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Customers, users and other myths

Evey project we undertake has a sponsor.  This may be someone in Academic Registry, in the Finance Department, a College, or any other area of the university.  The sponsor is the person who requests the project and in some cases also provides the funds to make it happen.

Until recently, we called this person "the customer".  Which made sense in one way, as they were requesting and possibly paying for the project.  Calling them the customer encouraged us to focus on satisfying their requirements and steered us away from a purely IT-based view of the world.

Of course, these people were usually senior managers and usually did not actually use the systems we were building or buying.  The users, or sometimes "end users", were a different group entirely.  Although I've never met someone who called themselves an "end user".

The downside of these terms is that they aren't accurate and they obscure the requirements of the systems rather than illuminate them.  If the university has any customers, they are the students and/or the funding agencies, rather than managers spending their allocation of the university's funds.  Even here, the word "customer" or "user" is not helpful.  Students may be paying for their education but the relationship with the university is deeper and more complex than when I buy a book from Amazon.

So we're adopting other words to describe our business.  "Partners" is a word we favour for our colleagues in other parts of the university and this is both an aspiration of how we want to work together as well as an indication that the actual people our systems are for are different again.  And rather than call people "users", why not call them "students" or "staff" (or "applicants", "visitors" or "alumni")?


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