Do we really need to build this?

A fishmonger puts a new sign up outside his shop. The sign says: 'Fresh fish sold here'. A customer comes up to the fishmonger and tells him his new sign is a waste of money. When the fishmonger asks him why, he responds: "Well, I know you have fish, because your shop window is full of them. And I assume you're selling them and not giving them away for free. And I would certainly hope your fish are fresh. And if not here then where?"

That redundant shop sign has stuck in my head for years, and as I look around the web I've noticed it's littered with 'Fresh fish sold here' websites, apps and services; those that seemed like a good idea but weren't really needed. 

Starting over

So why do we build stuff we don't really need? It's usually down to a combination of factors. Often, it feels easier to start over than deal with the root cause of a problem, and we can assume that new tech will automatically improve the situation. It's easy to fall in love with solutions and get too attached to them, and once momentum picks up, it can be difficult to stop the process.

There can also be external factors. Maybe it seems like everyone else is building cool new stuff and we don't want to be left behind, or we might be encouraged to build something new by people who can profit from it. Building something new is also a way to prove to our peers, bosses and clients that we can take big, bold steps, rather than 'fiddling at the edges'. 

Take a step back

However, building something new comes at a big cost. There's the financial cost of assembling everyone needed to put together the product. There's the time cost for in-house teams to deliver these build projects. Plus, new digital services need to be maintained after launch – so that's more ongoing time and money. And don't forget reputation cost for those responsible for commissioning these 'white elephant' build projects. 

That's a lot of cost for something that might never meet user needs or organisation goals, or address underlying problems. So the next time someone suggests a new website or digital service needs to be built, take a step back and ask these five questions.

01. Is there valid and sufficient user need? 

If you don't know the answer to this, then you're relying on luck to produce something people will use. It's critical to get out there and observe potential users to learn what they need and why. Start with some simple interviews that focus on user need and not on solutions, and be ready to challenge your own assumptions. Erika Hall's book Just Enough Research is an excellent starting point to run your own user needs research.

02. Are others already meeting these needs? 

You probably aren't the first people to try and meet the user needs you've identified. Others might have a head start or simply be better placed to meet that need. If so, you might actually better serve users by directing them to it. Alternatively, your money could be better spent supporting a trusted partner organisation – you could produce content for them, co-fund a microsite or pay to advertise their app. 

This may be a challenge to our empire-building egos, but it can be liberating to accept that others are better placed to meet user needs, and remind us to focus on where we make the biggest difference.

03. Are we the right people?

There was a fabled web page on the UK Government's now-defunct DirectGov website about keeping bees. It occasionally surfaces as an example of an organisation losing sight of its remit and the needs of its users. I'm not saying UK citizens don't have a need to know how to keep bees (it's increasingly popular), but surely that need is best met by a niche organisation like the British Beekeepers Association. 

It's an extreme example, but you see this creep of digital services and content all the time. And it's easy to see how it happens. 

I encourage my clients to assess whether they're best placed to address a need by considering if the need is unique to them; if the intended audience is a priority group and therefore meeting the need will help them meet organisational goals; if they are legally or politically obliged to meet this need; and finally, if there are others who might be better placed to do so. Simple yet probing questions like this keep us focused on what we do and don't need to deliver.

04. Can we improve things without building anything?

Digital build projects have a habit of starting life as little more than an idea that quickly becomes an inevitability. The skewed logic goes a little like this: 'Our content is really out of date [because nobody has time to update it], so the solution is to build a whole new CMS [which we still won't have time to update] to fix our content.'

We reach for digital build projects as the solution because they are actually easier than dealing with the underlying problems, for example: why we are failing to meet user needs and organisation goals?

However, there are a number of simple, low-budget tasks that can make a big and immediate difference to the user experience. Run some usability testing sessions on your current site or service and tackle the quick fixes that emerge. Archive poor, outdated and unpopular content to make it easier for users to find what's most valuable. Reorder and label navigation menus so they're more meaningful to users, and refresh existing content that's fallen out of date.

05. Can we use what we already have?

This might not be the most popular opinion, but maybe we need to make better use of the technology we've already got. I worked with a client who told me their current SaaS platform didn't have the functionality they needed, so it was time to build something that did. Yet a quick review of the SaaS guidance and the vendor's blog revealed the functionality they craved so badly had been added six months ago. My client had missed it.

I've made all of these recommendations to clients to encourage them to make better use of what they already have:

  • Review the technical guidance (to be sure of what you actually can and can't do)
  • Keep an eye on feature and performance updates (vendor blogs and Twitter feeds are great for this)
  • Run training sessions on how to make best use of your services and tools
  • Set up and share best practice templates
  • Look at how others are successfully using the same tech and tools – and go and talk to them about it
  • Build a relationship with the vendor and suggest the feature improvements you want

So the next time you're asked to build something, take that step back and be confident it's the right thing. After all, you don't want to build the web's next 'Fresh fish sold here' sign. 

Illustration: Joe Waldron

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 288; buy it here!