Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bit by bit, inch by inch

As I've mentioned before, I'm a business analyst with a bit of a technical background. This is to my advantage in one area in particular:


I honestly don't know why industries don't do this more. Car companies do it, as do clothing and food companies. Do up a rough, hand it over, and see what comes up.

With some segments of the software industry, though, it seems the norm to only let the customer see and touch the product in five to ten minute increments, or through a series of nicely printed screen shots. The fear is that the customer will (dun dun DUN!) change his or her mind.

You know what? They do that anyway.

The other worry is that the customer doesn't really know what they want. While this is true, it's not unusual to get a customer that will have that feature, come hell or high water.

It reminds me of my son and video games. Like clockwork, Hollywood churns out a new kids movie, then a new movie themed video game. Without fail, about 90% of the spin offs are horrible, and without fail, JT will ask for every one of them.

What we have now is a subscription to a game rental service called GameFly. When he starts pining, we put the game on our queue. One it's in, we can watch to see how often he picks up the game. Some are duds, offering no more than a few minutes of entertainment (Cars for the DS was in that category). Others are too hard, requiring more than the occasional help from a parental unit. Others are just... odd. Happy Feet has us scratching our heads.

Yet he wanted, nay, needed them all.

At least with GameFly, we can test things out. If it's a dud, back it goes, with us none the poorer. I've started doing something similar with customers.

Instead of a long sit down where I force them to pull requirements out of the air, I give them a base product. Usually, it's an open source CMS of some sort, for which we have a shop of developers. Load up a few basic add-ons, then let them play. While they kick the wheels on their time, I can watch what they do from my office. Every so often, I check back in, and we refine what we have by slashing things that they never used, and making what they did use more effective.

True, I'm a bit more technical than some, and a bit less fearless. Honestly, though, what I'm doing doesn't require a lot of code slinging. Plone has a feature where you can import UML to create a product. It looks like the Django community is working on one too. If you can make Visio work, I argue that you can be taught UML.

There are downsides to this process. It takes longer. You're dependent on the client actually kicking the wheels when you're not at their desk. Devs come in at a later state, which some object to. It relies on open source or out of the box products. It assumes your customers are the kinds who can change their minds.

Still, in my three betas, it's going well. It may not have the rush of a grand vision, but at least I'm reasonably sure at the end that it'll get used.

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