Become an Expert Customer-Advocate in 5 Steps

My last post was about the advantages of User Profiles in testing; Sarah Murphy wrote a follow-up post on her blog saying that maybe we don’t really know our customers that well, and this fact can seriously hamper the effectiveness of our tests.  To that Sarah, I can only say: AMEN!!

So the question now is how do you get to know your users better?  And taking that even further, how can you as a Tester become The Expert Customer-Advocate of your Company?

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I asked myself this question some years ago while working as a QA Manager at a large Enterprise Software firm where we had hundreds of thousands of end-users and we were not sure we understood them well enough.

My team played with some ideas and we came up with a number of actions that helped us to get to know our users better, and leverage this knowledge in order to improve our tests, our data and our overall approach to testing the product.  This information also ended up improving the product, since we became better (more accurate) representatives of our end-users within the Development process, providing feedback during the times it mattered most.

I wrote about this in the past, but I think this is a good time to bring the subject up again and to expand some more on what we did and how you can do it too.

5 Ways to Become an Expert Tester Customer-Advocate

(1) Join the Product Team when they go out to customers

This is the simplest way.  Most companies have a person or a team in charge of gathering information from their users and passing it along to the rest of the organization.  In some places this team is called Product Management, Product Owners, or even Account Managers.

Whatever their title is, go and ask them to join their visits next time they go out to the field to talk to users.  Explain to them your objective: to go and see how real people work in order to test the product more realistically.
If your Product Team has any sense they will more than gladly take you along and even choose the customers that matter most for this purpose.

(2) Help to Provide Technical Assistance On-Site

Some good opportunities can be found during technical interactions such as presales engagements, professional service, or even on-site support visits.  As a QA Engineer you have good and deep technical knowledge of your product and you can offer this knowledge to help other people in your company that need to work directly with customers.

For example look for the next time a sales person has to do a complex demo at a customer and ask to go and help him out. Sales people are always eager to get help from R&D since it takes the burden and the risk from running the demo, and it also makes them look better in front of the client to bring a technical expert with him :).

(3) Provide Technical Support Remotely

Even if you don’t get to meet user face-to-face you can still interact with them remotely.  Join support calls together with your customer care team and listen to what users do and what assistance they need as part of their routine work.

By taking part of these calls you will understand what product-operations are not as trivial as the R&D thinks, what working assumptions are correct or incorrect,  and what problems and limitations are the ones that bother users most.

(4) Interview and Learn from the People who are in Direct Contact with Users

As we progress in the list we get further apart from direct contact, but that doesn’t mean the value of the information decreases in any way.  One of the most effective ways of getting valuable information about your users (their likes, dislikes, issues, and wishes) is by asking the people who are in constant contact with them.

Go and talk to Sales people, Support people, Professional Services people, to everyone who is involved with the users and can tell you about them.  Gather the feedback from them and use it in order to generate your own User Profiles.

(5) Read What Users Say About Your Product and Company On-Line

Last but not least, look for comments from your users on-line.  Most products and companies have user forums, support sites, and even communities; even better if they are independently run since they will be impartial.

In these places you will mostly see the 2 extremes: customers who think your product is “the greatest invention since sliced bread”, and those who think it simply sucks!
Filtering out the emotions (and emoticons) and you will be able to understand what is good and what is bad; and if you pay special attention you will even get to understand a little about the why…

What do you do with all this information?

Once you are able to gather inputs be careful not to run too fast and reach quick conclusions.  Take some time to investigate the reasons and to correlate between the information you gathered, look for the patterns that will help you reach the deep conclusions about your user, product, company, etc

Your objective by gathering this data needs to be clear: you want to have a better understanding of your users and to paint a picture in your mind of how they see your product.  What do they like and why?  And what they think needs to be improved and how?

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