Ethnography in enterprise software development

We need more ethnographers in the (enterprise) software industry. 

We would produce better software (by which I mean software that achieves its intended benefits more) if we started our projects off with an understanding of how people really work in their day to day lives.

Instead we start off with interviews and workshops in which we gather a view of what managers say their staff do. Or rather, what they say they think their staff do. Which is often several steps removed from what people really do. 

The only way to really understand what people do is to spend time with those people. If you were to take this kind of approach in enterprise software development you would spend a year or even 18 months figuring out how people really work, and only then would you start designing new software. But your software would be better.

On one cynical level I wonder whether this happens anyway. The first version of an enterprise system is implemented based on what key individuals have said they think the organisation needs to do. It fails to deliver its benefits. Then it is reworked and reworked over the next 18 months.

If so it would definitely be better to do some ethnography first, before implementing your new system.

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3 thoughts on “Ethnography in enterprise software development

  1. Pingback: Build what I do, not what I say « Golden Pebbles

  2. Well said, Alan. Putting people in a room invariably ends up being a Business Reengineering gabfest. There’s nothing wrong with re-engineering a business, except for time, money, politics, upsetting suppliers and disappointing customers.

  3. Carly

    Excellent Alan and as a trainer on software systems for over 25 years we tend to identify key tasks and teach our users how to do those tasks. We also try to get user feedback back to our developers who build our products. Most of our developers believe they know what our users need but “its what they know after they know it all that really counts”

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