We’re Fast, We’re Not Cheap, But Are We Good?

Using the software term Sprint Velocity, I’ve mistaken Velocity for Speed for several years. Truth is, when I think of a treadmill, I might be confused about Speed too.

Speed and direction define Velocity. On the dashboards the software community is so enamored with, at best, we depict speed. Direction is mysteriously absent without leave (AWOL).

With Direction AWOL…

If you don’t know where you are going, it’s easy to iteratively not get there.
       ~David Hussman, 5:40 PM Nov 3rd, 2009 from TweetDeck

Good at Delivery, But Not-So-Good at Discovery

I have programmed with development teams that range from pretty good to pretty stellar vis-à-vis rapid incremental product delivery. But the products we built could have been better – particularly if we had been better discovering what our user community valued about our software.

The consensus at Code Freeze 2010 and DevJam’s developer Jam Session last night is that few of us have much of a clue about the people trying to accomplish things with our software.

Many projects cling to monitoring speed, but that’s not good enough. It reminds me of lyrics from the Steely Dan tune Babylon Sisters.

Well I should know by now
That it’s just a spasm
Like a Sunday in T.J.
That it’s cheap, but it’s not free

It doesn’t matter how fast we deliver if we deliver junk. Are there ways to measure quality? The Interaction Design community says so.

My Pet Product

I am laser focussed on a pet product. I want to experiment with giving my future user community a place at the table in iteration planning. I want my future user community to help us prioritize the product backlog.

I want to be abundantly transparent to them that their suggestions are acted upon and not ignored.

The cheapest and most direct measures of quality I have considered for this particular product are

  • How many community members can we enroll? 
  • How active are they? 
  • How long can we retain them?

Enrollment, Activity, and Retainment are the legs of this product’s stool.

Averting Usability Calamity Software

Can Usability Calamity Software – you know who you are – be averted by paying better attention to users?

What would the measures of quality be for your pet product?

Credit Due

Most of the observations I make about software these days –

the notable exception being giving the user community a hand in prioritizing incremental improvements

have been adapted, or stolen verbatim, from the folks on my software luminaries list. The gist of this post is derived from things David Hussman has said (and I probably mis-understood).

Integrating Interaction Design Into Agile Projects

Thanks to advocates in Agile community, many software developers have gotten proficient at delivery. Perhaps now it is time to examine what we’re delivering.

Better questions and attentive listening might avert those occasions where we do an outstanding job of delivering the wrong thing.

Discovery & Delivery

At last week’s last week’s CodeFreeze 2010 on the University of Minnesota campus (my alma mater), speakers David Hussman and Jeff Patton were wearing t-shirts that said Discovery & Delivery.

The authorized theme of CodeFreeze was Redesigning Agility. The unauthorized theme might well have been as David and Jeff’s t-shirts said — Discovery & Delivery.

How do we integrate Interaction Design into our Agile projects?

Looking retrospectively beneath the vaulted glass and wood ceilings of Memorial Hall, where CodeFreeze was hosted, one might conclude that the Agile community deserves kudos for improving our ability to deliver software. One also might conclude that we have yet to make significant progress integrating interaction design and usability into the Agile cookbook.

Interaction design and usability considerations will continue to play a significant role in whether people are satisfied using our products. We had better jump on the design band-wagon, or at least appropriate all the most forward-thinking interactive designers as our own.

Jeff Patton posed the following question to the CodeFreeze audience

If you evaluated the quality of your process based on customer satisfaction, what would that process look like?

Jeff’s question helped solidify an approach I have been considering for months. Three influences on my thinking are:

  1. Google’s slogan of Launch Early and Iterate (see my post Launch Early and Learn);
  2. Eric Ries‘ concept for startups of a Minimum Viable Product; and
  3. At CodeFreeze, watching Alan Cooper talk about Interaction Design and watching David Hussman and Jeff Patton talk about Discovery (e.g., Story Mapping).

I have concocted a recipe for a discovery & delivery process that I am eager to share and to take for a test drive.

User-Driven Rapid Prototyping

Lets call it User-Driven Rapid Prototyping. As the name implies, the approach involves rapid prototyping. It is also user driven because the people who use the application help the software team prioritize the backlog.  The challenge and proposed approach are a follows:

Challenge Integrating Interactive Design into Agile projects
Iterative Cycles of

  • N weeks discovery and 
  • N weeks coding & delivery

The diagram below shows what the iterative cycles of User-Driven Rapid Prototyping might look like


  • The hand palming the spiral is a Discovery or Re-Discovery Iteration
  • The subsequent handless spirals are Delivery Iterations
  • Discovery iterations, after iteration zero, are called Re-Discovery
  • Odd iterations are for coding and delivery, while Even iterations are for discovery (interactive research and design).
The software team consists of developers and interaction designers working hand-in-hand. Since the backlog will be now driven by the people using your software, the over-worked and frequently clueless Product Owner we’re familiar with from Scrum, becomes redundant.

Iteration zero –  Iteration zero is a discovery iteration. The goal is to learn as much as is reasonably possible about the community for which you are developing the product. Iteration zero might include chartering, creating personae, and story mapping. Also it might include any of the groundwork you typically lay before iterating in earnest.

Iteration 1 (and Odd Iterations) – Iteration 1 is the first coding and delivery iteration. Iteration 1 might only include some user feedback screens, or a polling mechanism to enable the people using your application to help the team prioritize features, to call out usability snafus, and to bring to light potential design problems. In general, odd-numbered coding/delivery iterations are for adding new features and releasing a deployable prototype. During coding iterations, developers are coding while the interaction designers are working to stay ahead of the coding/delivery curve with ongoing user research and design deliverables.
Iteration 2 (and Even Iterations) – Iteration 2 is the first re-discovery iteration. The re-discovery iteration is a chance for the interaction designers to account for any feedback, then implement course corrections as needed. During this time, developers work with interaction designers to address the feedback, to re-factor code as needed, and to plan the next delivery.

Designers engage in “designing with your hands” which involves making multiple, low-resolution prototypes quickly
~Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

There is no one-size-fits-all software process. There are conditions that are likely more amenable to the approach proposed here. Greenfield software projects and startup projects might be most suitable. For example, in the evolution of a startup, an ever-improving prototype might be used to attract rounds of investment to fuel continued development phases.

Wouldn’t it be a kick if the picture below could just as easily be the people using your software as the people crafting it?


  • Tim Brown urges designers to think big in this video on Design Thinking.
  • In Usage-Centered User Stories & Story Mapping Part 1 and Part 2, I explain what post-Agilists like Jeff Patton and David Hussman, have been telling the Agile community how we might help teams enrich poorly conceived user stories and how we might better use our iteration zero time for product discovery. That is, how discovery might be improved.

Software Development Discovery Skills

What are your discovery skills?

One of the most appealing aspects of agile software development is discovery. Discovery is the act of learning as you go.

Discovery entails asking questions, trial & error, and collaboration with teammates.

Jeffrey Dyer, professor at BYU’s Marriott School, surveyed 3,000 creative executives and conducted 500 individual interviews over 6 years to see what makes innovators tick (see How Do Innovators Think? for an HBR interview with Jeffrey Dyer).

What do Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have in common? Curious about the defining characteristics of visionary entrepreneurs, Jeffrey Dyer identified 5 discovery skills:

  • Associating – Associating is a cognitive skill that enables people to make associations and parallels between seemingly unrelated concepts or problems.
  • Questioning – Questioning is the ability to confidently ask questions that defy the status quo and open up mental vistas to possibilities.
  • Observing – Observing is the ability to recognize people’s behavior. 
  • Experimenting – Experimenting is the ability, and confidence, to be experimental (i.e, try new experiences and confront unknowns). 
  • Connecting – Connecting is the ability to connect with inquisitive and informative people from whom one can learn.
Jeffrey Dyer’s discovery skills reminds me of Sho Shin or Beginner’s Mind.

Sho is the Beginner. It denotes a starting point.
Shin is Heart or Mind as in put your heart into it!

Sho Shin is cultivating an attitude of openness and eagerness. A beginner listens. A beginner is full of enthusiastic questions and purposeful energy. A beginner wants to know. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says,

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.

Beware the expert

I said that an expert was a fella who was afraid to learn anything new because then he wouldn’t be an expert any more.
~ Harry S. Truman

Beware the authority

To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate has made me an authority myself.
Albert Einstein

Sho Shin is the seed of discovery.

Our challenge as software developers using discovery is to integrate Sho Shin into our daily lives. A step towards Sho Shin is to consider Jeffrey Dyer’s discovery skills

  1. Search for metaphors that help you better understand concepts and behavior.
    Try associating.
  2. Challenge the status quo. Welcome and consider dissenting opinions. Be wary of convenient and comforting patterns.
    Try questioning.
  3. Sensitize yourself to the details of your culture. Be a sponge for behavioral nuance.
    Try observing.
  4. Find the joy in trial and error. Avoid the natural tendency to summarize and simplify.
    Try experimenting.
  5. Cultivate connections with others. Seek inquisitive minds.
    Try connecting.