May 28, 2009

The Barbara Test

(not actually Barbara)

About 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to be Employee #9 at a startup software company. 

It was a terrific experience.  I got to do a bunch of interesting things.  I learned a lot.

Like many startups, we did a lot of things wrong.  Although none of the original members work there any longer, the company is still around, so I suspect we did at least a few things right as well.

One of the few things we did right was something I like to call "The Barbara Test".

As we developed the first version of our first product, we had a very strong sense of the target user.  Our CEO was a domain expert in our product area.  She knew the problems faced by the target user.  In fact she knew the target user - her name was Barbara.

Early on in the development cycle, a bunch of us (most of the company, actually) flew out to visit Barbara on her home turf in the midwest.  We were able to hear and see what Barbara knew, what she did on a daily basis, how she did it, and the tools she used to do it.  We could see what was easy for Barbara, what was hard, and what was nearly impossible.  We asked Barbara what would make her job easier, what she could live with, and what she couldn't live without.

This was terrific insight!  It was a living, breathing set of User Scenarios.

Armed with this knowledge, we had a great way to judge our design, to assess our decisions, to triage our bugs, to set our priorities, to focus our efforts.  Whenever we had a question, we could always ask ourselves:
  • How would Barbara do it?
  • Is this easy enough for Barbara?
  • Can Barbara get her work done in time, using this feature?
  • Does this report have enough detail for Barbara?
  • Would Barbara prefer this, or that?
  • What kind of Help system does Barbara need?
  • Could Barbara live with this bug, or must we fix it now?
In the end Barbara was happy, and so were we (her company purchased our product).

As you test, it's nice to have an understanding of the target user for your product.  If you can't actually meet her, at least be able to imagine her.  Ask your Project Manager: "Tell me about our Barbara."