Monday, April 2, 2012

Care and feeding of feedback loops

So, I have to brag just a bit. Frequent readers will recall that from time to time I post about the teams I am currently working with. For those of you suffering from "too long, didn't read" syndrome, I'll sum up the back story.

The mobile applications group I work with consists of 5 different development teams - one back end services team and four client platform teams (iOS x 2, Android, Mobile Web). Although each of these teams have some really top notch people on the team, they were challenged from the process perspective when I joined the group. 

Our Android team was the first to launch with a structured methodology based on Alistair Cockburn's "methodology tuning" technique. The team is in the final stages of their first release using their shiny new methodology and speaking personally, I really am quite proud of what the team has accomplished. 

One accomplishment in particular was interesting enough that it warranted a write-up here. As mentioned above, the team is in their final stages of delivering their first release of a shopping application for the UK based grocery store chain. As this was the first time a native mobile application was being released for the UK market by our group, the leadership team decided that formal usability testing was warranted. 

Interesting thing about performing usability testing for an application to be deployed in the UK, the usability testing took place in - you guessed it, the UK. With the exception of the Product Owner, the whole development team is based in the US. Ideally we would have sent the whole team over to observe the usability testing, but given the distance the team decided to send their UX Designer over to represent the group.

The choice was a good one. The UX Designer took copious notes of the usability testing, noting equally the things that users were pleased with and things that didn't work so well. These notes were then transferred to the team at the close of the first day of testing, who in turn immediately started poring through the notes.

Here's the good part. Once the team was through the UX Designer's notes, they decided that they were going to fix a number of issues immediately and have the updated application ready for users at the start of the second day of usability testing. And they delivered.

Note that I didn't say that the Product Owner requested the fixes, nor did the team responsible for usability testing. The decision to make the changes in time for the next day of testing was made entirely within the team. For those looking for some measure of team ownership of an application, you could do a lot worse than using this as a benchmark.

Day 2 of usability testing dawns, and a new tested version of the application has been delivered to the usability lab. Prior to the team working in formalized iterations it is questionable whether they would have felt confident to turn around a new release of the application within a single night. Thanks to several iterations of practice at delivering a working application to stakeholders (the team's definition of "done - done" at the end of an iteration) gave them the experience and confidence to crank out a new release in short order.

I know what you're thinking. "Wonderful, they can iterate and release quickly. Look how 'agile' they are. Whoopie.", right?

Well, yes. They are 'agile'. Right on the front page of the Agile Manifesto it says "Respond to change over following a plan". All of the iteration / release conventions the agile community holds dear is rooted in this principle.

But there's more to the story than that. Right below that "respond to change" line is "Customer collaboration over contract negotiation". What seems to be lost on most of our industry is the fact that the word "collaboration" means interact, not guess. Teams that interact directly with customers on a frequent basis are getting the single most important feedback there is - actual feedback from real customers using the application.

Because the team had improved their ability to deliver frequently, they put themselves in a position to take the best possible advantage of that critical feedback loop. Prior to this it was difficult (not impossible, but still difficult) for the US based development team to interact directly with intended customers in the UK. In interviewing the team after the fact it was clear to them the value of having that customer interaction thanks to one of the team being on the spot.

Without the team directly involving themselves in the usability testing they would have received the resulting reports in due course, but they would have missed out on the opportunity to close the that critical feedback loop with their customers. A feedback loop that was particularly difficult for the team to close prior to this usability testing event. 

I think that the best news of all is that I can't take any credit for the team taking advantage of user testing in the way they did. I didn't even know what their plan was until I heard about it after the fact from the team project manager, Michael Buckland. Michael is much more than the project manager for the team - he's also taken over agile coaching responsibilities for the team, and has done a great job in that role. So much so that I may even forgive him at some point for being such a Scrum fanatic. 

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