User centric engineering

Engineers tend to see things through technical lens. When they work alongside a Product Manager - or a Designer - their view is counter-balanced with a more user centric one. But what happens when this dynamic is amiss? It’s not uncommon for engineers to miss the forest for the trees.

This is manifested by a few things:

  • Building the wrong thing - either completely or partially. This happens when there’s a disconnect between what the user needs and where the engineer starts. A good way to mitigate these situations is to ask for an RFC. The RFC states what are the problems and why they need solving - usually the latter is driven by business needs. Alongside the “why”, both the functional and non-functional requirements should be written. The requirements can help guide the solution. But even if they don’t, they provide enough context to anyone not working in that feature. Writing is thinking. Putting things on the paper might make the author realise that their initial assumptions are wrong.
  • Becoming in love with tech. This can lead to a feature taking much longer than what was originally planned. It can also lead to the first point. You can see this happening when the engineer puts too much focus on tech (e.g. new language, new tool), than the actual thing they are trying to deliver. An RFC is again a good way to solve this problem, since it keeps the engineer honest about what they are trying to achieve. It’s also a good guide for whoever is reviewing their work. They can see the difference between the written words in the RFC, versus the written code in the PR.

The biggest issue when an engineer doesn’t have a product counterpart, is mostly about accountability. There’s no one to keep them on track and make the users the number one priority. Even product minded engineers can fall into this trap, so this is not exclusive to the “typical” engineer. There’s sometimes aversion to RFCs. But managers, and more senior engineers, should encourage these to be written. Finally an RFC doesn’t have to be long: a few well written paragraphs can be enough.