A Focus on Individual Users

April 4, 2012 · · Posted by Jordan Frank

With Dartmouth President Jim Kim's recent nomination to the World Bank, I pulled out my copy of Mountains beyond Mountains to find the Kim quote that I found most inspiring for my day to day work.

From page 294:

"And," he says, "another secret: a reluctance to do scut work is why a lot of my peers don't stick with this kind of work." In public health projects in difficult locales, theory often outruns practice. Individual patients get forgotten, and what seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large, like MDR. "If you focus on individual patients," Jim Kim says, "you can't get sloppy."

Sure, guiding customers on their social software use cases (one of many things I do in a day) seems somewhat insignificant compared to eradicating Tuberculosis in Haiti (one of Jim Kim's missions when founding Partner's in Health with Paul Farmer) though we do have the occasional case such as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative where software is being used to combat a plant disease which, unabated, would cause a great deal of starvation.

Nonetheless, there is useful wisdom in the focus on the individual patient which, in my case, is the software user, their business need and corresponding use case. A very current example is a customer we are working with this week in an effort to make TeamPage meet some very particular project management reporting needs. We've provided Q&A support over the course of a few months, but not until we took the a "journey to the sick" (a practice of Kim's PIH partner Paul Farmer, where he takes routine hikes to patients in hard to reach towns) did we understand the process fully enough to prescribe an approach and technical solution.

While most folks get up and running perfectly well TeamPage, there are various that could do things better. This was one of those cases where the customer did OK for months but wanted to improve their use case prior to an all out replacement of a custom built project management system.

Another case was an energy company that tracked issues with Wiki pages because that was the first thing they tried. It worked for years so they didn't even consider using Tasks for each issue - an immediate recommendation we made when we finally saw what they were up to.

All too often, RFPs and their corresponding software requirements roll up a set of user needs into a list of features that you check off to qualify. But underneath all those checks are some very specific processes and quirks that a feature list alone will never support.

You can't just solve a software problem in the abstract any better than you can solve a health problem without seeing the patient, their living conditions and even the political environment in which they live. It's crucial to take the long journey to visit (by foot or by web meeting, of course) the user to see the content, examine legacy systems and understand the skills and challenges facing people involved.

Jim Kim did great things for Dartmouth and I wish him luck in getting the position at the World Bank. For anyone that doubts his credentials, I suggest a read of the World Bank's strategic themes- most of which refer to basic clean water, nutrition and infectious disease issues which devastate the poor countries that the Bank is trying to assist. These are the issues Kim faced very directly at PIH.

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