A short story about priorities

When you mix your own priorities with the ones of your customers, embarrassing things might happen.

Before I can tell you the story, I have to add this disclaimer: The story is true, but it wasn’t us. To protect the identities, I’ve changed nearly all the details, hopefully without watering down the essence of the story.

The assignment

A few years ago, when developing software for mobile devices wasn’t as ordinary as it is today, a freelance developer got a call from a loyal customer. He should develop a little web application that could also be used on a smartphone. The functionality of the application was minimal: Show a neat image containing two buttons to download a song teaser in two different file formats, probably MP3 and WMA. That’s all. The whole thing was a marketing app that should be used a few weeks or months and then be mothballed. Being a marketing app, the payment was very decent.

The development

The freelancer was excited to say the least. This was his chance to enter the emerging field of mobile device software development. And because it should be a web application, he would try out all these new fancy mobile web frameworks and settle for the best. The image of the website should rotate and adjust to the device screen if the user tilted his phone. And because phone screens weren’t that well equipped with pixels as today and mobile internet was expensive, the image should be optimized for the best possible tradeoff between details and file size.

Some mobile web frameworks provided access to the device type, so there were all kinds of javascript magic tricks to be potentially applied. Well, they weren’t applied, but very well could have been. The freelancer prototyped most of them, out of curiosity.

The web application itself was completed in one session once the song files and the master image were provided by the customer. The freelancer installed everything on a staging web server and communicated back success. The customer was pleased by the quick reaction time and appointed a meeting to inspect the results.

The presentation

The customer gave the freelancer a notebook attached to a beamer to present the application. The notebook had a screen resolution many times the envisioned target platform, so the intro image was very pixellated and far from appealing. The freelancer used his smartphone to present the image on a smaller screen, but the customer only shook his head: “You should develop a web application for both phones and PCs. Most of our customers will use their PC to visit the site.” The freelancer apologized and promised to add another browser switch to present a full resolution image to PC users.

Now, the freelancer continued to present the web application on his phone. He invited the customer to tilt the device and was satisfied when the web site adjusted perfectly. The customer was pleased, too. Then, he tapped on one of the buttons. Nothing happened. The whole application consisted only of two buttons and one wasn’t working. The freelancer frantically tried to figure out what had gone wrong, when the customer tapped on the other button. No reaction from that one, too. “But I’ve uploaded both song files to the right location with the right access rights.”, the freelancer just said to himself when it dawned him: He forgot to insert the link tags in the HTML file. The buttons were just images. He never actually clicked on one of the buttons during development.

The moral of the story

Recapitulating, the freelancer was asked to develop a web application with an image and two download buttons, but he managed to cripple the image for the larger part of the anticipated users and never provide any download functionality at all. The customer’s requirements somehow got lost along the way.

This isn’t so much a story about a confused freelancer or improper requirement analysis. It’s a story about priorities. The customer expressed his priorities through the requirements. The freelancer superimposed his own priorities very early in the process (without telling anybody) and never returned to the original set until the presentation. And while it is granted to have a secondary agenda as a service provider, it should never interfere with the primary agenda – the one set by the customer.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that this could never happen to you. It’s not always as obvious as in this story. Some, if not most of your customer’s priorities are unintentionally (or even intentionally) kept secret. They can only be traced during live exercises, which is why early prototyping and using the prototype in real scenarios is a good way to reveal them.

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