

In addition to providing much better use for customers, the redesigned website won the "The People’s Voice" Webby Award in 2005 — the leading international honor for websites — also known as the "Online Oscars."  In addition, L&I’s web site received awards from the Society for Technical Communications and the site was honored by the American Association of State Compensation Insurance Funds.  (*) More at

In addition to website redesign, L&I started a project called "Plain Talk" – a rewriting of all rules, regulations, forms and letters to make them clearer for customers.  The Plain Talk initiative was later adopted at the state level and is now the standard process for all Washington state government agencies.  The rewards have been significant to the state as well as to customers.  USA Today did a feature article about the benefits of this initiative in 2006.

Example 2: A technology project not so well done

" LLC is the world’s largest online resource for family history with more than 2 million paying subscribers across all its sites.  Since starting as a publishing company in 1983, we have been a leader in the family history market for over 30 years and have helped pioneer the market for online family history research."  [] is a paid subscription-based website-based service that allows people to create and maintain their family trees, and to search more than 16 billion digitized documents such as census records, vital records (birth, death, marriage, divorce) and many other family history related documents such as immigration and military records, city directories and many more.

In early 2015, Ancestry announced a major web redesign project.  They asked for customers who were willing to test the new site as it was developed.  Many people signed up for that.  So far, so good.  They started out right.

Where they went wrong was to switch new customers over to the new design, which didn’t yet work well, without preparing them for the sudden change.  They also started touting the new website design to existing paying customers without revealing that it was still an unfinished product and that many important features don’t work.  Many existing customers switched over to the new site design without understanding what they would encounter.  Many customers are not able to do the work that they are paying for on the website.  They feel very upset when their personal family tree was changed in ways they didn’t expect or they can't do what they need to do on the site.  And, many customers don't know how to get back to the old design, which is still available.  Cartoon of computer crying for Help and Good Bye, point a gun at the screen, grimacing.

Some of the customers comments are very strong in their upset over the changes.  User comments on the June 5, 2015 update page run 116 pages as of today (July 29, 2015).  Comments on the July 15, 2015 update run 30 pages as of today.  Unhappy customers far outweigh those who like the new design.   There is even an online petition created by customers to stop the changes.   

Ancestry has asked for feedback, which is good, and they are now starting to spend more time and effort in explaining what they are trying to do.  That could have been done much better before the changes, not after people discovered they were being forced to become unwilling beta testers and that many features were not working as they should.  Ancestry has announced their plan to roll out the design to everyone, like it or not, at some undefined time in the future, further agitating unhappy customers.  

According to reports posted by people who signed up as beta testers voluntarily, many of their suggestions and problem reports were ignored when the new design was pushed out to unsuspecting customers.

Ancestry’s website redesign may or may not turn out to be a good one.  Where they stumbled badly was in surprising paying customers with a flawed product without warning.  Many customers have said they plan to cancel their paid membership subscription as a result of this.  

As we said at the beginning of this article, fixing a technology problem becomes more expensive the later in the project that it occurs.  What has been lost by the mistakes in this website design effort are a great deal of customer loyalty and trust, as well as some paying customers.  

It is still too early to predict the ultimate cost of the mistakes.  Maybe someone will learn something important so that it doesn't happen again and again.  

Tips for doing a technology redesign project well

  1. Rule #1 – Respect Your Customers.  Don’t surprise your customers in unpleasant ways.  
  2. Make sure you do usability testing with people who volunteer and really listen to the issues raised by customers as they are trying to use your technology.
  3. Make sure that the changes you are making will be helpful to your customers, based on the way actual customers use your website or technology applications.
  4. Let customers know in advance why you are making changes, when the changes will be made, the extent of the changes and how they will affect customers.  Prepare customers well for the changes before they are made, not after they complain.  Remember Rule #1 – Respect Your Customers.  
  5. Take time to thoroughly test your product before putting it into production.  Testing should be done by actual customers who volunteer, not only by programmers who know how it is supposed to work.  
  6. Constantly listen to feedback from testers and customers, and implement their recommendations as much as possible.  Real customers are the best source of information about how they use a website or a technology product.
  7. Take the time to do it right.  The rewards are far greater and the costs are far lower in doing it right the first time than trying to explain why you did it a certain way and then have to deal with the ire of customers who were unpleasantly surprised and take their business elsewhere.  Remember Rule #1 – Respect Your Customers.  

It takes 20 years to build a business and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do things differently 
. . . 
Warren Buffet

  Internet Resources

Resources – about the examples mentioned:

Resources – about business success and failure:

Resources – about usability testing and good website design:

book graphic  BooksDisclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback.  Dan Olsen.  Wiley, 2015.  ISBN:  978-1118960875
  • Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.  Mark Goulston.  AMACON, 2015.  ISBN: 978-0814436479
  • Creating a Customer-Centered Culture: Leadership in Quality, Innovation and Speed.  Robin L. Lawton.  American Society for Quality, 1993.  ISBN: 978-0873891516
  • Don't Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition).  Steve King.  New Riders, 2014.  ISBN: 978-0321965516   

world wide web - articles  Articles

Related newsletter articles:
    October 2013 - Keys to Great Customer Service
    August 2001 - eBusiness in Today's Turbulent Times
    June 2007 - Good Customer Service Tips
    February 2004 - Corporate Integrity & Credibility: Why Is It So Important? 
    June 2001 - Successful Project Management
    May 2010 - The 5 Goals of a Project Manager

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

Dilbert cartoons by Scott Adams: 

IT Software Feature List 

Dilbert: Your user requirements include four hundred features.  
Do you realize no human would be able to use a product with that level of complexity? 

Consultant:  Good point.  I'd better add 'easy to use' to the list.  

Results of Beta Testing 

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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Page updated: October 16, 2023      

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