Read my latest article: 8 things I look for in a Ruby on Rails app (posted Thu, 06 Jul 2017 17:59:00 GMT)

Information Anxiety and Solutions

Posted by Tue, 22 Aug 2006 18:15:00 GMT

1 comment Latest by brasten Tue, 22 Aug 2006 20:10:16 GMT

Last week, Allison brought me in a copy of a book that she owns by Richard Saul Wurman. In 1976, Wurman coined the phrase, information architect. (read more)

In his book, Information Anxiety 2, Wurman discusses how we’re overwhelmed by too much information… amongst other related topics.

Allison bookmarked a page for me that discusses the problem with developing solutions without a good understanding of the problem.

“Before any solutions to any undertaking can be developed, a movement must begin to discover its beginning. Understanding the vein of the problem is the course to solving it. The best way to accomplish any endeavor is to determine its essential purpose, its most basic mission. What is the endeavor supposed to accomplish? What is the reason for embarking upon it? This is where the solution lies.”

- Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety 2

Wurman then goes on to suggest, “There are two parts to solving any problem: What you want to accomplish, and how you want to do it. Even the most creative people attach issues by leaping over what they want to do and going on to how they will do it. There are many how’s but only one what.”

There are many how’s but only one what

“You must always ask the question, “What is?” before you ask the question “How to?”“

When Brian and I began rethinking how we were extracting information from our clients, it was important to understand why we felt it was necessary. We’re convinced that the more we can enhance our patterns of dialogue with our clients, the more confidence we’ll have in our approach to building solutions that provide them with that they need, not just what they think they need (want).

Next time a client brings you a list of features for their product, please be sure to ask yourself and your client, “why” the product needs them. What are these hows providing their business and user goals?

Project Illuminatus, an introduction

Posted by Tue, 15 Aug 2006 00:52:00 GMT

4 comments Latest by Alain Tue, 15 Aug 2006 17:06:46 GMT

Due to an unfortunate event last week, this blog entry is a few days late.

Over the next few weeks and months, the PLANET ARGON team will be blogging about one of our big projects that recently started. We needed to get the client to sign off on the blogging project and got the a-okay from their management early last week.

First, some background.

We were contacted by this rather large (enterprise?) company around the time that we went to RailsConf. When we got back, I began talking with our primary point of contact about their project, which sounded like a fairly big challenge and the sales process took a few weeks to come to an agreement on the next steps. Once they were finished interviewing a few other potential firms, we got the go-ahead that we should proceed with an ITER-ZERO, which I outlined a few months ago in part one of, The Art of Delivery.

ITER-ZERO was essentially a two-day trip for Brian and I to Washington DC (pictures) to interview the client and some of their existing users (domain experts), establish the protocol and channels for communication between them (the client) and our team, and work on identifying the core goals of their product that we’ll be developing with them. They have an existing product that they’ve been selling to customers for over ten years and the product that we’ll be developing will be the next generation of this software. The new product is replacing a desktop application that is only runs on Windows. The application that we’re currently working has a technical requirement that is needs to run on any operating system with a modern web browser, including some of the newer phones that have Opera mini installed! As you can see, we have our work cut out for us… :-)

During our meetings, we agreed that while their final product name is going through their marketing process, that we should have a playful project name to refer to. Our primary contact at the firm suggested, Project Illuminatus[1]. He’s a bit of a conspiracy theory nut… and it sounded fun… so we agreed to that. :-)

If I recall, Brian and I stayed up past 2am (the time zone change does that to you…) working on structuring the project wiki (instiki) to document the dialogue that occurred on our first day in DC. This provided us with a solid plan for how we wanted to focus our attention to identifying the goals that we wanted to collaborate on with the client to build an innovative and simple to define solution. Simple solutions emerge from even complex goals when you can clarify them using simple and intelligible language.

In this great blog interview, Stiff asked several famous developers the following question, “What do you think makes some programmers 10 or 100 times more productive than others?”

David Heinemeir Hannsson responded with, “The ability to restate hard problems as easy ones.”

On day two, we showed their team the wiki and explained how they could collaborate with us there. If they had ideas and new goals identified, they had a place to store those. It’s vital that your attention is on the scope of the work that needs to be investigated. We try not to solve all of the problems too quickly… it’d be naive of us to think that we could. Products evolve and so must their requirements.

I’m not going to go into everything that went on here at the moment, perhaps Brian will fill us in on some of this.

When we got back to Portland, Brian and I began meeting with Allison Beckwith, our Creative Director, to outline one of the most complex pieces of the system. As a team, we decided that this is what we need to focus more of our immediate attention to. In the their previous application, there was approximately five different modules that did something very similar, but just slightly different enough for their original developers to just build separate interfaces, which were not consistent and difficult to use for someone new to the application. We want to consolidate this into one new solution that focuses on how the users will be using the system… not just the tasks that they are fulfilling. This is why we spend so much time thinking about the goals that the users have… not what they have to do.

Oh yeah… one of the non-functional requirements?

“The product shall be easy to use on the first attempt by a member of the general public without training.”[2]

About a week later, we agreed on what work would be performed during ITER-001 (iteration one), which included paper prototyping and a few rounds wireframe mockups for this one major component of the application. I’ll let Allison Beckwith (yes! she started a blog) fill you in on this when she gets some time to outline her process for doing this.

Stay tuned…

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminatus

2 copied directly from Mastering the Requirements Process, 2nd edition. It works.. and does it need to be reestated any simpler than that?

Dialogue-Driven Development is about rounded corners

Posted by Sat, 05 Aug 2006 15:49:00 GMT

5 comments Latest by James Mon, 07 Aug 2006 22:01:31 GMT

In response to our introduction of Dialogue-Driven Development, mechanismalley.com writes, ”...it seems to be the Rails community’s pattern to take an existing concept — or misconception — put rounded corners on it and deem it something new.” (link)

I’m not sure that I can completely agree with this generalization. What I’ve witnessed as a member of the Rails community, is an attempt to simplify code, solutions, processes, and as a result… conversation between developers and clients has become much richer and coherent. Take this with a grain of salt as this has only been my experience. Complex solutions are complex to explain and often too complex to know if they are actually solving the right goal. On the other hand, simple solutions make way for better dialogue. With Ruby on Rails, we are provided with a foundation that encourages and embraces best practices and simple solutions (rounded corners?), which makes it easier to discuss with the client. This is what fascinates me about Ruby on Rails… and what Martin Fowler in his keynote at RailsConf.

Perhaps it makes sense that what Brian and I are outlining with our approach to defining patterns for client<->development team interaction evolved through us working with Ruby on Rails. However, there is nothing that requires Rails in order to follow the patterns that we’re discussing. In Brian’s first article about d3, he referenced the following…

“What we are seeing is a drive toward simplicity. Conventional wisdom once was “quick necessarily means dirty”. Ruby challenges that.
Martin Fowler

At the very core of our approach with Dialogue-Driven Development is the Agile Manifesto. The author of this post is correct, we’re taking an existing concept and putting rounded corners on it. We’re trying to make it simpler. We find that Scrum is too process heavy and while we can see it being a good step away from the Waterfall approach, it’s still not giving us that warm and fuzzy feeling. Rails developers know what that warm and fuzzy feeling is… and we are hoping to find something that gives our clients and us the same feeling when we’re not coding. We want lightweight methodologies to complement our lightweight frameworks and patterns.

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

The Agile Manifesto

It’s time to start rethinking how we work with clients. Too often we end up working for them and while we might build them what they want… we might not be giving them what they need.

So, I must ask… has working with Ruby on Rails reshaped the way you think about client and developer conversation? If so, for the better or worse?

High traces of collaboration and dialogue are usually found in the recipe of any successful project.

Related Articles

DDD (d3) is the new conversational software development

Posted by Fri, 04 Aug 2006 03:28:00 GMT

I’m not sure how I missed this recent post on Martin Fowler’s bliki last week on Customer Affinity. In this post he references when the term “agile” first came about and mentioned that, “one of Kent’s suggested names for ‘Agile’ was conversational software development – the point being that it’s a two way communication. “

Conversational Software Development.

This doesn’t sound so different than what Brian Ford and I are calling, Dialogue-Driven Development. ;-)

Fowler goes on to say, “This isn’t something like a telecoms protocol that you can define, but the back and forth discussions about how software can enhance the business are where the real value lives. Much of this conversation is of half-baked ideas, some of which grow into valuable features – often ones that aren’t things that the customer originally thought of.”

If you didn’t follow the thread of comments on my recent post on Dialogue-Driven Development, you might not know that this name came up during Martin Fowler’s keynote at RailsConf when Brian and I were sitting next to each other and Martin kept reusing the word “dialogue.” Brian and I can’t seem to agree if I said, “Dialogue-Driven Development” out loud or if he wrote it down on a piece of paper first… so we’re going to have to share the credit. What made this so fascinating at the time was that for the entire trip from Portland to Chicago on the Argon Express, Brian and I had been discussing a lot of what we’re planning to change and define with our approach to Client/Project/Development Collaboration & Management… and in the end… we left Chicago with DDD d3.

Thank you, Martin for being part of this process.

Like all things, this approach is open to discussion dialogue.

UPDATE

Brian has written an article called, It’s all about the dialogue. (digg.it)

Dialogue-Driven Development

Posted by Thu, 03 Aug 2006 02:55:00 GMT

13 comments Latest by Pat Wed, 09 Aug 2006 03:24:52 GMT

Just a few months ago, I wrote a short article called, The Art of Delivery, which outlined how we at PLANET ARGON approach iterative development and how it relates to quicker release cycles. I wanted to follow up with this and add some more thoughts to that and what we’ve been trying and learning since that point in time.

With iterative development cycles, we’re able to focus our attention on very specific and well-defined goals while we work with the client to organize the other goals that they’d like us to help develop solutions for.

An End to the Product Backlog

While everyone at PLANET ARGON has been doing some research on modern Agile-related methodologies, we’ve been throwing a lot of ideas back and forth… and often times we end up cherry-picking individual practices and throwing it into our evolving processes.

The problem that we’ve seen with most examples of using a standard Scrum Product Backlog is that it focuses too much on tasks rather than providing solutions for goals that are central to the success of the project. It also requires that someone maintain, on a regular basis, a well-defined list of tasks, which often times the client (Product Owner) dictates. We’ve seen many situations where a client has more feature requests than is necessary in order to attain the goal that was originally set. If we had a nickel for every time we heard someone say, “wouldn’t it be cool if it did this?”

I’ve personally worked on many projects that fell into this routine too early in the development cycle. Most clients that we work with are trying to provide a solution for their users and aren’t always the best Domain Expert. Taking the whole less is more approach, it’s vital that the earlier you can get your users in front of your application, the sooner you can get them to generate feedback, which aids in you making educated decisions about what to add to the project later on.

Features are Expensive

Aside from the monetary costs of adding new features and functionality, it is important to remember that as you add new code to an application you increase the maintainability and overall scope of the project. With each new feature, the requirements change, complexity increases, and as far as your users are concerned, they are now being exposed to something new, which may or may not be what they want or need. For example, I was in a sales meeting yesterday and our potential client mentioned that at a former job during the dot-com era, their web team added e-Cards to their web site and it had nothing to do with their business model. The users did however use this new feature but they later went out of business. Perhaps they should have been an e-Card business instead. Imagine if BaseCamp added a local weather feature… I might use it… but it doesn’t help me manage our projects any better.

When clients approach us with a new feature that wasn’t previously discussed, we have to ask them they Why, What, and How? What goal is this feature providing a solution for? Do we already have a solution implemented that solves this problem? Is this a new goal and how (and why) did this goal come about? What are the costs of implementing such a feature and how will it affect the current stability of the user base and application? If we put it off 3 months, would it cause the project to come to a grinding halt? What about 6 months?

It’s important to always remember that one of the biggest problems in software development is feature creep. Many projects fail due to this and as a project manager, developer, or client… please consider the consequences and benefits of each new feature. Focus on the goals and connect the dots from there.

Get the goals clearly defined and provide clear and simple solutions for them.

Just Say NO to Bloat!

Start with a Mission Statement

One of the new things that we’ve begun doing with a few new clients is assigning them with an initial task of providing us with a Mission Statement. From the Mission Statement we can ask how each goal that the client and we outline relates to it. If one of the key goals of the Mission Statement is, “to provide gorillas with easy access to basketballs”... we will have to question any goals that imply that we might also need to provide access to soccer balls, car batteries, or scissors… or that when a gorilla is getting their basketball we might want to provide them access to stock reports. We’re not trying to solve all the gorilla’s problems and it would be naive for us to think that we know what they want before we’ve had a chance to really engage in that dialogue.

Users are the Domain Experts

Very rarely do we get a chance to interact with users before we’ve begun coding a project and getting an alpha release in front of a subset of users. Brian and I just got back from a few days in Washington DC, where we worked with a new client. They have an existing GUI application that began development in the mid-90s and we’re being contracted to help build a new solution to the problem that they began to solve ten years ago. The application has suffered from a lot of feature creep as many evolving products do. As they gave us a demonstration of their existing product, we saw first hand how it was even difficult for them to remember why Feature X was in the system. “Most customers don’t use that anyways.”

So, why is it there? Of course, nobody remembers why everything is there now. As developers come and go projects get managed by various people over the course of their life, many of different opinions and features get injected into the application. It’s a common problem and it takes a lot for a company to finally admit that it’s time to throw it out the door and start fresh.

The old rules don’t apply anymore. *

One of the first things that we did in our meetings was discuss what goals their product was aiming to provide solutions for. What do they believe that their users want and need? To get this answer, we scheduled a few conference calls with real users of their existing software! I cannot describe how helpful those interviews were and we saw a lot of consistency in their goals as users of such a system. It became apparent that they were the Domain Experts and as we move forward with the project we are going to have access to interact with those users.

Rethinking the Dialogue

When thinking about delivery, we must consider the major obstacles to overcome during the course of an iteration or release cycle. More important than having well-defined deliverables is having well-defined expectations. If you’re delivering a prototype, be clear about what a prototype is and what is it not. Schedule regular meetings with your client throughout the process. Keep the client updated as much as possible. Ask questions as soon as you can… and be sure to ask them the right questions.

There is an art to it and it’s important that you keep this process lightweight and agile like you do your development process. Perhaps we need to think of development and project management under a new heading… *Dialogue-Driven Development? DDD? ...just what we need… another acronym. ;-)

UPDATE

We’re not going to call it DDD… just d3.

Older posts: 1 2 3 4