Determining User Needs

When you undertake a new Excel project, one of your first steps is to identify exactly what the end users require. Failure to thoroughly assess the end users' needs early on often results in additional work later when you have to adjust the application so that it does what it was supposed to do in the first place.

In some cases, you'll be intimately familiar with the end users - you might even be an end user yourself. In other cases (for example, a consultant developing a project for a new client), you may know little or nothing about the users or their situations.

How do you determine the needs of the user? If you've been asked to develop a spreadsheet application, it's a good idea to meet with the end users and ask very specific questions. Better yet, get everything in writing, create flow diagrams, pay attention to minor details, and do anything else to ensure that the product you deliver is the product that is needed.

Here are some guidelines that may help to make this phase easier:

■ Don't presume that you know what the user needs. Second-guessing at this stage almost always causes problems later on.

■ If possible, talk directly to the end users of the application, not just their supervisor or manager.

■ Learn what, if anything, is currently being done to meet the users' needs. You might be able to save some work by simply adapting an existing application. At the very least, looking at current solutions will familiarize you with the operation.

■ Identify the resources available at the user's site. For example, try to determine whether there are any hardware or software limitations that you must work around.

■ If possible, determine the specific hardware systems that will be used. If your application will be used on slower systems, you need to take that into account. See the later section "System speed."

■ Identify which version(s) of Excel is (are) in use. Although Microsoft does everything in its power to urge users to upgrade to the latest version of the software, the majority of Excel users have not upgraded to the most recent version.

■ Understand the skill levels of the end users. This information will help you design the application appropriately.

■ Determine how long the application will be used and whether any changes are anticipated during the lifetime of the project. Knowing this may influence the amount of effort that you put into the project and help you plan for changes.

One final note: Don't be surprised if the project specifications change before you complete the application. This is quite common, and you are in a better position if you expect changes rather than being surprised by them. Just make sure that your contract (if you have one) addresses the issue of changing specifications.

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