Christmas eve

There once was a time that on Christmas eve that I’d be crawling round the pubs getting the worse for wear.  Older and a maybe a little wiser; I’ve just committed a major fraud – I’ve downed the sherry, nibbled at the carrot and filled my daughters stockings with presents – Santa exists.  Honest.

And now I can’t help myself.  I check my mail and scan the blogs I subscribe to and I read something that makes me nod my head in agreement – Robert Hoekman laying into user centred design.  He is so right – most projects don’t have the time for the luxury of doing user-centred design properly.  That is not to say that it can’t be done.  Thirty days to develop personas?  How about thirty minutes?  You can be agile and do user-centred design, at ThoughtWorks we do it all the time.  I’m looking forward to his follow up posts.

Was it just a simple database query?

So the sensitive personal details of 25m people has been lost and there is a huge political furore over it. Whose fault is it? As far as I can see, (and this is my personal opinion,) blame must lie with IT, specifically the IT contractor and either the contract they work with or the perception of that contract.

The National Audit Office asked HM Customs and Excise for child benefit in “desensitized form”. Sensitive details were specifically asked to be removed, ostensibly to make the file size smaller. This would require a bespoke query to be run. It was deemed too costly so it was assumed that a full extract of the data would do. The fact that this was then burned to a CD, posted unregistered mail and lost is not the point (that is stupidity). What is the point is the IT contract prohibits the business (in this case the governmental offices) to do their job properly.

What sort of contract demands extra payment for a simple database query for “NI numbers, child benefit numbers and children’s names in order to select a risk-based sample of cases to audit as part of anti-fraud work“?

Surely this is an extra request that an experienced database analyst could easily run in the course of a day? If not you must ask why not – is it because the database is badly designed with nested tables and stored procedures and stuff that would make a decent DBA go eugchhh (I’ve seen that happen). If this is the case, the IT contractor has done a bad job; if an electrician worked in your house and left a mess of an electrical installation, would you keep employing them, even if they were cheap?

Maybe however it would not have incurred a cost and this was just the perception; “we must not… run additional scans/filters that may incur a cost to the department”. If this was case it suggests a breakdown in the relationship between the business and IT, with tendency towards the confrontational and transactional rather than co-operation and partnership.

Organisations that outsource their IT often fail to realise what the true costs are. Anything outside the terms of the contract is a change request. It is not unusual for the request itself to incur a cost (someone has to write the documentation, specifiy the design, estimate the effort) before a line of code is written. (At one organisation I worked with that had outsourced their IT function, I was told that to add some basic client-side field validation to a single field on an application form on their website was likely to cost in the region of £60k). The business starts to believe that everything costs and IT becomes a hindrance and a vicious cycle commences.

How could things have worked differently? Let’s say the HMRC IT department was run on more lean/ agile lines. With agile it embraces change. The request comes in (let’s assume such requests are not regular occurances) and in the morning stand-up the BA describes the request and asks the developers for its feasibility in a word. Someone says “yes, I ran a simiar querry last month, it’ll take me ten minutes”. (In reality double or treble that estimate), but it will not have an imact on the developers ability to get thier prioritised work completed. Alternatively the developers say “given the database structure we have inherited that’s a lot of effort” or the project manager says “another request?! pritoritise it like the others!” and it is prioritised in the weekly iteration planning meeting (pushing something else out) and then it gets done.

My hope is that when the inevitable investigation takes place, they don’t just look at the policies and procedures, but also at the underlying structure of the way that IT is managed.

Consistency when things are poor

Call it a pattern, a heuristic or a rule of thumb. A fundamental one of those to ensuring usability is consistency. This may be external consistency – for something behaves in the software in a similar way elsewhere. A good example might be the ‘x’ button in the top right hand side of an open window. It is universally a call to action to close the window. If the designer created a button labelled “C”, and placed it on the left hand side this would result in confusion. It is not consistent with the users’ expectations from using other applications. The second type of consistency is internal – do things behave in a consistent manner throughout the application? This may be both in behaviours (e.g. buttons with the same titles perform the same action), and in look and feel – a website has a visual identity and coherence, assuring a continuity of experience.

There may be examples of where internal consistency is not possible. For example a brochureware site that uses a third party for fulfilment or payment. Paypal is a good example of this – the user is taken out of the shopping experience and into a paypal experience. This can be successful if there is clear signposting and use of the paypal imagery on the shopping site to assure the user.

So what happens when you have a large, legacy website that you acknowledge to be pretty poor in the usability front and want to introduce new functionality, or want to rebuild it. If you play the consistency card too strongly you may continue to be consistent with the old design and behaviours. This begs the question, is it better to introduce something that is internally inconsistent, but fundamentally better? This becomes even more an issue when you look to rebuilding your site in an incremental fashion.

As an information architect I can help you design your site architecture – the look and feel, navigation structure, user journeys etc., but this will probably be in its entirety. To build this new site will take time, and assumes a “big bang” whereby a completely new site will be (re)launched. Yet there are probably business imperatives to fix specific areas. If we build in an incremental fashion, and take the agile approach of focussing upon delivering business value, we are not going to have a fully redesigned site to go live with. We are probably going to have (for a short while at least), some parts of the site that are new and some that are old.

Going back to my original question, we can either build this to be consistent with the old site, or do something tangentially better. If we do the later it will probably be significantly inconsistent from other parts of the site, or the original parts of the site. It is in this scenario that I am inclined to throw away the consistency pattern. You may have internal inconsistency if you have a clear roadmap to throwing the old and the new functionality / design is proven to be usable, accessible and intuitive. With this the case, the interaction behaviour and visual identity of the new functionality must become the benchmark to which future functionality is consistent with. And you must clearly signpost to the user what is going on; customers will generally be forgiving if they understand that the changes are in their interests.

Unleashing innovation at speed

It sounds clichéd and old hat, but it is true. Truer now than ever before; the web is an enabler for new ideas. It provides you with the tools for disruptive innovation. Sadly for too many organisations it has become a hindrance.

A recurring theme with many organisations is the length of time it takes to take an idea to market. Especially in retail financial services, where you would expect lead times to be short it is not unusual for innovations to take a year to implement. This seems crazy, it’s not as if there is a physical product to manufactured.

So where are the hold ups? More often than not, they are rooted in the organisational structure. Innovative products often cross business boundaries; whilst customers only see the a single brand, different product teams only see what they are responsible for. They have own objectives that often conflict with other parts of the business; gaining agreement and consensus across all parties can often be a time consuming and painful experience that slows and often kills innovation.

Then there is the technology. Changes to systems have to be scheduled (along with every other request). Unproven ideas are put to the back of the queue. The business starts to perceive IT as a hindrance rather than an enabler and lines of conflict are drawn up.

Channel is the next hurdle to cross. Typically a face to face channel or telephony will be easiest, but getting something on the web? Now a new area of the business needs to be involved, the Internet Channel Team who interface between the business and IT. They’ve got to design web pages, get the creative done, produce requirements for technology to build (and schedule into deployment for which the dates are even further into the future), do usability testing… Long lead times are inevitable.

And then, before the innovation sees the light of day, someone new comes in to rationalise the product portfolio, the innovation doesn’t quite fit in with their new priorities and it is quietly ditched. This half hearted attempt at innovation has taken a year, cost in excess of a million and has come to nothing.

There has to be a better way.

There is. Do things at speed. You can start by sticking some amphetamines into ideation phase. Someone’s got an idea; identify who has a vested interest in it succeeding (or failing) and get them into a room to thrash it out. This doesn’t need to take long. Workshops are best limited to 90 minutes at a time (after that people get Blackberry withdrawal symptoms and loose interest). But if all the stakeholders are geographically dispersed, a structured day’s off-site might be the best solution. Avoid letting people dial in or video conference, this is one meeting where people have to be there in physical presence. Also avoid having too many people in the room, especially when forming ideas (there is a trade-off between having the right people and too many people to make the process unmanageable). Start with the users, the customers, the people whose lives will be changed by the idea. Scribble out personas -describe who they are, what their goals are, the perceptions of your company, of technology. Print out pictures of people that represent the personas, rip out photos from magazines, anything to bring them to life. As the idea takes shape, turn it into pictures. Draw out the customer experience. What would the persona do at each stage. Far better to do this than write it down in a document that can be open to interpretation. Illustrate the touch points. What does technology need to do. (Can we be pragmatic and use roller skate implementation rather than getting bogged down in an integration quagmire?)

Now is where it gets interesting. There once was a time when you would need to invest time and money into producing a heavyweight business model and business case for the innovation. You still need a business case, but at this stage it probably doesn’t need to be too robust; make some basic assumptions then test it. All too often business cases are built on flaky assumptions; build something quick, test it and get real data to build your models on. Again, this is about doing things at speed; a couple of weeks after the first workshop there is no reason why a small team of developers can’t be actually building something to bring the idea to life. So the team is using Ruby on Rails to build a proof of concept. There may be disquiet that this doesn’t fit into the current technology stack – doesn’t matter, it is a proof of concept. Six weeks later the proof of concept is done. It is not a static, prototype that demonstrates linear page flows, it is fully featured and fully functional. It can be usability tested (but more likely you were doing that on wire frames alongside the build). What then? In two months you’ve taken your idea and turned it into something tangible.

Why not put it into the market for real. Whilst IT might not want this Ruby “thing” on their stack, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible and can’t be done. Large organisations have a testing ground of consumers inside a secure environment – their staff. Use them to beta pilot the idea? Friendly customers are delighted to be part of product development – put it out to a small and selected group of customers, and have some smoke and mirrors processes to handle fulfilment. The objective is to prove the viability of the idea, get data to make informed decisions and make your collective mind up quickly. To fail fast or succeed cheaply.

Duplication and lack of clarity: That’s most corporations right?

A couple of weeks ago the share price of BP plummeted because the CEO “did a Ratner” and criticised the company. Essentially he was criticising his company for being inefficient. “There is massive duplication and lack of clarity of who does what”. Yet is this so uncommon? Spend some time in most FTSE 100 company and I’m sure you’ll soon discover duplication, inefficiency and waste. It seems to be the consequence of scale; a growing company gets organised around business units and these inevitably become inwardly focussed and support a silo mentality. These silos soon cease to have a single minded focus upon the stakeholder that matters most, the customer, and instead focus upon the good of themselves.

For example, the organisation may have a number of different products. These are organised into product lines with each product having its own targets. The product lines then start competing against each other; it is not in the product managers interest to consider anything outside increasing the profitability of her own product line. So if this means cannibalising the market share from other product lines so be it. Her bonus depends upon the success of her products.

Undoubtedly she needs IT support. Here comes more inefficiency. Whilst a similar technology may be used by another part of the business, it does not entirely meet her requirements. So a new product is built. Throw in outsourcing and inefficiencies are abound. It is not in the interests of the vendor to strive for simplicity. (Read PG’s excellent analysis of the problem with outsourcing IT).

Then you’ve got “channel” The Web Team, the Mobile Services team, Telephony, Retail Stores… Again, each has their own P&L and targets, each competing against each other. The talk may be of a seamless cross channel experience, but when the staff in the Stores are remunerated based upon sales they make, what is the incentive to direct the customer to the website to complete the transaction? Better loose the sale than do that.

Once a product has been sold it requires support – another bunch of stakeholders with their own (muffled) agenda. Customer acquisition is more costly than customer retention, yet the focus is usually upon the former, regardless of how wasteful this may be.

And what of the “Gold” team, looking after our “best” (read most profitable) customers. Another bunch of stakeholders with their own priorities, requirements and bottom line. All different parts of the organisation competing against each other. It’s not a team effort with a common goal (maximising customer and shareholder value), it’s a battle lining business unit against business unit with a common enemy of IT.

Is there an answer to organisational inefficiencies? There’s a solution to everything if you’ve got enough time and money. But for a start I’d love to know of a company that has scaled and has maintained a true focus upon the customer. That doesn’t internally compete for their customers share of wallet. That is transparent and shares knowledge effectively, where duplication is unknown. That uses IT strategically to support the business meet its common goals. An organisation that remunerates according to total value earned regardless of where it was fulfilled. An organisation that, regardless of the fluff in the annual report really does deliver value for the shareholder and customer, and waste is the common enemy.

Make something consumers love

Bubblegum generation presents a compelling model for Apple’s iPhone strategy:

1) Pick an industry which sucks (ie, imposes significant nuisance costs/menu costs/externalities on consumers)
2) Redress the imbalance by making something consumers love
3) …Which disrupts the long-standing industry equilibrium, and shifts market power
4) Use said market power to redesign (a hyperefficient) value chain

Don’t think that organisations in industries that suck don’t aspire to “do an iPod”. Go to any proposition development or product strategy workshop and it won’t be long before someone is mentioning Apple products. Yet all too often they fail to do anything truly revolutionary; they end up doing something different rather than “Redress(ing) the imbalance by making something consumers love”.

Do customers want something that is different or something that is just better?

Interestingly, little functionally in the iPhone is new. Like every other phone on the market it makes phone calls, sends messages, receives emails, takes photos and allows users to listen to music. Nothing different or new there… other than being better than every other phone on the market.

What Steve Jobs espouses is the experience of the phone. He says “So, we’re going to reinvent the phone. Now, we’re going to start with a revolutionary user interface… Now, what’s the killer app? The killer app is making calls! It’s amazing, it’s amazing how hard it is to make calls on most phones.”

He’s not looked to do anything radically different, rather do it radically better.

So how do you bring revolution to your product set? Rather than trying to be different, why not try to better. Make something that consumers love?

Take a leaf from the Apple book and focus upon the experience. Design and attention to detail are critical. Moving beyond purely functional and satisfying products to crafting experiences that engage the emotions. In agile product development it is often easy to focus upon delivering functionality that is perceived to deliver business benefit, yet end up with a mediocre product that has little resemblance to the original idea it was meant to become. Incremental delivery is a key feature of agile; it means you get stuff out there early and often. The challenge is to identify what that stuff is. To make something that consumers love using the agile approach, in addition to great developers and focussed project management, you need three people;

1. A passionate sponsor who has a dream and a vision and can articulate that to the team, banishing mediocrity from the outset
2. A business analyst who will help the team slice the functionality according to consumer needs and desires; that take the consumer of the journey they want to travel, not a predefined route that constrained to picking those features that eventually will deliver greatest value.
3. A customer experience architect, interaction designer or graphically minded usability dude who can champion the product aesthetic and usability.

Get them on your side and maybe you might be taking the first step on developing a better gizmo that your consumers will love, and sleep outside your retail outlet for hours to buy one.

It’s how you ask it…

Prioritising requirements

You’re running a workshop and the group have come up with a bunch of new propositions. You want them to vote on which ones to take forward to the next stage. Or maybe you’ve identified a bunch of functionality and features and you want the group to prioritise what they’d like to see built first. What question you ask the group next is critical to the answer you will get.

You need to frame the question appropriately and make it clear to the group the criteria by which they are making their vote…

Do they need to be thinking about “do-ability”, the ease to implement, or do they need to be focussed upon the innovation and the idea itself. Should they be considering the cost to implement, time to market, return on investment, or should they be thinking about the art of the possible; the “blue sky”; the destination, regardless of the journey to get there.

Which line of thinking they should use will depend upon where you are in the process. Get them thinking about practicalities of implementation too early and you are likely to dilute the vision. Too late in the process and you will have candidate propositions or features that by their complexity or uncertainty will never the light of day.

So two tips. Before you ask the group to vote, or to prioritise, clarify the objectives and the critiera by which they are to decide. Maybe ask them to assume a ‘persona’ and vote in the way they’d expect the persona to vote, for example a customer will have different priorities to a developer.  Whose vote is it anyway?
And after they have made their vote make sure you manage the group’s expectations. Don’t let them leave the room thinking what they’ve decided upon is final and binding. It rarely is.

Code I understand

ThoughtWorker’s blogs are aggregated on Thoughtblogs. At a high level, they can be divided into two categories:

1. The written word, sometimes with photos and illustrations included
2. The (techie) written word, with a few intelligible sentences followed by blocks and blocks of code.

I enjoy the former, but I’ll confess the latter is usually gibberish to me. So what joy it is to read a blog that describes code, that is eminently understandable. Behaviour Driven Design that Dan talks about not only makes sense, it is also understandable to someone like me who is not a code polyglot. My last blog was critical about the Business finding themselves talking the same language as IT… how refreshing it is to see code talking the language of the Business.

Blue sky apple pie

I’m in Hong Kong in a workshop and we are asking the group to think beyond what they do today. To come up with a “blue sky” vision of what they want from an application.

“Urrrr, excuse me” says one of the team, “what is a blue sky?”

Earlier on, one of the team had talked about “motherhood and apple pie”. Urrrrr. What is that?

Another workshop, “We are interested in how you do things, soup to nuts”. Uurrrr, nuts? Who ends their meal with nuts. If that is what you are trying to say…

On agile projects we talk to customers and soon start talking about “stories”. Urrrr, aren’t stories something I read my daughter at bedtime
We assume that people will understand what “stories” are. They nod their heads in agreement, but do they really understand what we are talking about.?They’re requirements right? If calling them requirements makes communicating with your customers easier, then isn’t it better to use the words they are comfortable with?

When you do a retrospective (urrrr, what’s that? you mean review of how we got on?) how about spending a couple of minutes reviewing the language you have talked to your customers in. Have you spoken their language, or talked at them in your own? Have you communicated in plain English or have you been wallowing in bullshit bingo land.

Oh, and if I’m on a language theme, when you go into Starbucks it is “can I please have a cup of coffee”, not “Can I get a coffee”… 🙂

Let the UI drive the requirements

Conventional approaches to building software applications start with a Big Idea. Someone needs (to define an application) “a program that gives a computer instructions that provide the user with tools to accomplish a task“.

Someone picks up the big idea and breaks it down into a smaller list of “requirements”, things that the application must do to fulfil the Big Idea. In conventional waterfall development Business Analysts will spend a while documenting the list of requirements in some detail – in agile approaches they will do it as they go in a far more “lightweight” manner. Maybe a technical architect will draw up a blueprint design of the solution. Regardless, soon the developers will start writing code. With either agile or waterfall the user interface usually only starts to emerge at this stage. Until then, everything is coded in words (and maybe some boxes and arrows showing flow).  Only late in the process does the UI emerge.

Returning to that definition of an application, IT development seems to spend most of its time in the “a program that gives a computer instructions” world, and often looses sight of “provid[ing] the user with tools to accomplish a task”.

How about a different focus. Start with the user interface. Take the Big Idea and illustrate it. Draw pictures of what the tools will look like, how the user will interact with them. Sketch storyboards, wireframes, lo-fi prototypes, paper mock-ups, call them what you will. Use this as the primary requirements document, supported by explanatory text and detail where we required. These may be stories or use cases, but let the visual representation of the big idea drive the requirements rather than it being almost an afterthought.  Start with the UI and specify the functionality from that rather than the other way round.  After all, it will be the UI that the user uses to accomplish their task, not the computer instructions.

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