Following up on my recent talk at WordCamp Phoenix, I wanted to flesh out some of the details of the lessons on customer-centric development I presented.  For those of you who don't know me very well, I didn't begin my career as a developer.  I have a master's degree in business and, before the economy turned, worked as a branding and marketing strategist first for an agency in Washington then as the principal of my own agency in Oregon.

I've learned a great deal in my career - both how to communicate with clients and how to translate those conversations into actionable feedback for technical-minded developers.  In Phoenix I presented just 10 things I've learned during my career.  I want to share them with you here in more detail.

Lesson 1

Know your customer's story

I am, first and foremost, a storyteller.  I tell my story when I meet you in person.  I tell my company's story when I wear a branded sweatshirt and speak to a crowd.  I tell my customer's story when I build their website and help them present their wares to the world.

Understanding your customer's story is the first step to accurately telling it.

Storytelling has three dimensions:

  1. The story of the company/person selling a product
  2. The story of the company/person buying the product
  3. The story of how the product makes the customer's life better

If you fail to understand any one of these three dimensions, you will fail to accurately convey the other two.  Building a website is really just building a tool that empowers your customer to convey these stories to their customers.  Understanding these stories informs the design, functionality, and flow of the website itself.

No salesman will ever be good at their job if they're selling a product they don't understand.  Sure, they might peddle a few hundred widgets - but only until a competitor who really understands the storylines involved comes along.

Exhibit A

Take Apple for example.  Apple understands its core competency and has honed down on a solid message.  Apple understands their customers; needs, desires, dreams, fears.  Apple understands how to convey to their customers how life will be better in a world saturated with their products - as a result, they're the most valuable consumer electronics company in the world.

Apple didn't invent the phone.  Apple didn't invent the tablet.  Apple didn't invent the touch screen.  Apple was just better at telling stories about them than their competition.

Take the following iPad Air commercial for example:

Whether you like Apple or not, the inspirational message[ref]From the Dead Poets Society[/ref] overlaid atop a montage of equally inspirational video clips paints a story that speaks to people in all walks of life.  Apple is adept at telling the story of their product not through features, but through how life with their product is better than life without.

How skillful are you at telling your customer's (or your product's) story?