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Is Voting The Answer For Better Product And Project Decisions?

October 24th, 2011

voting pictureVoting Is Always Good, Right?

In today’s “social everything” environment, rating and voting have been added to all sorts of software, including classic project management systems and idea capture tools. Is voting the answer to higher quality decisions in product and project management?

On the surface, voting sounds completely reasonable. Who wouldn’t want to know which features or defects get the most votes, so that the work that is most important to the largest group of users gets done first? The fly in the ointment for voting-based decision making is in some hidden assumptions—assumptions that are not universally true. Below are a few of underlying assumptions, with some guiding questions that may help to decide if your next big decision should be decided by votes alone.

Are The People Who Vote Representative Of The Whole?

Will everyone vote? If not, are will the people who answer show a skewed sample of results. Perhaps we are seeing the opinions of early, highly active users. In internal organizational polls, perhaps one part of the organization is more energized to vote on the topics at hand. Maybe the topic self-selects for a particular personality type of responder, and one that is not typical of the people who did not respond.

It is tempting to say “Well, yes, it may not be truly representative, but some information is better than nothing!” This position is fine on the surface,  but what if you make a major strategic decision based on 15% of your population of users or employees, and it’s not the 15% that represent the true feelings of the bulk of the population? What if this part of the larger group has notably different views than the mainstream of the group (ok, it’s an obvious question now, but it had to be asked.)

Does Understanding The Question Matter?

Important questions are often nuanced. They involve many factors, and are not just a simple “Does this quick summary statement make sense to you?” question.

If most of the interested population does not understand the side effects and long-term impact of the choice in front of them, can they answer the question in a useful way? If they cannot do so, will you end up with misdirected answers?

How Does The Question Affect The Results?

Polling companies have learned through the years that the way you ask a question can have a dramatic impact on the way it will be answered. This is just as true of “which bugs do you want fixed most” and “which feature is most important to you” questions as it is of polling to predict government elections. Seemingly benign choices of wording and the order information is presented can cause the answers to reverse.

Is Popularity Related To Strategic Importance Or Tactical Importance?

One of the tricky parts of voting is that it asks people to rank the relative importance of things. This sounds like just what we want, but it also plays to whether the person voting is more likely to think that a tactical short-term win is more important than a long-term win. A danger point with this aspect of voting is that many people will short attention to longer-term strategy needs in favor of short-term “quick hits”.

If infrastructure and strategic work is consistently set aside for later (much of which is totally invisible to those outside of the product and project teams), the end result can be devastating. If not handled, this can create a situation where rather than making advances on both fronts, the visible tactical front is going well, but at a certain point it all grinds to a halt, the strategic work has to be done in one huge effort, and from a public perspective all progress stops while the internal debt is paid.

What If Only The Visionary “Gets” The Vision?

There are plenty of cases of products, and entire categories of products, that would never have appeared if the launch decisions were made entirely on voting. Would we have a multi-billion bottled water industry have appeared if the manufacturers had made their decisions based on asking “Do you want to pay for bottled water?” Would the iTunes store have been created if users were asked “Do you want to pay for downloading music that can only be played on our players?”

Can You Live With The Results Of The Vote?

This one comes from the “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer” pile. Creating a vote-driven environment suggests that decisions will be based on the results of the votes. It can cause a lot of angst to create this perception, and then to go against a clear vote, if expectations were not clear. Sometimes all this takes is saying up front “We are asking for you to rate these things. We want to hear what you think. At the same time, there are other factors that may not be clear to the outside world, and in some cases we may end up heading a different way than the vote would suggest. ”

Is Voting Any Good?

Votes are useful as part of quality decision-making. Decide in a vacuum, and you may miss key possibilities. Decide only by votes, and you may suppress a billion dollar idea. Ask for votes without managing expectations… and you may trigger a user rebellion. Voting results are useful, and sometimes surprising, as a part of the big picture. Good luck with your next big decision, and maybe with a combination approach you’ll find your next big win!

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