Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part V

This is the fifth part of a series of essays on how to leverage the concepts of Agile software product development from Getting Real from 37signals in a corporate development organization. Part I introduces the concepts of Getting Real, part II looks at the idea of building less, part III was on focusing on one idea and part IV was on getting something functional out quickly.

In this essay we look at:

Start with the UI design and focus on how your users will use your application.

Lots of experienced engineers like to start with the UI. A new project brings a geyser of ideas and concepts that make the fingers itch to start writing code. So, mockups, prototypes and proofs of concepts are often the first things to come out.

Good! Almost.

Don't let your engineers close themselves in a room for the four weeks that they have and create something they love. The rest of the sentence is the key -- "focus on ... your users ..."

In "Getting Real", the folks at 37signals assume they are writing an appliation for the outside to use. They don't have an opportunity to sit with their most important users when creating something new. But you do! This is where the corporate environment make Getting Real better than the original. You're making software for your business, you and your users are the domain experts. You don't need to go outside. Lucky you!

Get your engineering team (2 really good engineers and a kick-ass business analyst) in the same room as the key stakeholders -- the folks who will use this new system. Understand the business problem (Focus on One Idea) by talking to the users and examining the problem they need solved.

Have the team work through what they need to do. What tasks are grouped to gether logically? What actions are done most of the time? What actions are done only a small fraction of the time? Make the application fix the problem elegantly. That way, the team has to Build Less and will be able to Get Something Functional Deployed Quickly.

Start light. Whiteboard and sketches. Wireframes and light-HTML. Test the process. Can the users do their important tasks quickly and easily? Can they see how they get to the additional features that they don't use every day?

Put the most important information right in the middle. Make sure that new state, the populated state and the error state are considered. Ensure the engineers make the application behave appropriately when it encounters something unexpected. Leave out what doesn't belong to do the task (who cares if it's a "standard" menu item?). Put in everything important. Leave out everything else.

Match and support what the users need to do, then go and make it happen. Start with the UI. Not the UI and the database, just the UI. Not the UI and the object model, just the UI.

The engineers will have a clearer idea of what's important. They will have proven the work flow that they are about to implement. The users will have increased confidence that what will be produced will really help them.

Can you just imagine the response when the first version comes out a few weeks later? Hey, please write and let me know! I don't want to do this in a vacuum!

Thanks again for reading! In the next essay, we'll talk about how to use business stories.

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