It’s not just executives that need to pay attention to what you are delivering with your project. Your end users need to be engaged as well, and this is often a stakeholder group that’s overlooked.
Certainly, the rise of Agile and Lean methodologies in project and product management have shed light on the value of end user engagement. Many thought leaders are discussing the role of empathy in developing products for users, born from the design thinking work out of Stanford and IDEO product labs, which represents a shift from top-down product development where project and product managers dictate best solutions to the end users.
But if these new methodologies aren’t already baked into your organization, that doesn’t mean the end user should be neglected. User feedback and engagement is vital in the adoption of the new solution to ensure that the benefits address core needs and usability factors. Oftentimes, there will be only one representative from the user population on your project team. That isn’t a guarantee that the whole user group will end up embracing the change that you are working on. You’ll want to make sure you’re talking to the right end users.
So, how do you engage users on your project, especially when you probably don’t have much time to spend with them? Here are some strategies you can try for your project – pick and choose the ones that make the most sense for what your project is trying to achieve.
If your project is going to change the way people work, then think about what training you can offer them. Early adopters of a solution often train themselves. While this group can become excellent product evangelizers, sometimes posting helpful how-tos in forums or blog posts online, you shouldn’t let them be the voice of your project or assume their use-case is the same for a broader population.
Users are often worried that they won’t have the skills or knowledge to do try something new, so reassurance through training is important. You can offer free online tutorials, video coaching, classroom courses or work on a train-the-trainer model where you train a group of people who then go on to train their peers.
Develop your own early-adopters with early engagement, and let people know what training they can expect so that they have more confidence in being able to use the products your project is delivering.
For end users engaged early on, invite them in to with transparent access to project progress. Give them client-level access to project tools so they can see visual project dashboards and participate in relevant project communications. (You can usually customize their access for security purposes.)
You can also build a full project communication plan to brief the users. Some techniques you can include are:
Blogs or Newsletters: a monthly or quarterly update on project status, what’s coming and the benefits to them
Presentations: get on the agenda of team meetings for the core groups that you wish to target and tell them about the project
Emails: blanket emails aren’t a great idea but sometimes it’s the only way to reach a large audience
Posters: depending on the nature of the project and its demographics, these can be put up internally or externally to explain the project and why it is being done.
You can probably think of other ways of communicating your message to target the widest possible, and most relevant, group of people.
Share the Vision
Unless people understand why this project is happening they will find it very difficult to buy into the overall solution. So you can never spend enough time sharing the vision and objectives, particularly when you have other opportunities to communicate along the way.
Create opportunities to actually sit down and have conversations with end users, whether going out into the field for public projects, hosting coffee talks in the community, buying breakfasts for core user groups. In addition to listening to the end user requests, it will be an opportunity for you, as well, to talk about why the project is beneficial and how the solutions will be a help. If people feel invited to the table (literally), they will be more likely to evangelize its benefits and adopt it.
Live Demos & Prototypes
Some users find it difficult to visualize concepts. Your CEO might get the “back of the napkin” sketch, but your end users will not.
Develop a prototype of the product for the most effective end user feedback and engagement. For example, you could set up webapp version of a fully-functional app to test how people interact with the new features. Or you can create a 3D model of a product you’re developing so people can have something to physically turn over in their hands. You could also create a slideshow or video walk-through of the product and display in accessible areas.
Listen (and Act On!) Feedback
There’s no point in going to the trouble to solicit end user feedback early on in your project, if you’re not going to act on the input. Not only do people just like to feel as if their ideas have been heard, they actually need to see their feedback incorporated. Because, of course, if you’ve found the right end users to interview and bring in to your project, they will be the ones to actually use what you’re developing.
Create opportunities to solicit feedback beyond the other types of engagement activities described above. This could be through comments threads on a project blog. Or set up an email account for receiving feedback. Remember to respond to every message (ideally not an auto-responder for a small group) even if it is with a simple message like: “Thank you! We’re glad you took the time to offer your input.”
Of course, you won’t be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas, and many suggestions will be impractical or downright stupid, but make sure treat everyone professionally. Go back to them saying whether their points could be built into the project now, in the future or not at all, and the reasons why. This feedback loop is one of the easiest and simplest ways to help get buy in for your solution, and it takes very little effort to set up.
You don’t have to implement complete Agile or Lean methodologies to put the end user first in your project. Jon Kolko’s recent piece in HBR provides an excellent look into how to put empathetic product design into practice. All of these suggestions are essentially change management techniques and offer a way to approach engaging users with your project and its objectives.
Helping people move towards the new solutions by engaging them early on is really important if you want your change to “stick”. Build your training, communication and other engagement activities into your online planning tool. With ProjectManager.com, you can set up unlimited client-level access account for end users to give them controlled visibility and access to collaboration tools for an easier engagement platform.