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On October 2nd I participated in a Product Sashimi workshop with J. B. Rainsberger and Bonnie Aumann.

This workshop was all about learning how to "slice a product thinly" so that you can actually ship something of value quickly. We also spent a lot of time working on how to help turn a fuzzy customer product idea into something concrete that you can start to work on. I summarized it to my team like this: You customer comes in and they are usually asking for a whale. At the end of the project what they really wanted was a crab. Your job is to start from their request for a whale and 1) trim the whale down to the meaty parts they really want/need and 2) slice that meaty part thinly so that you can actually start development and deliver value soon.

I happen to work in an academic environment where my customers are colleagues with ideas for software and tools that will help their research or will be used internally for staff. No money actually changes hands for each project, but my team is a scarce resource and we have a lot of projects to handle, more than we can actually deliver. It's not that different from when I was a consultant with paying customers who need the maximum solution at minimum cost and they need it yesterday. You always want to get to delivering value as soon as possible, which means slicing the problem thinly, and you want to make sure that you know you are working on the most valuable things first, which means understanding their business and their needs.

The biggest challenge is understanding what the customer is asking for. Often times they struggle to put it in to words. Sometimes they can describe the solution they are looking for, but it doesn't match the problem they are describing. As knowledgable tech resources we immediately want to get to the meat of what they want, so our first question is "why do you want that?". A great reminder that J.B. and Bonnie kept mentioning is to consider how what you say sounds to the customer. Have you ever had an exchange like this:

Customer: I want an X. Can you make that for me?

Dev: Why do you want X?

Customer: What do you mean, 'why do I want that'?!

Depending on your tone and your relationship with your customer it can sound like you are questioning their own judgement of their needs, when in fact you are really just trying to understand their needs better. J.B. Gave a lot of great examples for what you can say instead. I won't give them all away, but one of my two favorite takeaways from the workshop was the Magic Wand technique.

Customer: I want an X. Can you make that for me?

Dev: Okay, (using imaginary magic wand) TADA! You have an X. Tell me a little about how you are going to use it.

Customer: Well...

This is going to go much better than the example above. It takes a lot of practice to get good at posing those questions.

My second favorite technique is the Lost Luggage Technique. Have you ever been the last one waiting for your bag to arrive on the luggage belt at the airport and then the belt shut off? So you go to the little room and tell them your bag is missing. Usually they will hand you a laminated sheet with pictures of suicases on it and ask you "which one of these does your bag most closely resemble?" followed by "How does your bag differ from the one in the picture?". This is a great technique because it grounds the conversation in something concrete and focuses both of your attention on the ways in which your understandings of the object in question differ.

For example, the customer describes what they want. It sounds a lot like a blog to you. So you say, "What if I give you a WordPress blog? What more do you think you need?"
and then listen to what they say. Oh, and write it down. Maybe they don't know everything a blog is capable of, so you might share that with them and check again. At this point it is all about listening, and keeping the conversation grounded in concrete terms as much as possible.

As you are listening and writing down what you are learning this is when the sashimi slicing begins. First you want to want to figure out the scope of this
You have to identify the simplest most barebones solution that could possibly fit the description of what the customer needs and then build out from there to find a simple solution that you can actually deliver. As J.B. put it succinctly, the goal is to learn what you don't have to do and try not to do it.

Once you have cut down the big fuzzy product description into a smaller fleshy piece now the slicing begins. In the training we went over techniques for identifying the major problem areas (maybe 4-8 of them) and then breaking those down in to features and then generating scenarios for those features.

I just gave my team a recap of some of the things that I learned at the sashimi workshop and it started a great discussion about how we are doing in understanding our customers' needs, how to define what is good enough (if you and your customer are both happy could you still not be done?) and even a quasi-role-playing session with our boss as the customer for a real request that had just come up. I am going to need a lot of practice asking those gently leading questions like "Tell me more about how you'd like to use that" and "I'm curious how you came up with the idea of a X".

When we got out of the meeting another one of our internal customers came over with a real request and we decided to see if we could use our new skills to help us learn more about what she is asking for. They ended up beating her with imaginary magic wands, but at least they didn't start off with "Why do you want that"!?!

I did successfully apply the lost luggage technique earlier this week. It's such a simple technique. I found myself with another developer and a customer and we were all talking in abstract terms about a report that she wanted. So, I drew a picture and I said "What if this was the report? would that meet your needs?" and the conversation became much more productive after that. A lot of practice is definintly needed, but I feel like I'm already getting value out of these techniques. I really wish this workshop was a month long so that I could soak up and really practice all of the things that Bonnie and J.B. were sharing with us.

Cross posted from my blog.

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