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The term “customer engagement” is used so often that it can admittedly sound a bit hollow. However, for those of us designing and developing enterprise software, it is a solid, hard-core matter of survival. Whether long-term or short-term, big or small, involving customers in the R&D process is vital to producing
products people want to use. It’s definitely a whole lot more than a buzzword or a hollow marketing term for us.

There is a whole spectrum of people with whom we need to engage in order to create great enterprise software. Whether it is gathering requirements from end users, talking to business process experts, or exchanging with IT, we need to get a holistic view in order to provide an excellent end-to-end experience.

So, although engaging with customers is clearly important, it is actually not so easy. Just finding the right person to talk to can be more time consuming than you might expect. Our customers are usually big companies with many internal organizations and divisions. Often we are already engaged with their IT organization, so that’s usually our access point. If we are looking to get feedback from end users who do a specialized task, the contact we might already have in the customer base is not often going to be the end user of the product we are working on. So we have to work together with our existing contacts to find the right end users. When we want to talk to end users, we need to explain to our contacts what we want to do and why. And then we have to make sure we are coordinating our activities with other organizations in our company. In this effort we get a lot of support from organizations like the SAP Customer Engagement Initiative and also from the SAP user groups.

Engaging with customers is important, and we should encourage everyone to do it, but it is not something to be taken lightly. You have to have some knowledge about effectively gathering requirements. This can be acquired either through training or by first-hand experience with trained people. Our customers’ time is very valuable. So we need to make sure we are well prepared in order for both sides to get the most out of the engagement. Preparation is key. This means knowing about the customer’s business and being very clear about our goals for the time spent with the customer. And of course, it is also important to take time to properly analyze the information gathered and turn that into something solid, actionable and lasting. Vivid impressions fade with astonishing speed, so distilling and recording the learnings gathered are vital.

As SAP and our customers move more and more toward design thinking, the acceptance of and experience with new methods of gathering requirements increases. More interactive, engaging and, yes, fun methods are proving to be more effective in some cases than traditional user research methods such as interviews and focus groups. Exercises such as business origami, hero’s journey and collaborative brand personas are just a few of the many methods that experienced user researchers and design thinking coaches have at their disposal to elicit needs and requirements  from end users as well as align stakeholders
on a common vision.

14 years ago, when I started working in the area of user-centered design, it was quite challenging to convince customers to invest time in engaging with us in the design process. Today, customers are much more knowledgeable about why we need to involve them, and from our side we are constantly searching out more interactive and effective approaches to gather the information we need to develop products that will help them to grow their business.

If you would like to get involved in the design process, check out Participate in Improving Products with SAP on the SAP User Experience Community or leave a comment to this post.

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