A few months ago I was looking at changing my car. So I started on the usual tedious process of online reviews, videos and going around dealerships looking at a variety of types. Neither myself nor my wife are car people which means that our primary need for the car was that it was suitable for our dog.

Enter our dog. This is Maya. Maya is a Bernese Mountain Dog. Two things to notice about this breed is that they are 200% awesome and also quite big.

Bernese Mountain Dog On Breach

What this means is that our three main requirements for a car were as follows

  1. The car must be big enough for our dog to ride in comfortably as well as fit any stuff that we need for travelling.
  2. The boot entry must be low, wide and without a lip.
  3. The car needs to be big enough to fit in extra people or dogs in the future.

Simple, right?

Off we went to a few different car dealers and with each one we were clear that we need a dog friendly car.

“This car has a BOSE stereo system”

“You have a range of attractive alloy wheel options with this one”

“The built in sat nav receives free updates”

You get the idea. Each visit became more frustrating than the last as successive salespeople completely failed to grasp what we were looking for. Eventually we found a salesperson who started to tell us about boot protectors (I never thought my life could be changed by a plastic cover in a car boot) and showing us the different ways that seats could be folded etc. Finally, someone who listened to what we were saying and responded to it! Coincidentally (not coincidentally) we ended up buying our car there.

Listen First

As I ranted to my increasingly bored wife on the way home about sales people totally failing to grasp selling points, I was eventually struck with some well needed self-awareness. How often do we treat customers, business owners, managers and even our technical colleagues the same way? For example, someone wants to talk to us about some web services that they think they need and before we’ve even met we are thinking ‘DropWizard, REST, Java’ and so our judgement is clouded before we even start. Do they even want web services at all?

Replay Second

We can try to mitigate this by attempting to replay user’s needs back to them, or failing that to someone else completely outside of any discussion. If we aren’t able to articulate what need we are trying to solve, then it’s extremely likely that we are starting down the wrong path. In my car scenario, if someone had replied to us “So you want a totally sweet stereo system for tunes?” they would have found out very quickly that we don’t care about that.

Solutionise Last

Once we have confirmed that our understanding of what is being asked matches the users understanding of what they think they are asking, we can then move into the world of solutions. It is still important here to tie back every aspect to what need is actually being fulfilled. Going back to the car problem, when the final salesperson showed us an estate car with a plastic boot liner etc. we knew that we were all focussing on the right thing which was my perception of my need combined with their domain expertise to find the correct solution. Technology is no different to this. All our mad technical skills are useless unless we are solving the right problem, and we are unlikely to solve the right problem if we don’t know what it actually is.

While it is pretty much impossible to drop all preconceptions (everyone has favoured tools, clients typically have existing tech ecosystems), by making sure that we listen and replay before we jump to any solution we can give ourselves the best chance to at least start on the right path.