Using “Last Thursdays” to Discuss Exceptions with Users

Most people call them “exceptions.” We call them “Last Thursdays.” I’ve mentioned this term in a couple of my previous blog posts, and I think it’s important to touch on it one more time, to better explain what it means, and to discuss how changing the name has helped us communicate more effectively with our clients.

A Brief History of Last Thursdays

So how did this term come to be? It honestly started as an inside joke with a client. We were rewriting the platform they use to run their entire business. During our design reviews, we would inevitably get a question from one of the core users asking how they would perform a slightly different activity in the new system.

Them: “How would I [task] when I have to [exception to the workflow]?”

Us: “Is that typically how you do it?”

Them: “No, but I had do it like that last Thursday.”

What we found, however, is there were a lot of instances when they had to perform their job slightly differently the week before. They are in a very seasonal industry, and depending on the time of the year, the way they did things could be quite different from time to time.

Research Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Job shadowing, user interviews, and context scenarios are core activities we use in the design process. They are the crux to understanding what we are building and why we are building it.

But we’ve found that they don’t tell the whole story. Why?

When a user talks about their job, they typically tell us the “normal” stuff, and job shadowing may not reveal every possible complication. Sometimes, unfortunately, we are too naive in our understanding of the industry to dig deeper into workflows, and that means we aren’t getting the full picture.

“Exceptions” Sounds like a Bad Word

We found that even asking about “exceptions” outright didn’t work that well. Users didn’t want to talk about the alternative way they sometimes had to do their jobs, perhaps because that can feel like it’s the “wrong” way (even when there is no other choice). When the software doesn’t explicitly do something, they may think that having to “hack” it to cooperate looks like they don’t know what they’re doing.

As we continued to design and build more of the software for this specific client, we found we were getting a lot more out of our conversations when we would jokingly ask, “But how did you do this last Thursday?” While it wasn’t always last Thursday, they would better be able to recall exceptions to their workflow that we needed to know. We were starting to get a more complete picture.

Other Clients Have their Own “Last Thursdays”

Obviously, we wanted to avoid missing out on the full picture with other clients. So, during a project kick-off workshop with another client, we told the story of the “Last Thursdays.”

It worked!

The new client didn’t think about exceptions as something bad. Instead, they started thinking about all of the alternative ways similar tasks need to be performed.

Clients all have outside influences that determine how their business is run, along with their own customers’ different demands and needs. Talking about the differences as “Last Thursdays” rather than exceptions helps to relieve any negative connotations.

The Name Change

Now, almost exclusively, we talk about exceptions as “Last Thursdays” with our clients. I think clients find a bit of comfort in knowing there are other companies that are not perfect, and that don’t, or can’t, follow the same process 100% of the time.

We are here to help our clients build custom software. That means we are building to solve their specific workflows. Understanding all of their “Last Thursdays” as early as possible better equips us to build the best software.