Edge of Chaos

Agile Development Blog

Scrum, Lean, Kanban, Visualization, User Experience, IT Lifestyle

Michael Dubakov

Getting Started Experience in 15 Tools

It is really, really hard to design getting started experience in a tool. We’ve had many iterations and improvements, but still are not happy with the current implementation. So we’ve started from scratch and want to improve the existing experience in Targetprocess.

It is always interesting to explore how other vendors solve similar problems. This post is a quick summary of getting started experience in 15 (mostly project management) tools.

1. Salesforce

Salesforce shows you a Getting Started page with several videos. This is it. Videos are quite lengthy and you have to spend about 30 minutes on watching them. It is interesting that such a sophisticated tool like Salesforce solves getting started problem with videos only.

2. Trello

Trello is a super-lightweight tool for project collaboration. It’s based on an idea to create many boards and manage them. First board is actually a getting started board where you will read about all the features. It cleverly has 3 columns: Basic, Intermediate and Advanced features. If you open all these cards and actually do what they say you have a good understanding of a tool and know how to use it. Great implementation.

3. Asana

Asana is similar to Trello, but much more complex (I personally don’t like it). Getting started experience is more detailed as well. First, you see a short video that actually explains a little. Video is on a separate page and it’s hard to miss it. Then you have a 3-steps wizard to define your identity, invite team members and create a team. It is quite handy and well designed. Finally, you dive into the tool. UI is loaded with many buttons and panels. The only help you have is “Videos” section at the bottom. Still Asana has a style and looks modern.

4. Plan.io

Plan.io meets you with a wizard that guides you through the system. I liked it initially, but in a minute I got frustrated with too many steps. Then it became really annoying. Huge texts in popovers are not welcome to read, so I skipped them and learnt a little. And “Something is still missing” message drove me nuts in the end.

5. Clarizen

Clarizen is a feature-rich project management tool. Initial wizard is OK, but I have had some “Hmm…” moments during project type selection. Then you see another wizard that shows you a 6-min video and obvious navigation panel. The tool looks heavy, with many controls and screens. It doesn’t feel hard to grasp though.

6. Basecamp

Basecamp is a famous light-weight coordination software. It’s very simple. First, you see a bright welcome message. There are similar bright messages in new areas you visit, which is good. Sample project describes real features in Basecamp, so you can explore UI and learn something about the tool at the same time. Interestingly, I like Trello’s implementation of this idea more. Not sure why.

7. Wrike

Before you start, you have to lie about your phone number (I’ll never understand why this field is required). Then you see a several steps wizard. While some steps make sense, I don’t think that “Assign task via email” is so important to have here. It is not so clear how to complete this Welcome Quest, I had to think a bit to find out why some steps are still there. Also Skip link is hard to find. Maybe it is intentional, but such solution has its flaws. There are several areas on top and when you put the mouse over an area icon you see a popover with a video. Quite a clever idea, but the implementation is annoying. Maybe it is good to hide these videos at some point.

8. 5pm

In this traditional project management tool you see just 2 help messages after login — and this is it. Minimal effort in getting started design. I am not convinced the tool is simple enough to handle the getting started experience that way.

9. Moovia

You immediately see a news feed with product updates. Maybe it is better to show a feed with product usage tips. So there is no getting started design at all.

10. Redbooth

The welcome message you see is irrelevant and too lengthy. Similarly to Trello, there is a ToDo list that describes the tool itself. Empty areas helps you to make a correct action, like add a Task. System shows you good tips in the right moments. I’d say getting started in Redbooth is well-designed and usability is great.

11. TeamLab

TeamLab looks complex. Right after the registration you see a video and wait while your account is being created. Good use of waiting time! Then you start a project and see three(!) yellow messages right away: one about Android app, another about email activation and the last one is a getting started wizard. Too many for me. The wizard is very short with just four steps. The system gives prompts to some actions when you navigate to a new screen, which is very handy. Help is built-in, so you don’t navigate away when you want to learn something. Quite good.

12. Yodiz

This is an agile project management software. It meets you with a video (too small) and a project setup wizard. UI is not stylish for sure — too many colors, various icons and overall impression is not great. Large bright buttons with actions in empty areas are good though. The tool was easy to grasp, but I’m a domain expert :)

13. Jira

Jira’s getting started experience is similar to Salesforce — it is very basic. You have a dashboard component with Getting Started steps. Small wizards are nice. Service Desk area is different and shows you quite many popovers. I got lost with them, in fact.

14. TeamPulse

This agile project management tool shows you a 6-step wizard that describes main UI areas. That is it.

15. TargetProcess

Targetprocess is not an easy tool. It is really flexible and has a new UI-paradigm, so we wanted to show people how to use it properly. First, you select a process to start with. Then you see a 3-minute video that explains a concept and main ideas. Then you jump into a wizard. We put significant effort into the wizard and I should say it is the most clever implementation I’ve ever seen. But it seems the wizard is very long with too many actions and steps. We have stats here. Around 70% of people abandon the wizard after step 2. It means 70% of people learn nothing from it. And even the pulsating blue dot doesn’t help to grab their attention.

Summary

Let’s summarize the most popular approaches to getting started. Most show a video and provide easy access to more videos about a product (Asana, Yodiz, Targetprocess). Several tools use the tool itself to design ToDo with getting started actions (Trello, Basecamp, Asana, RedBooth). Some tools have UI wizards (TeamPulse, Targetprocess, Clarizen). RedBooth tries to give guidance to users in a good way, I think. Nothing novel, for sure.

I personally think that a long wizard doesn’t work and most people just skip it. Also it is required to unblock as many paths as possible in user interactions. If a tool demands something at some point of time, there should be an obvious way to fulfil that demand. For example, if it’s not possible to add a user story without a project, there should be a clear way to add a new project right from the “Add user story” screen.

Fun at Work

Today I want to discuss a topic, that many of us thought about for sure. I want to talk about interest and fun at work.

An Interesting Task

What does “interesting” task mean? People are different and interesting tasks are different, but it is possible to define some common properties. Maybe you can provide many properties, but I think only two are particularly important.

An interesting task is usually challenging. It is close to the edge of your skills. You feel that you can crack it, but don’t know how exactly so far.

An interesting task should give you a new knowledge. If you solve the problem and learn nothing, it doesn’t feel very cool. When you solve the problem and learn some new concepts, then you feel much better in the end.

So interesting task is challenging and generates knowledge.

However, there is another thing — developer’s experience.

Junior Developers

They almost always work on interesting tasks. Any task provides some challenge, any task generates new knowledge.

That is why junior developers are happy and smiley. They learn a lot every day. Use MVC pattern for the first time? Wow! Discover prototype inheritance in Javascript? Wow! Fight with IE 8 rendering weirdness? Well…

Experienced Developers

Initial enthusiasm is gone and now it is a serious job with less and less fun. If the fun level drops below a certain edge, you are in trouble. It means you learn nothing. If you learn nothing, you will become a “zombie developer” eventually. A zombie developer goes to work and solves similar problems again and again.

No real thinking, no real challenges, more brainless activities like meetings, small talks (not the language), status reporting, hacker news, Facebook, Twitter, chats, death. True zombies don’t like interesting tasks. They like familiar tasks that demand minimal effort to complete. They work on the lowest energetic level possible.

The day when you say to yourself “I didn’t do any interesting task for weeks” should rise a red flag in your head. Go and fix that. Talk to managers, change position, change a company. There should always be a healthy mix of interesting and familiar tasks. Fight for that.

Veterans

After 10 years of professional programming they accumulated a good backpack of knowledge, experience and sarcasm. There are not so many tasks they find interesting anymore.

Some give up and just do their job. They say: “We are professionals and solve problems not for fun, but for the value to the people. That’s what we do”. They try to re-frame a problem and replace a real solution with psychological one. Sometimes that works, but often not so well. These people are unhappy. They do the job well, but you should not expect any enthusiasm, initiative and courage. Create one more 3-layers enterprise solution? OK. Build another one social network? OK. Zombie Developer Level 80.

Some try to find a way to the mastery, solving the same problems better and better. For example, writing compilers for 20 years. It is an honourable road only a few can ride. You should be very determined, patient and calm. These qualities are rare in the Western culture.

Some push forward to the limit to work on really challenging problems. They change jobs, change countries, change industries and technologies. They jump from problem to problem, developing astonishingly wide skill sets. Definitely, they don’t have depth in all the areas, but they do provide unusual point of views and can attack problems from surprising angles.

Company

Any good company should provide enough interesting tasks. It is a serious mistake to believe that people will do everything with equal passion. They can, but only if the balance of interesting/boring tasks is good enough.

Most likely, every company should have people with all levels of experience. Junior developers will be happy to work on tasks that veterans treat as trivial. Experienced developers will be happy to work on tasks that veterans treat as OK. And you need veterans to storm really challenging problems (if you have any).

I personally thought that junior developers were not required in our company. I was wrong. It leads to a situation when veterans have to work on simple and trivial tasks more and more often. Fun level drops. Productivity drops. Danger to lose veterans increases.

Which distribution of junior, experienced and veteran developers a company should have? It depends on problems you have. There are 25 developers in our company: 19 experienced and 6 veterans. So our current distribution is 0-75-25%. I think a more healthy distribution would be 25-50-25%. What we are going to do is to hire 6 junior developers to have 20-60-20% distribution so far.

Here is the distribution for various types of companies. X – developers expertise, Y – % of developers in a company:

dots - Page 15

 

As you see, currently Targetprocess team is skewed into the “scientific projects” type, while it is certainly not scientific so far. We should move back into the product development distribution.

TL,DR

  1. Almost every task is interesting for junior developers.
  2. Experienced developers should maintain a healthy balance between interesting and OK tasks.
  3. Veterans have two viable roads: sharpen their limited set of skills to the mastery or attack new problems all the time and become a smart generalist.
  4. Company should care about “fun level” and have the experience distribution that fits existing problems.

Similar posts:

Routine Pros and Passion Cons

Continuous Problem-Solving Is No Accident

Cognitive Endurance Basics for Software Developers

(Un)Visual Specifications

It’s excruciatingly boring to write specifications. It seems like it’s the most boring thing in the world that a product owner has to do. This could be the reason why most specifications are horrible and come across as the root cause of delays, reworks, and bugs.

feature flow

This problem can be partly alleviated if a product owner is always available to talk to, but even that is not a cure-it-all remedy.

The agile movement has its peculiar point of view on specifications. The most extreme part of agilists express their feelings quite clearly:

F%$k the specifications!

Continue reading…

Rolling Wave User Stories: How To Handle Specifications

There are two extreme views on requirements documentation (most use user stories to describe requirements these days):

  1. User story is just an invitation to communication. It should be very short.
  2. We should document requirements fully, with all known details.

Most likely, you accept option 1 and reject option 2. If you ask me, what option I prefer, I will answer “both”. Hold on your tomatoes and read on.

Let’s say, you start a project and have a backlog with 100 user stories. This is the stage where you should keep user stories descriptions short. Don’t waste time, many of these stories will never make it into production, they will die.

You pick a user story and ready to start development. At this moment you have a solution and this solution should be documented. Short description is not enough, since some details may be lost and implemented incorrectly, this will lead to re-work and time waste. At this stage you shouldn’t worry that detailed description of a user story is a waste, this story is going to development phase anyway.

Simply speaking, each user story has a life-cycle: Birth → Solution → Implementation → Release. Let’s review it:

User Story flow phases

Birth
Someone has an idea and user story is added into a backlog. Just a short description is fine in this case.

Solution
There are various methods to create a solution for the problem that user story describes. Maybe you have a special UX phase and special UX teams that brainstorm possible solutions. Maybe you discuss and invent solution in development team just before implementation. Maybe Product Owner creates a solution alone (worst case). Still somehow you have a solution.

Then you should document the solution with quite many details to make sure that solution will not be misinterpreted. Here you will argue that live communication is better than specification. I agree and will follow on below, but if you have a gap between Solution and Implementation phases (which is often the case), you have a good chance to forget many things about the solution. You will end up with sub-cycle: Forget → Remember → Lost Some Details → Re-Work. This sub-cycle generates nothing but waste.

Implementation
Implementation may take several hours, or may take several weeks (happens). If a solution was invented outside a development team, it’s extremely important to have a kick-start meeting, discuss the solution again and find all weaknesses in it. It may happen that solution is unideal and can be improved. Kick-start meeting brings everyone on the same page and every team member understands how it should work.

Right after the kick-start meeting user story should have as much details as possible, including positive and negative flows, texts and labels, final design, etc. Memory is a good thing, but it fails quite often. Don’t rely on your own memory and on memory of other people, put everything you know into text and images.

Release
When user story is done, there is not much value in documentation. If there are some minor discrepancies — that is not a problem. Sure, it can be used as a reference for technical writer, for example, so, depending on your context, you may want to have it corrected.

The main idea is that importance of documentation is low initially, highest in the implementation phase and falls down again after the release. Full documentation just in time is a good practice.

User Story phases

You may worry that it sounds heavy, but in real life a user story can pass all these phases in a single day. For such quick stories full documentation looks like an overhead, but usually it’s very short as well and may take 10 minutes to write.

I personally like when user story is fully documented (at the right time!) with all important cases, has final design attached, has all labels nailed and provides a good vision about the solution.

With many user stories you have rolling waves. Like that:

rolling waves user stories

Now fish out your tomatoes and throw as many as you want.

Software Development: Fast and Slow.

How to use ideas from the great book by Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Recently I read a fascinating book by Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow. It has tons of insights. Every chapter was a discovery. I learned so many new things.

I work in a software development company. It’s quite natural to apply new learned things to your domain. That’s what I’m doing in this post.

System 1 and System 2

The book is about two systems in the human brain. System 1 is fast, intuitive, alert and cheap. System 2 is lazy, analytical and expensive. Most daily activities and tasks are solved by System 1, while the most complex tasks are redirected to System 2.

When you use System 1 you feel nothing. It’s natural and effortless. When you use System 2, you feel strain and pressure. You notice that you are really thinking hard. System 2 is effortful.

There are many experiments that proves existence of these two systems. Make no mistake, there is no clear separation of these systems on a physical brain structure, but they describe how people think and make decisions.

If you are a software engineer, you’ll immediately grasp the nature of System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quite similar to cache, while System 2 is a business layer. Cache is cheap and fast, business opearation is slow and expensive.

Now I’ll take first concepts from the book and find examples in software development.

What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI)

People usually don’t think about things they don’t see (in a broad sense). If you have some information, it’s unlikely that you’ll immediately question it and go look for some alternatives. Quite often people make decisions based on existing facts and limited evidence. This leads to several biases:

Estimation is not easy in software development. We make huge mistakes all the time. Estimation is a distribution.

Overconfidence

Software estimation is the area where overconfidence flourishes.

“We need twitter integration — you ask — We want to accumulate all tweets with specific tags. When you can complete this?” Developers often don’t ask additional questions and just provide quick estimate like, well, 2 days. This is System 1 in action. It’s extremely unlikely the answer is correct. Lack of information somehow doesn’t impede immediate estimate. Developers should be smart and confident, oh yes! But also they should escape WYSIATI and think carefully about unknowns.

Framing Effect

Problem wording does matter. If you describe the same problem using different words you can have different solutions or preferences. Consider two questions:

  • “Do you think we need a very experienced developer to solve this simple problem?”
  • “Do you think we need a very experienced developer to solve this complex problem?”

The question set the frame. It’s hard to answer “Yes” to the first question, it’s easy to answer “Yes” to the second one.

Base-rate Neglect

Some events are more likely than others. However, people have no good intuition about statistics.

Let’s say, you create a product that used by 1000 companies. You receive an email from a customer who think that his idea is really “must have” and should be implemented ASAP. The argumentation is perfect and does make real sense. You feel his pain and push this new feature to production with all your force. Well, you missed one thing: it may very well happen that 999 other customers have no need in this solution. You forget that customers base is large and a single request should be reviewed from that perspective.

It’s a very common mistake and I repeated it again and again myself. Now I know better and think very carefully about every request. No rush. In rush you delegate the decision to System 1, and this system do you no good in such a complex domain.

Answering an easier question

When we encounter a hard question, we tend to replace it in our mind with an easy one, that System 1 can handle. Here is an example.

You hear the question “How good will be progress on this project 3 months from now?” You replace this tricky question with “How good is progress right now?”

By doing this substitution, you don’t awake your lazy System 2 and allow System 1 to answer the easier question. We follow the path of least effort. The funny thing is that we don’t realize the substitution, we really think we answered the hard question!

Affect heuristic

If we like something or dislike something it affects our decisions greatly. For example, if you like node.js, you will be optimistic about choosing node.js for the new web application. If you hate node.js, you will provide so many arguments against it and will fight to death to apply another technology.

The affect heuristic is hard to overcome. People are not so rational, but clearly some reasonable comparison of technologies will be much better than a quick choice based on intuitive preferences.

I just scratches the surface, but it’s already obvious that our decisions in software development based on many biases and bad heuristics. What can we do about it?

Intuition vs. Models

Kahneman was very skeptical about our abilities to wake up System 2 when it’s really needed. Indeed, how can we change a human nature?

However, it seems we can do something. We can apply models.

Kano Model is a good example. It helps to make more intelligent decisions about new features.

Model is almost always better than intuition. Even a very simple linear model is better than most (all?) experts in a domain. Model forces you to think about the domain, about various facets of the problem, look at it from different angles — use System 2.

Here is the simple question: What feature should we start next? You can rely on your intuition and say “Advanced Search”. It may happen that this feature is not so important and there are dozen of more important features. You can build a simple model and evaluate your backlog. For example, the model can have parameters like:

  1. Kano model (basic, delighter, performance)
  2. Votes: How many customers and leads requested it
  3. Frequency: how often people will use this feature.
  4. Spread: how many people will use the feature.
  5. Effort (S, M, L, XL, …)
  6. Complexity. Will it increase usage complexity

With this simple model you’ll make much better decision for sure.

I believe models can be applied to many areas in software development. Decision making and problem solving should rarely rely on intuition, unless you are Steve Jobs.

Announcing an Article: Estimates in Software Development. The New Frontiers.

There’s more and more buzz around estimates and #noestimates in software development. People like to write bold statements and go extreme about things in blogs. Usually, personal dialogues are much more balanced. Some hate estimates and believe it’s a useless activity. Some defend it with arguments of arguable truth.

I want to dig into intrinsic estimates complications, what people mean by “estimate” and what future directions we may attack → Read the article.

BMW and UX: Same But Better

A couple of years ago I bought BMW 530 E39. Not that I’d been into BMWs all that much, but I just stumbled upon a good deal to replace my old car, and I went for it.

This car was excellent. I liked almost everything about it except:

  1. The rain sensor. Even when set on the “High” speed it functioned very slowly, which rendered it mostly useless in the field conditions.
  2. The front and rear windshield defogger/defroster controls.  Too far to reach.
  3. The weird audio set controls. I had quite some trouble getting used to them.
  4. Setting the in-cabin temperature with up and down arrows.

Then I bought the next-generation BMW E60.

Now, what do you think?

  1. The rain sensor works perfectly.
  2. They made the defogger/defroster controls bigger and put them to the center.
  3. The audio set started to make sense.
  4. They have knobs for the in-cabin temperature, and it’s just a pleasure to use them.

The smart BMW guys resolved all the issues I’ve been uncomfortable about.  But — of course — they added a couple of new issues instead:

  1. In the E39, cruise control was located right on the steering wheel, and it worked just OK. In the newer E60 model they did it as a lame lever on the lower left side of the steering wheel, with absolutely non-intuitive movements to switch on/off and adjust cruising speed.
  2. Door locks and hazard warning flasher switch were moved from beneath the driver’s right hand to the central console. For several months I’d start in the wrong direction to open the doors, until I got used to the new setup.

While the change #2 looks quite logical as it comes along with the new iDrive system, they have no mercy from me for the cruise control.

On the whole, the next-generation BMW remained the same, but better. I think that’s a very important principle for the evolution of any interface:

Same But Better

We’re getting at the good old issue of  UI novelties here. What’s better, slowly and meticulously improve the current system? Or introduce new elements in radical spurts, leaving no stone unturned in the old system?

Users are quite inconsistent creatures. For one thing, they like to download updates hoping they’d finally get the features and improvements they’ve been waiting for. On the other hand, they hate getting used to new features.

Any interface develops in cycles. Someone comes up with a new interface,  users start bringing in their feedback — that’s the stage of step-by-step improvements. One has to rework some parts of the functionality and mix in new features gradually, without having people learn from scratch.

Then, a critical mass of new knowledge is acquired over time, and if this knowledge is used wisely, it becomes clear how to improve the system along with the UI. That’s the time for revolutionary changes, and that’s how all interfaces develop (if they don’t die before their time):

new stuff → evolution → revolution → evolution → revolution → …

* rendered into English by Olga Kouzina.

Product Software Development is a Marathon

Most people like short things: short tasks, short emails, learn-how-to-program-java-in-24-hours books, lose-weight-in-a-month video guides. Modern society is cursed by impatience and time pressure. Information flows hit us from all sides and we just can’t resist. We spend more and more time on shorter and shorter things.

Software development demands focus. You can’t create anything significant hopping from one thing to another. That is obvious. Less obvious is that product development demands patience.

Service development is different. In most cases you have a project with a visible end. It may be a year long, or even several years long. But still project will be completed someday… Or abandoned. Most service products are sprints. Clients pay you money and they want to have something as soon as possible. They radiate the impatience. They set deadlines. They resist to invest much into good engineering practices like automated tests. Yes, you negotiate all that and sometime with a success, but still it’s quite hard to sell a great development process to the customer. So you rush, cut corners, drop some good practices to save time and argue about change requests. Agile approach helps to solve some of these problems, but you still feel the constant pressure. And rush anyway.

This strategy doesn’t work for product development. It takes a decade or more to create a truly remarkable product. Constant rework, constant improvements, constant polishing and learning. You fail, learn something new, improve things and move forward. It just can’t be done without patience.

Suddenly you understand that great thing takes time and it changes your attitude. You learn how to run with a steady pace, maintain energy level and endure the race. In a sprint you have no room for any mistake. Even a little mistake will cost you huge. In a marathon you have time to fix problems and still win.

If you are in a product development business, I can give you several advices:

  • Learn how to learn. This road takes many years, you need knowledge to solve problems and invent things.
  • Learn how to wait. It is so fucking hard to me. Sometime I feel enormous pressure to speed everything up and run at a full speed. But I realize that it will drain all our energy and development team will be exhausted and washed out. We’ll start to lose people. Morale will go down. That’s not a viable strategy.
  • Embrace re-work. Most likely you will have to re-write some parts of the system 3-7 times in the next several years. You should be ready to do that. Re-work is good. It makes things better.
  • Ship early. You may think that now I’m a 100% perfectionist who will kill for the 1px design mismatch in a latest release. That is far from true. I like to ship things as early as possible to some closed group of customers at least. For example, we are working on v.3 of our product during the last 15 months. It is still not public. However, we had first users 9 months ago. Currently around 600 people from 100 companies are using v.3, we have constant feedback and make improvements based on it.

Remember, that most people can run a 100 m distance, few people can run a marathon.

Product Owner Retires

Why it is bad to have a single point of failure in a product and what to do about it.

Every day we solve problems. Some people solve many problems, some few. Most likely in your project there is a person, who solves most of the problems. Sometimes it’s a Business Analyst, sometimes it’s a Designer, most often it’s a Product Owner. He knows the market, the domain, the customers, the competitors, the features. He knows how things should work and pushes his solutions hard. Usually the team can’t resist and just accepts this situation. Is it good? Can we find better ways? Well, we’ll have to have quite a lengthy journey to find out.

Setting the Stage

Imagine, you have a new feature in the backlog. At this point we have several potential scenarios with a different level of harm:

  1. Leave everything up to the developer.
  2. Discuss this user story just before the implementation, come up with a solution and do no specs. Make all the decisions on the fly.
  3. Discuss this user story just before the implementation, come up with a solution and do the specs.
  4. Assign user story to a Product Owner, let him come up with a solution and have him do the specs.
  5. Have UX phase, brainstorm a solution and create the specs just on time, before the development starts.

You can see that some of the scenarios are good, some are bad, and a few of them are just horrible.

To create a perfect solution, we should answer the three simple questions: When? Who? How? Well, the most important question is Why? We’ll assume it’s already been answered.

When?

Each story has its own life-cycle. It is born, it lives and then dies. There are three important moments in the life of a feature:

  1. Someone has a good idea, and a feature is created in the  backlog.
  2. Development starts.
  3. User story is released to production.

When is it a good time to have the complete solution? Obviously, not right after the story is created, as things change, and it may happen that this user story is no longer required. It may just be deleted from the backlog in the future. Somewhere in the middle when we have more data? Maybe, but still not perfect. The perfect match is when we have the solution right before the development is about to start.

Feature Life Cycle

In this case the solution is fresh and shiny. Everyone in charge does remember why things should work exactly the way described in the specs. It is certain that the user story will actually be implemented, so the solution and the time spent on it will not be thrown away.

If a feature looks very simple, the UX phase can start about one week before the implementation. If a feature is complex, several months may be a good timeframe.

Who?

Many teams rely on the Product Owner, Business Analyst, etc. and expect solutions and specs from them. A team doesn’t care about the solution, but does care about completeness of the specification. Sometimes this works, in most cases — not.

Some teams rely on communication and do not create specs at all. They brainstorm a solution on the fly and then jump to coding. Sometimes this works, in most cases… well, you got it.

Some clever teams rely on the group of people that consists of developers, testers, designers and product owners who brainstorm the solution, find the best one, iterate and delegate writing specs to the product owner. And these teams rock.

Why the first two cases are bad?

The Hero

Yes, Product Owner is responsible for the product. Yes, he knows a lot. Yes, he can solve problems. And, yes, you expect too much of him. It is quite unusual to expect the best solution from a single person. It is always better to have a small group of people with various skills, various background, various focuses to find a great solution.

Product Owner can brainstorm everything alone and write all the specifications. He can haul the product alone. As a result, he would be a single point of failure… while there are many other buses in the streets.

Run, Lola Run!

The communication would be one-way, without much collaboration, and in such environment Product Owner would tend to ignore the opinions of other team members, since they do not participate in problem solving. If you don’t participate, why the freaking hell should I care about your opinion?

Knowledge sharing would be zero. Product Owner is a domain expert, he knows a lot. But the team gets zilch from his experience. There are no discussions, no collaboration, no two-way communication flows.

I used to be such a person. It was not good for the company.

Product Owner’s Rule #1: Don’t do everything alone

The Rush

Got a real problem? Get together, brainstorm it quickly, get shit done and kick it out of the door. Sounds good? Hell, no. The good thing is that you don’t waste time and rush straight ahead. The bad thing is that the solution would be great rarely, good sometimes, and in most cases just average.

In the rush mode you tend to cut corners, take the first acceptable solution and go for it. There are situations when it is good. In any emergency case this is a viable strategy, but in the long run it will not work. Rush mode is very dangerous. You may be even proud of it and call it “agile”, but it is not.

— OK, the quick add feature. Who’s got any ideas?
— Well, let’s just put up the Add Task link . You click it and see the input field with the Name label and Save button. You add one task and see the input field again, so you can add many tasks quickly.
— Great! Let’s do that right away.

Maybe this is somewhat stretched, but in reality I saw very similar situations (and did very similar things myself!).

Product Owner’s Rule #2: No rush

The Team

I bet you expect a viable solution now. Here is the algorithm:

  1. Brainstorm every feature in a small group of 4-7 people. Invite developers, invite testers, invite designers, invite product specialists. Invite everyone who has diverse skills and can contribute to a discussion.
  2. Think. Talk. Draw sketches. Learn some techniques like Design Studio. Do use them. Draw sketches.
  3. Build trust. Support honesty. Ban sarcasm. People should trust one another, or you will have a bunch of gamblers instead of a team. Don’t be afraid to criticize bad ideas. The people who can’t stand some reasonable criticism should leave.
  4. Repeat. Several times for each feature. Mix people. Invite new people.
  5. Eventually, several teams will emerge, the teams that can solve problems without you.
  6. Find people that can lead features and be responsible for the solutions. Let them lead UX sessions and play the Feature Owner role.
  7. Create beautiful specifications (this is where I really suck).

It took me 7 years to come up with this solution. It works.

UX Phase

Product Owner’s Rule #3: Spread the knowledge, use diversity, delegate

How?

The “how” question is very broad. How to form teams? How to find solutions? How to evaluate them? How to document solutions? I’m going to just scratch the surface here.

Creative processes are hard to structure and hard to estimate. In general you don’t know when you’ll have a great solution. It may take several days or several years.

Each Feature Team has its own UX phase. Some people like to think alone, have decent preparations and then share ideas. Some people like to brainstorm things ad-hoc. Some like to sketch a lot. Some like to create paper prototypes. In general, it does not matter which practices and tools people use. The must have rules are:

  1. Diversity. Team should consist of diverse people.
  2. Iterations. First solution is not always the best. Neither second, nor third.
  3. Feedback. Team should share potential solutions with other people and with customers if possible (and listen to their feedback).

UX Phase Rules

There are many practices and tools you can try. I’ll just list some of them here:

  • Design Studio. In a nutshell, you have a group of people. These people can split into teams or work alone. They have limited time to sketch the solution and then present the solution to everyone. Solutions are criticized. Then you iterate based on the feedback and sketch again. We’ve been using this approach with good results. Yes, it is time consuming. However, time is not important when you want to spread the knowledge. So use Design Studio in the early stages of people involvement into the solution phase.
  • Sketches. The ultimate tool to brainstorm, explain, evaluate and present ideas. The main advice I can give is: hide your “OMG I can’t draw!” fear and sketch a lot. You will get better eventually. Sketch + speech is so powerful, so fast, so cool. You can iterate really quickly, try a dozen approaches and skip bad solutions.
  • Critique. Do it. Express your opinion openly and politely. Don’t hesitate to upset someone. You solve problems here. Bad solutions should be thrown away. If you’re afraid to say something critical about your boss’ solution — it’s a bad sign. Fuck the common brainstorming rule about ideas and critique separation. This is only needed if you don’t trust each other. Trust gives you freedom of speech. Use it appropriately.
  • Diversity. It really works. There are many proofs and observations on how diverse teams outperform experts and solid “think-alike” teams. Try it.
  • Paper prototypes. Not as fast as sketches, but still good. With paper prototypes you can evaluate flows and find bottlenecks. It’s easy to grab them and ask some teammates to try something. You can even shoot a video and share it with people.
  • Dynamic Prototypes. HTML+Javascript works best for such prototypes in most cases IMHO. However, there are many other tools that do provide decent solutions. We’ve had a somewhat mixed experience with live prototypes. In some cases they did work, and we got valuable feedback; in most cases we spent too much time on them and feedback was not so useful. Prototypes work great to prove some limited ideas about a solution, but they don’t work as full-blown usability tests.
  • Usability Tests. We do them on a real application now. About 10 tests give a ton of feedback.

Product Owner’s Rule #4: Learn and try new things

The output of the UX phase is quite simple: feature specification. How to create beautiful specifications? We’ll talk about that in the next article with an intriguing title “Visual Specifications”.

Software Development: Specialize or Generalize?

Now here’s a good topic for discussion. Many years ago we were hiring software developers as such. For the most part, they were good at their job, but not all of them.  Me, personally, and all my teammates back from these times – we were writing in any language. Something needs to be done in .NET? There we go. Any HTML work? No problem (well, the HTML work was mostly for me). Shoot something in javascript? Done. I’m not talking about the quality of these solutions, not yet.

Then, we became set apart from each other:  here’s the JS team, and they give zero consideration to the server-side tasks. These guys are .NET guys, and God forbid if they lay their hands on the client-side (with rare exceptions). This distinction projects into hiring as well: here’s a .NET, a .JS and an iOS position. It manifested itself in particular as we got down to tp3, putting the clear boundaries between various areas of responsibility. The UI is done in .JS and .JS only, everything communicates with REST API, the core team negotiates the query/response format with the .JS team, and off we go. This is a nice way to start a new project. Each team is busy with their part: they design architecture and do the refactoring as they aspire to perfection within their boundaries.

However, there comes a time when the teams are almost done with the architecture, but there’s a flurry of horizontal application-specific issues.  It somehow turns out that there’re tons of the UI related tasks, and few server-side tasks. That’s when specialization delivers the heaviest blow. The teams are not aligned, there’re twice as less developers in the UI team as compared to the .NET team.   As a result, a half of the core team developers hang around nagging for new tasks, and one has to assign them to not so important jobs. On the contrary, the UI team is permanently slammed.

My opinion is simple: there’s no ultimate specialization. Sure thing, someone prefers one technology over another, and works with it most of the time. But a classy developer is able to adapt to a new ecosystem quickly and write in any programming language efficiently enough. The 80/20 rule of thumb might well be in effect here.  You’re focused on your core competencies, at the same time reaching out to the new areas.

From the company’s standpoint, it’s very cool when someone can create a feature in its entirety. There’re less delays, the feature passes all the developments stages faster, there’re less discussions and handovers. One can truly stay focused on the tasks that are important at this very moment, and not shop for some work of a lower priority.

From the developer’s standpoint, it’s not as simple as that. I’ve never had any problems or issues doing something by myself.  For some reasons, it is a big problem for some people. Yes, at the beginning you’re not likely to come up with perfect solutions. Yes, there will be some naive mistakes. But, in my opinion, a great software developer can deliver sensible solutions even in a fairly unknown environment.
Next, it’s about personal involvement. Many people hold .JS for HELL. However, if the framework is done, as well as HTML, it doesn’t look that bad. Some interesting things can be accomplished with .JS as well.

Why I liked to do a feature all by myself? It’s about the great feeling that I did it on my own, that’s why. This feeling means a lot to me. How about you?

To sum up, we will now resume hiring classy software developers, the ones that can create the entire feature from start to end, despite the technologies, and have nothing against that.

Translated from Russian by Olga Kouzina

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