Prioritising stakeholder emotions

I was recently involved in a prioritisation exercise. The application included a UI that presented large numbers to users in financial institutions. The business owner (sadly there was never any question of acutally talking to end users) had complained about how easy it is to make mistakes when adding loads of noughts to a sum – and pondered that it would be great if when the user tabs away from the field that long number is entered, that comma seperators should appear:
i.e. he types 1435245001.00 and on tabbing away the number appears as 1,435,245,001.00.

Cool! It’s captured as a requirement and we move on.

When we go through our prioritisation, it is considered to be a “nice to have”. With a bulging requirements list and estimates squeezing the list, this requirement is initially an early one to go. After all, what business value does it add? But this is where the planning process must be iterative.

The effort to implement this requirement is nominal. Whilst the “business value” is considered nominal, the value to the stakeholder who requested it is emotionally signficant.

When we showcase the story that demonstrates the ability to work complex financial algorithms based upon the number the user enters, the stakeholder will nod his head and say “great”. It does what he expects. But how good will he feel when he sees the commas appearing? Little cost to implement, zero identifiable business benefit, but significant stakeholder emotional benefit.

As a project, when the key stakeholder leaves the showcase, how would we prefer him to feel?  “yep, that’s what I want?” or “Gee those guys are good”?!

Orange website search

Take a look at the Orange website. Who are you? What is your motivation for visiting it?

I’m an Orange customer and I’m looking for information on thier phone insurance. I’m a Googler, I don’t browse, I search. I enter my query in the search box…

google search box

And I get these results:

orange search results


Compare UK Life Insurance prices??

Why would I want to search the web via the Orange website?

I thought we’d moved beyond the Portal concept. Customers generally “jam jar” their experiences. If they want news, they will go to a news provider – If they want search they go to Google..

Clearly their strategy is to move Orange beyond being a provider of phones and tariffs, to become an integral part of their customers life. Regardless of channel you get the same consistent and compelling experience. And if that experience is sufficiently sticky, they’ll drive revenue off the back of it. That’s the motivation. Yet sadly they have forgetten about the simple things. They’ve forgotten about the most of us who want simplicity from our phone provider.

The Orange search box is a good example of a brand that has great aspirations that look great on Customer Strategy PowerPoints (“We’ll be our customers information gate, regardless of channel”) but overstretches itself by forgetting what customers actually want (“how much will phone insurance cost me”).

What do you mean by “the customer”?

As agile practitioners we wax lyrical about “the customer”. But who do we actually mean?

More often than not it is the “business”. A vendor relationship is implied, with IT supplying goods and services to the customer, who is the business. But the business is not really the customer. They are more an intermediary. An intermediary who in turn provides the product or service to the people who will consume them; the real customers. Yet if these real customers or consumers are considered at all, they are relegated to the title of “users”.

Calling the business “the customer” is an artificial construct based upon an arms length relationship between business and IT. Once this boundary is removed the real customer emerges. Moving beyond the vendor relationship between IT and business towards a partnership ensures a common customer. And ultimately it is this customer that fuels an organisation.

(In the CIM marketing glossary, there is no entry for “user”. There are two for “consumer” and six for “customer”. Not all projects will involve retail customers – think of call centre dudes. But I think the point is consistent…).

Organisational convergence

Success is rarely delivered by one part of the organisation; it requires the collaboration of different departments working together. Yet there is all too often a separation of responsibilities that can hinder the efficient development of ideas. Worse, there is no single owner of the business case resulting in business value being lost.

A crude model illustrates this. The “business” holds the business case. They are focussed upon the benefits case. IT are treated a factory to build the mechanisms that will support proposition and are thus focussed upon the costs. The customers (who ultimately use the proposition) are held at arms length and not involved in the development of the proposition.

business, IT and customers seperated

There can often be a tension between the business benefits case and the IT cost to deliver. The cynical view of the waterfall approach is that Business want it all, IT promise it all and their relationship deteriorates as the project nears its scheduled completion; IT cannot deliver on time or budget, the business has to make unplanned compromises and ultimately the customer suffers. The Agile approach goes some way to mitigating the risk of relationship breakdown. Painful messages about what can or cannot be delivered are communicated early on, enabling informed decisions to be made. However if the organisation is structured with clearly defined boundaries it is far harder to make truly informed decisions. As soon as scope changes, the business case will change. What often happens is that IT adjusts the numbers on the cost side, but the benefits case remains unchanged. If the business has spent many months working on the benefits case it is difficult to make changes on the back of an afternoon’s reprioritisation exercise. There is a solution to this. Taking an inclusive approach to proposition development and delivery; having all parties involved from the outset.

Here’s another crude model. Rather than being separated, the different stakeholders converge. There is a cross-pollination of ideas and understanding. The business case is shared, iteratively and incrementally developed. Customers are engaged in the process; providing market insight and testing the user experience. There is nothing new in this model, although I rarely see it working from the project outset. Often two of the three circles converge; the challenge is to get all three overlapping. I’m pleased to say at ThoughtWorks, increasingly when we initiate projects we are doing this.

Convergence of IT, customers and business

Do all stakeholders agree with “value”?

Often we focus upon business value. More often than not this means “the business” saying what is most important to them. There are often requirements that are mandatory parts to the project, but do not drive any business value in themselves. For example compliance and operational support. It is thus essential to invite all stakeholders to prioritisation workshops and be clear with the language used when commencing the prioritisation. Rather than just asking participants to ascribe “Must have”, “should have”, “Could have”, “would like to have / won’t have” (“MoSCoW) priorities to requirements without context, ask them to group their requirements into clearly defined chunks of functionality that can could be delivered as a self-contained releases that would deliver “business value”. In this way you are more likely to have “must haves” that make sense to all parties involved.

I declare! Rich internet applications

One of the problems of many internet applications is that they are constrained by the “command and control” approach of imperative programming. This results in a sequential, step driven behaviour that allows little freedom for the user to work efficiently. Contrast this with the declarative approach to programming which is very much user-behaviour driven.

Think of your on-line banking application. You want to pay a bill. Your natural behaviour may be “I want to make a payment from account to beneficary on or around date for the value of amount.” Yet typically this will be handled imperatively; a payment wizard forcing you down the route of account-beneficary-date-amount, with each step being a new page. I do not have the flexibility with such an approach to change my mind or to do things in a different order: “I want to make a payment for the value of amount on or around date from account to beneficary“.

Think of a spreadsheet; you would enter all the fields on the same sheet. Make changes to one field and other fields can be simultaneously updated. This would be impossible to achieve if your web application is linear and step driven.

The declarative approach to programming allows such flexibility being data or behaviour driven rather than process driven. With the constraints of implementation process removed we can build user interfaces that better address user goals and intentions. Rich Internet Applications (RIA) are an excellent example of the declarative approach. Ajax enables RIA to a degree, but Macromedia Flex and the opensource cousin Laszlo take it one step further. Take a look at this demo – a truly awesome (IMHO) flight checker application (click on the Search Now button to see the functionality).

The main issue with RIAs that are built in Laszlo or Flex (or indeed extensive Ajax) is those of compatibility and accesibility. By forcing users to have Flash downloaded are you likely to exclude users who don’t want, or can’t have Flash? And accesibility – I’m not sure to what extent this is addressed by them. However if resonable alternatives are provided (i.e. a “text only” version with little rich client side functionality) this ceases to be a problem.

Collaborative drawing

I am a true beleiver of the power of drawing. I get itchy feet in meetings when people are just talking about concepts. I get an urge to jump up to the whiteboard and try and illustrate what we are talking about. When we are distributed this can be a little harder. There is no whiteboard on a conference call… This doesn’t have to be the case. Here is an awesome collaborative drawing tool that has great potential to develop and share ideas in illustration. Next step is to get a pen to replace drawing by mouse and make my sketches actually look like what my hand is drawing.

Consistency or usability feature?

The National Lottery have added a new Results Checker to their website. They use JavaScript to support the user enter their numbers into the boxes: you type a number and the focus of the mouse jumpts to the next box. First impressions are that this is a useful feature. However, it is conflict with the user behaviour of manually tabbing between fields. Given the audience profile I would make a call that this is acceptable; what percentage of the general population are familiar with the concept of using the tab key to move between field? My hunch would be a small number.

The feature fails in one small but crucial respect. It lacks internal consistency. They have an “orignal results checker” that does not use the JavaScript onFocus script. This leads to a conflicting mental model of the site. Some boxes automatically tab, other’s manually tab. Is this a lesson for interface designers to learn, when updating some parts of a site, don’t forget to refactor other parts of the GUI?

Accesible Ajax

Lovely bloke, but no idea what he is blogging about most of the time. But Duncan Cragg’s latest blog about declarative Ajax makes a little bit of sense to a non-techy like me. It is contains some great nuggets to play back to those people in the business that want to keep the website stuck in circa 1999. “We don’t want JavaScript. Not interested in this Ajax stuff. It ain’t DDA compliant”. That’s OK. Start by designing without the JavaScript and add the cool stuff later. I’ve seen this done on several ThoughtWorks projects, building DDA compliant websites yet have some truly awesome interactive capabilities using Ajax. …And seen the heads of the web-luddites nodding in approval as we show the site provides a compelling experience for non-JS users, and an even more compelling experience for JS users.

Google analytics

Last year I worked with a client who had an antiquated web analytics package. They had no idea what was going on on their site until they spent £££££s on an updated package.

…I’ve recently downloaded google analytics that seems to do pretty much everything that the commercial package did. I can track user journeys through my site, and see conversion rates (if I had anything to convert…) Setting it up was simplicity itself (as you’d expect from google). Some of the stats it provides are useful for tweaking the usability of the site – I can see bounce rates for each page. Other stats are just plain interesting. Hello to the 3 people in Singapore who visited dancingmango yesterday. And hello to you in Streatham. Shame you left after 5 seconds, you don’t know what you missed!

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