I most recently had a lengthy conversation with a young lady, that was visibly a very brilliant student about to earn her BSc in Computer Science. She had some amazing ideas for solutions that she thought would make life a lot easier for many Zambians. However after what seemed like an eternity of hearing her talk, I realized that, like many graduates and soon-to-be college and university graduates, in fact, even many seasoned IT professionals, there is a disconnect between the skills they possess and the actual reality of the problems they hope their expertise will solve. The result: half-baked ideas that fail long before they start. How do you see yourself designing an accounting package when your knowledge of the challenges accountants and businesses face is based on opinion and a semester course you took? How do you see yourself developing a patient management system without gaining a complete understanding of the challenges hospitals and clinics around the country are facing? How do you hope to remain relevant, when your knowledge of the market you’re trying to influence is based on research that’s a year old, or a whitepaper written in 2014?
Some will argue that there are millions of case studies out there that offer invaluable insight into the individual components that would drive any such system. And in all honesty, that is the dumbest defence I have ever heard for that very argument, because context is everything. Facebook for example, doesn’t just push generic advertisements to any user, it’s based on a user’s preferences, interests and history. When Adobe thinks about the next features to add to Illustrator or Photoshop, they don’t do that out of thin air. Likewise, RedHat, Microsoft, SuSE, etc, don’t add new functionality to any offerings on the isolated premise “we have brilliant developers that not only know how to identify problems, but can also build algorithms that solve those very problems”. Each of these firms has established a competitive edge because they have made a process out of listening to and directly working with the professionals that use their solutions. Think about it: why did NetScape, Hi5, MSN, yahoo chat, etc fail? Why are Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and a myriad of other businesses beginning to see glimmers of stagnation? It’s not about the lack of meaningful revenue streams, it’s not even that they failed to do their research. Rather, it is about this disconnect between what user’s actually want to get out a product/solution versus what a developer thinks the user’s want. Think of where an application like WhatsApp has come from. Back in 2009, it was literally just a messaging application with no ability to share images, video or any of the cool features available today, and if they had gone with “we’ve done our research, user’s simply want a messaging application”, they still wouldn’t have been relevant today. At that time, Skype was the messaging application of choice with BBM quite close behind. It’s not out of luck, that WhatsApp emerged winner, but out of an unrelenting team of developers that kept tapping into the user experience and improving based on what people like you and me were saying.
Therefore, my point comes down to this: If you want to succeed, to develop and design systems that will revolutionize the way we do everything in Zambia, don’t just think outside the box, don’t just recreate your perspective of the problem, engage the views of the people that will directly benefit from your solution and maintain that relationship. I am not asking you to become an accountant to design accounting systems, or a Nurse/Care giver to develop medical systems, rather I am stating the irrefutable fact that collaboration is an integral part of ANY solution that you as a designer/developer will be responsible for.
The lack of collaborations among the diverse faculties is part of the reason why, brilliant ideas wither away and our ability to innovate often ends in the question “where did I go wrong?”. Innovation cannot exist in isolation, nor can it evolve within the confines of a single faculty. A server administrator designing a directory structure without understanding the organizational layout of a business will often find themselves battling with cumbersome usability issues, or chasing loopholes. A misguided developer will often find themselves adding functionality into an application that users have moved past or defining complex tasks to achieve simple results. Brilliant ideas don’t always become brilliant products, however, brilliant and dynamic teams with a collaborative often choke out great products and offer amazing support. So try it! #ICTZM