Agile: A Mantra for Extreme Change Fuels Successful User Driven Applications

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Summary:

What happens when your application software change cycle time shrinks from months to hours or days?

Over the past four years, we have overseen the deployment of hundreds of Web business applications all following agile methods. During the course of these projects, we have faced many challenges and found some surprising benefits.

This article describes some of the lessons we have learned and provides advice on how you might overcome some key challenges in your own agile projects.

Introduction

In 2001 when I assembled a team of seasoned Web professionals, we looked back at our frustrated past of trying to release complex Web applications in Extranet and Intranet environments. While we were always able to deliver these projects, the process was painful.

The review of our past performance showed that it was impossible to accurately analyze and document the real business requirements. Following a traditional waterfall method meant that projects were doomed to be late and over budget. We were plagued by changing requirements, unanticipated integration challenges, usability annoyances and ultimately the formidable task of training thousands of users in a short amount of time.

So we decided to look at the problem from a radically different point of view where we embrace and nourish change. Fundamental to this shift were two key project assumptions:

  1. Assume that the application scope can never be accurately defined.
  2. Let the application scope evolve during the project based on user feedback.

Agile methods align nicely with this approach. When complemented with tools that allowed us to time-compress the change and upgrade processes, we were on our way to dramatically improving our ability to deliver complex Web business applications.

Fast forward to 2008 and 400+ projects later. Today, we have successfully adopted an extreme change mantra where we constantly enhance and refactor applications as we drive toward meeting the real business requirements.

Agile - A Mantra for Extreme Change
Our mantra of extreme change is well served by agile methods. Over the years we have found that embracing extreme change has helped us meet our project milestones and deliver applications that are aligned with business needs and easily rolled out to large user bases. We have also found that business users actually make pretty good testers and that incorporating them into the process early and often results in a better end product.

On the flip side we have faced several unforeseen challenges. Collecting feedback from end users early and often resulted in a need to find a better way to manage and prioritize the feedback. In particular, help desks and documentation present a big challenge with embracing extreme change and must be addressed up front or you will suffer when you roll out your application.

Over time, we've developed a tried-and-true Agile approach to help overcome these challenges and continue to work on improving our agile skills and ability to deliver dynamic applications that support extreme change.

Let's look at some of the lessons we have learned.

Listen to Users at Large
Over time, we formalized our mantra of extreme change around an agile method and delivery platform based on Scrum. In the process, we learned how difficult it is to capture timely feedback from a large user base through the help desk and one-to-one conversations.

About two years ago, we started experimenting with embedding feedback functionality in the applications themselves. We added a non-intrusive hovering button to the bottom of every application page that can be clicked to expand into a feedback form. The user points to the relevant area of the page, types the feedback and submits it. The page contents, user name and session information are collected automatically, packaged into a Change Request and, sent to the agile delivery team.. The results have been staggering. In one case where an application was launched to 25 users, we collected more than 200 suggestions, bugs and comments in two days. Out of this 200+, 10 were identified as critical by the agile team (IT and the business) and they were implemented in three days. This tuning process skyrocketed adoption of the application

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