The Strategic Use of Use-Cases

Often, use-cases are reserved for the requirements gathering phase of a marketing technology project.  The strategy has already been developed; the platform selected, bought, and paid for; the design and branding wheels in motion; and then a technical project manager starts talking about what happens when a visitor arrives on the web portal and clicks the next button.  It’s discrete, as if the visitor just appeared there magically — it’s self-contained, as if the interaction didn’t take place in the context of a broader marketing campaign — and it might just be too late in the process to avoid costly rework and/or a less than elegant implementation of the vision.

You might even have complex diagrams and detailed text outlining some special content for returning visitors posted on the site…

In my experience, the importance of use-cases and the supporting involvement of a technical specialist is under-represented in the strategy and planning phases of a project because other concepts are more dominant.  Strategy and planning is largely the providence of marketing personas, research and survey results, focus groups, engagement maps, customer journeys, and, if a technology platform is involved, a long list of features required.  Ironically, while these materials can be quite a bit more detailed and polished than a simple use-case, that’s one of the reasons things can fall through the cracks.

I’m the first person to admit that questions like this might not be as exciting as white-boarding a blue-sky customer journey, but they can be equally important…

For example, one of your target personas might be a returning customer, and your engagement map probably notes they are going to receive a personalized email prompting them to visit the campaign portal.  There could be complex diagrams detailing the chain of interactions, and detailed text outlining some special content for returning visitors posted on the site, but what you probably won’t have is something that leads to a plain language description of how the different systems you are using — CRM, CMS, MA or even BI — are supporting a coherent journey and the associated result metrics.  That description starts with a use-case, especially in the capable hands of a technical project manager, that reads something as simple as this:

  • An existing customer received a personalized email and is driven to a portal with custom messaging

A marketing strategist might find that redundant to a (poor draft) of a marketing persona plus an engagement map, but a technical project manager will immediately begin asking questions such as the following:

  • What is the source of the customer record? The organization’s CRM or a separate list?
  • What content in the email is personalized?  Is the content personalized based on the individual customer’s record or simply the fact that they are a customer?
  • What content on the web portal is personalized, and is it specific to the customer themselves?  What is the source of that customization, the CRM or something stored in an eCommerce Application?
  • Is there a persistent user account?  Should we try to recognize returning customers if they arrive on the site directly outside of the email?  If so, how so?
  • If the user is prompted to take an action, who receives the transaction and acts on it?

I’m the first person to admit that questions like this might not be as exciting as white-boarding a blue-sky customer journey, but they can be equally important to determining whether or not the strategy envisioned can be accomplished with your existing technology and staff.  They can also help ensure an elegant end-user experience, and that actions taken by customers will be acted upon and real ROI will be generated.  Generally speaking, the strategic use of use-cases can help you get ahead of the curve in the following ways:

  1. Exploring a broader range of ideas.  Journeys, engagement maps, etc. are usually complicated, detailed documents, often passed through the hands of a strategist, content creator, and designer.  Use-cases are simple text, easy to create, and can help expand the scope of the strategic ground covered by the ideation sessions.
  2. Ensuring that the “how” of a project is discussed along with the “what” and the “why.”  The goal here is not to limit your ideation process or reduce the scope of your marketing technology dreams, but rather to enforce a holistic approach that includes all relevant aspects of an implementation, and increase awareness of any ideas that might require changes to your infrastructure.
  3. Engage and expand a broader team from the beginning.  The complexity of modern marketing technology projects requires a wider, more diverse mix of skills than ever before, and while we don’t want to burn through hours unnecessarily, we do want to ensure ownership is shared by all members involved, and time spent in the planning phases usually results in less time during implementation.
  4. Focus on action instead of reaction.  This item is primarily in reference to the ubiquitous user requirement lists that generally govern platform selection.  These requirements tend to be developed in a very passive voice that fails to capture both the action being performed and its relative importance.  Use-cases can help change that dynamic by focusing on the output and potentially highlighting unmet needs.
  5. Identify testing needs sooner rather than later.  Use-cases are a great start towards user acceptance testing, and understanding the behaviors expected early in the process will help your technical team members develop thorough quality assurance cases and improve the overall delivery.

Ultimately, use-cases are a very engaging way to brainstorm and develop complex ideas.  Simply put, their simplicity tends to be their strength:  They are easy to create, evolve, update, re-imagine and reinvent.  They don’t require fancy presentation or large teams to support, they are easy for both technical and non-technical users to understand, and while they focus on “what” happens, they help illuminate the “how” in an integrated fashion that produces real results.

If you give them a try early and often, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the results.  They can also help with a technical RFP process, a topic we will revisit in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, happy use-case creating.

 

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HBO’s Westworld and Your QA

Fans of HBO’s newest hit series Westworld might love it for the suspense and intrigue, but technology and marketing geeks can also appreciate the emphasis on quality assurance at the sci-fi theme park.  In the world imagined by co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, QA is a department that shares equal power with the development teams in Behavior.

Elevate the role of quality assurance staff…

It’s an interesting take on the oft-repeated notion that quality can’t be inspected into the end of a project, sometimes known as the “shift left philosophy.”  Real-life companies can take a lesson from the show by considering organizational structures that elevate the role of quality assurance staff and view them as equal partners with developers and other implementation teams.

This partnership approach will help in two critical ways.  First, it will highlight quality needs from the first to the last stages of every project.  This simple structural change should not be underestimated — simply ensuring that there is adequate time in a project plan for proper testing will be a big help for some organizations struggling with quality.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, projects will benefit from a broader diversity of skills.

QA professionals can offer a different perspective than project managers, developers, designers, etc.  This helps improve the overall results by broadening the resources available and integrating fresh ideas early in the project lifecycle.  It will also help ensure that the specifications and other early-stage assets are fully in line with the user requirements and the overall goals of the project.

Following the proper testing scripts might not prevent a robo-apocalypse…

Of course, Westworld also indicates a few potential pitfalls for either not listening to your QA team or bypassing testing protocols entirely.  In the early episodes. the initial impetus for the story was the premature deployment of the enhancement that allowed the hosts to experience “reveries.”  Anthony Hopkin’s Dr. Ford character inserted a few lines of code immediately prior to release and the full regression testing wasn’t performed.  While most of us are managing websites, apps, or marketing campaigns instead of  potentially murderous robots, the lesson should still resonate:  Nothing should be deployed without following all applicable testing protocols, and even small, seemingly innocuous changes to code can have negative repercussions.

While following the proper testing scripts might not prevent a robo-apocalypse, it can certainly improve the experience of your customers.

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Logistical Genius in Stuttgart

I make no apologies for being a Porsche fanboy of the highest order, so much so that I even like the tail end on the first generation Panamera.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I was blown away by my pilgrimage to the Porsche factory in Stuttgart, but even I wasn’t prepared for the ridiculous level of logistics on display, and how the experience got me thinking about marketing technology.

The computer system plays the role of orchestra conductor, if a musical conductor were playing multiple symphonies around the world at once.

I’d seen “How It’s Made: Dream Cars” and had some idea of the precision and overall extent of the operation employed, but actually absorbing it all at once is a wholly different experience.  For starter’s, Porsche employs a variable assembly line where different cars for different markets are all built back-to-back-to-back.  In Stuttgart, that means all of the almost countless varieties of 911, plus 718 Cayman and Boxster, lined up in no particular order.

However, it’s not fair to say they are lined up — in addition to the main assembly line, there are various branches to pre-build all of the parts.  As the cars are lined up in no particular order, so must the completed dashboards, seat assemblies, powertrains, etc. all be lined up as well so that as the main body passes on the line the right part appears at the right time.

Which brings us to the true heroes of the factory system — the computers and software that manage the supply chain.  I’ve done some supply chain work with SAP and UPS, but that was pretty basic pick and ship stuff.  In the factory case, they’re taking thousands of parts from thousands of suppliers, pre-assembling them into something resembling say a dashboard, and then bringing them all together at a specific place and time on the assembly line.

The computer system plays the role of orchestra conductor, if a musical conductor were playing multiple symphonies around the world at once.  What can that teach us about marketing technology?

First, I think this illustrates that marketers shouldn’t be afraid of distributed systems.  If Porsche can bring a car together by each nut and bolt, we can bring a website together content block by content block.  Control is important, but let the software’s publishing tools and approval chains handle that; allow your contributors to contribute, more is better and can be culled.

Second, the branches are important.  Many of the customers I have worked with tend to see a website or other piece of marketing technology as a single unit, either published or not, but perhaps behind the scenes we should begin to think of the system as composed of different parts; the customer database independent of the online application, the email campaign plugging into the store.  Perhaps, if we separate these concerns, we an allow each branch to grow individually, better, faster, and with a more positive customer experience.

Third, I know what we do as marketers seems complex, and to us it certainly is, but the problems we face are of a different order than those in manufacturing.  I say this not to belittle our market or our talents, but instead to free us to experiment further and take advantage of the technology available.

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