Breaking Bad News
March 29, 2012 4:58 PM   Subscribe

How can I not bum people out when I tell them their software idea will be more costly and/or may not work as well as they think it will?

I'm a software developer, and periodically, people that have not worked in the software industry will ask me what I think of a software project idea. Usually, they are very excited about and attached to this idea.

I try to start with what's good about it, but I usually see some combination of following:

1. It will take much longer to develop than they think.
2. Their idea as it is too vague for anyone to be able to work on it or even estimate at what it might cost.
3. It can't work as they described.

I try to point out these things as non-judgmentally as I can and to suggest an alternative way to solve the problem their product would address (usually using existing software). Inevitably, they are crestfallen and/or disbelieving. Sometimes, I get the impression they think I'm being negative for just for the sake of crushing their dreams.

When I'd do this in work situations, people rarely had a problem with it. How can I do this with "non-technical" people also, so that no one comes away from the talk with bad feelings?

I know some people will never take this kind of information well, but it seems to happen every single time I talk to someone about this. What do you do?

I may be doing some consulting down the line, so this would be handy to know for that situation as well.
posted by ignignokt to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason you need to tell them those things? Unless they're asking you to work on the project, can't you just say, "wow, it sounds like you're really excited about this idea. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out"?
posted by decathecting at 5:02 PM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with decathecting. If a non-technical person is going to get excited about a software idea, they still don't have the practical skills to make it work. So it can either go one of two ways: either they get lazy once they see the learning curve ahead of them (most likely), or they embark on the learning curve, realize their original idea was out of whack, but still come out the better for it having channeled their momentary "flash of inspiration" passion into a furious boost of self-improvement a la learning programming skills.

Either way, there's no loss. I find it's way more tactful and kinder to let someone learn where they've gone wrong instead of pointing it out yourself in these cases.
posted by Conspire at 5:08 PM on March 29, 2012

As recommended by the others, I say "Yeah! That's a great idea!" and then only if they persist with something like "No I mean how about you make that" do I try to explain how much time it would take.
posted by XMLicious at 5:13 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Interesting idea. If you want a feasibility and cost assessment of it, let me know. I can deliver a software bootcamp to you for $350."

People will be much more respectful of your opinion that their idea is shit when they've paid you for that opinion.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:13 PM on March 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

Oh! Oh! I am you, only with people who have never written a book or worked in the publishing industry!

I like DarlingBri's framing a lot. What I've been saying is this: "That sounds like an interesting idea; I'm not going to bore you with my forecasts about how long that might take and how much you might make from it, because every project is different." If pressed, I go on with "I think it's better for you to do your own feasibility research, because I've been doing this stuff so long that I am just ultra-cynical, and that probably isn't what you need right now."
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:18 PM on March 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, these people are usually friends and want to know what it would take to make their idea happen, were they to hire a developer. (I'd love to hear what people do when this has to be told to a potential client, though.) Sometimes, they have me in mind. Other times, they're thinking of just hiring whoever will do it and want to know how much it would cost. And then there's "you should take this and run with it."

In that last case, I think I should be applying decathecting's approach, and say, oh, that is a great idea! and then just let it go instead of explaining myself as I've been doing.

I think Sidhedevil's disclaimer could get me out of the first couple cases a lot of the time. And if these were strangers, I'd definitely charge up front.
posted by ignignokt at 5:45 PM on March 29, 2012

As an iPhone developer I got this all the time.

I start by telling them that it probably already exists and ask whether they've looked for it in the app store. They usually haven't.

If they want to know what it would cost to build it, I give them a ballpark estimate based on a monthly cost of $20,000 per full time programmer plus sundries for graphic design & etc. So a typical app might be $20K or $40K.

That's usually enough to satisfy them.

If it's technically impossible I tell them. Sometimes they believe me, sometimes they don't.
posted by alms at 6:05 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe find examples of similar things on sites like kickstarter, so they'll have a basis for comparison that's grounded in a real-world example (to the extent that kickstarter is such)?
posted by atbash at 8:37 PM on March 29, 2012

This might be relevant:
Why you don't need a programmer.
posted by smcameron at 10:54 PM on March 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

I dont know much about programming but I'm sure there is a step you take when undertaking a project which maps out exactly what you are going to do and the costs etc. Lets call that the 'planning stage' but you should use some technical industry word for it. So when your friend/client asks you about their idea you can say 'that sounds great but the big test is how it gets through the planning stage' then you can go ahead and explain what the planning stage entails rather than directly address their project. Most of these people probably dont understand how a programmer approaches the project.
posted by Busmick at 5:12 AM on March 30, 2012

Basically, present everything as positive exciting information. Rather than the downer - it'll never work, it'll take a ton of money, by the time you're finished someone else will have come out with it already, who do you think would market that? Assume they know all this, and just give some cheerful ballpark figures - "wow, a great idea!! I wonder if anybody's already got that in development? Maybe you should talk to an IP attorney? If you want me to put you in touch with some freelance programmers, I'd be happy to... I mean, it'd be faster to hire somebody full-time, but I figure you'd rather do $30k and 7 months than $50k and 3 months... and the longer timescale would give you a chance to learn something about how to market it, so you could maybe earn some of that investment back."
Cheerful and helpful is key - even if you know the news you're giving them is bad news, you're presenting it as good news: this isn't a terrible idea and the modern world has pathways for individuals to pursue ideas like this outside of a corporate structure, so it is honestly possible for you to get this done, and guess what, I can even give you somebody else's phone number before I wash my hands of it entirely!
posted by aimedwander at 8:21 AM on March 30, 2012

I can't believe so many people think you should just blindly encourage your friends, regardless of how good or feasible their idea is. I feel like that mentality contributes to the dangerous atmosphere in the Bay area where nobody will ever tell you that you have a bad idea, ever, no matter how bad your idea is.

Just remember that, by being candid, you're doing them a big favor and potentially saving them from wasting a lot of effort.

Or if you wanna put a more positive spin on it, maybe suggest a smaller, more feasible project to start with?
posted by Afroblanco at 10:08 AM on April 1, 2012

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