VW a lesson in marketing versus regulations

By now you will be very aware of the VW diesel scandal where the software on the car detected when the car was being tested and controlled exhaust emissions to past the test.

Anyone that works in gathering requirements can easily see the problem here. There were two competing requirements Marketing and Regulatory and in the end the marketing side won out.

Big business is a game of cat and mouse. Laws are in place for a lot of things but for business the viewpoint of laws is the risk / cost of being caught and the benefit of not following the law. If the law is not enforced 100%, business will start to think of it as an optional law. There are numerous cases of settlements between car companies and the US government or consumers. The Titanic is a classic example of the law being met but the intent of the law being missed which was to have enough life rafts to save lives – the law had not been written in such a way as to force the life rafts to be enough to meet the number of passengers.

When gathering requirements for a solution, care must be taken to understand the implications of giving one set of requirements higher priority over another. Risk analysis is supposed to be done to ensure the VW, Titanic situation never occurs today. However profit is a powerful master and it will make people blind to that which is obvious.

Double check those requirements that fly in the face of morals to make sure you are not ignoring something that will later make you a headline.

 

The industrial revolution 2.0 – where Jane & John Doe programs make sense

If you ever saw pictures from the original industrial revolution (1790 – 1870) you would have seen machines producing goods that also required humans to keep them supplied with materials. In some cases it was dangerous work as the humans darted under the mechanism of the machine to keep it supplied. One wrong step and the human resource was injured or killed.

These machine in their own way were original pieces of programming. Basically the Steam Punk of code where the internal workings are completely visible. Humans basically made up the shortfall in what could not be replaced easily or affordably by machine.

Step forward into today and while the brass and iron has vanished we still have humans fulfilling the roles where machines have not caught up.

Amazon pickers is an example of the humans still meeting the need.

When do you ask does it make sense to replace the human programs (lets call them Jane & John Doe)?

NOTE: This article is a somewhat tongue in cheek consideration of the removal of humans from the workforce and is not meant to offend anyone who is worried about AI takeover.

Let’s first look at the benefit of our human Jane and John Doe programs:

1 – Easily programmed if task is not too complicated.

2 – Can be programmed by other existing programs.

3 – Adaptable interface – Buttons, levers, switches etc.. are not an issue.

4 – Can be replaced if failing.

5 – Low short term investment costs.

6 – Can be easily reprogrammed as tasks change.

7 – Multiple interface methods for programming – auditory, touch, visual.

 

The cons of Jane and John Doe:

1 – Program can leave of own accord requiring another program to be obtained.

2 – Program can be injured requiring maintenance costs to be paid even if another program replaces it.

3 – Not all programs are of equal ability which can cause quality issues.

4 – Limited amount of transactions per hour can be handled and there is risk of memory leakage if the task is too frequent or repetitive.

 

Now let us consider the attributes of the equation to determine when to replace the Jane and John Doe programs with actual computerized machines :

1 – Cost of your current Jane and John Does + cost to remove them from the role versus the cost of the computerized machine.

2 – Frequency of the transaction – more frequent or increasing frequency raises the number of Jane and John Does programs you require making a computerized alternative more attractive.

3 – Availability of Jane and John Does – if they are getting harder to find, their cost goes up.

4 – Complexity of the task – like point 3, if the complexity of the task is getting higher, the number of Jane and John Does that can do it get less, increasing their cost.

5 – Long term need for Jane and John Doe – if the task is not changing and going to be around a long time, programming a computerized alternative makes sense as the long term return can be seen.

6 – Reliability of the computerized alternatives or level of risk a single failure point can create. When you have a large human set of programs, there is a lot of redundancy built in if one fails. With a computerized machine, when it fails, there is no backup until it is repaired.

There are probably a multitude of other reasons to keep or replace Jane and John Doe. This article is just to make you think about it from a ROI point of view and how history repeats itself 200 years later.

To quote what the head of an IT operations once said to me back in the 1989 “As soon as the cost of the tape system comes down to being cheaper than the staff I will get rid of the operations staff.” By 1992 the operations staff were out of a job as a machine had replaced them – the cost had come down enough. Machines eventually get cheaper than their human counterparts.

 

Data handling – know when to bring the experts on board.

We all know about the Y2K incident with the 2 digit year however there are still examples of data storage length being inappropriate for the data to be stored.

If you are a Business Analyst that deals with data then it is important to always be questioning the data requirements to ensure that they meet the need of the business / application now and especially in the future.

Industries where data is critical to their function will probably leverage Data Modelers / Engineers / Scientists to manage data definition. As a BA we should not be afraid to state when the  data knowledge is beyond us and ask for the project to employ one of these specialists. Do not try and wing it because the end result can be expensive to the company.

To read up on some of the impacts of data, see this article below from the BBC:

Data Handling that led to disasters

Four components to measuring success of your product / release.

Whatever you are working on will eventually end up with a new or updated product being released. Prior to that release date, consideration should be given to how to measure success.

There are four components to measuring success:
1 – Determine what is to be measured.
What is the new or improved product supposed to achieve? Hopefully you already know the answer to this prior to even starting development.
A business should have clearly defined goals as to what is expected via the release of the new or improved product. These goals should be quantifiable in a mathematical way even if you have to hire a PHD mathematician to determine the formula that quantifies it.

Examples:
a – Game averages 1000 downloads per day over a 3 month period.
b – LED Lightbulb increases market share for our brand over others.
c – New website design increases revenue from marketing and attracts more visitors.

2 – Identify Channels to supply the measurement information.
Now that you know what you plan to measure for success, the next question is where to get this information from?
Channels of information can come in many different ways:
a – Data could be collected from social media site such as Facebook to see how many positive comments a new product gets.
b – Sales information could be tracked from online and physical stores.
c – Surveys could be performed on potential and actual customers.
d – Certain key words/phrases could be searched on in the Search Engines.

3 – Integrate and absorb the data from the Channels.
Once the source of the measurements has been identified, the next step is the actual integration of this data into your reporting system so that it can be sliced and diced to provide the measurement of success reports. Your PHD mathematician may also be needed here to weight the data accordingly so that no one channel skews the results unrealistically.

4 – Present the success data to the consumers.
Finally with all the data, reports can be designed / generated or data outputted for consumption by those who will make the determination that the goals have been achieved. At this point knowing who the consumers of the information is becomes critical as you need to present the data in a format that the consumers can understand and consume. You may need to engage UI/UX experts at this point if the presentation is using new technology so that they can help design the presentation.

Project behind schedule it must be because of the Business Analyst

Often I hear a fellow Business Analyst say that the sponsors of his project and the project manager are complaining that they, the Business Analyst are taking too long.

Assuming that the Business Analyst is competent then why does this project delay occur?
1 – Business did not really know what they wanted or needed from the project but they thought they did.
2 – New Technology or unproven technology is involved.
3 – Project schedule was unrealistic to begin with.
4 – People that need to answer questions are not making themselves available or are not available.

Business Analysts need to determine the above issues as quickly as possible and bring them to management attention. Delay in recognizing these problems will lead the blame on project delay to be directed towards the Business Analyst instead of people working to find solutions to the obstacles.

Note: Not all managers are created equal! Business Analysts have to be aware of how a project runs and be willing to bring issues to management attention hopefully with recommendations on resolving them.

Negotiation benefits of defining Risks.

Negotiation is an important part of the work I do and sometimes the clients I work with are stuck in the mud when it comes to accepting progress.

When a client refuses to move on after the benefits of the new product / solution are explained, then I move at them with the risks.

Simply put, I document the risks of staying with the existing option and get them to accept that they are willing to live with those risks.

Purpose of the exercise is to make the client think about their current approach from their point of view, not with me trying to sell them on it. If the client has managers further up the food chain, and they are advised of risks being present they also help to put pressure on the hold outs to think carefully about their approach.

Usually after a few days of discussion on the client’s side around the risks, the client is willing to adopt some part if not all of the new product / solution. Even if they do not adopt, I have not wasted my time negotiating against a brick wall.

UX, UI and Usability – 3 Components that affect Product Greatness

Today I am going to discuss the Hot Topic of User Interaction since it seems to cause many companies problems.

Looking at the main components of User Interaction, we have:

3-Parts-Of-Usability

UX, UI and Usability. The 3 components of good interaction design.

UX (User Experience) – This is the catch all for the user experience with your product that has not been covered by your personal User Interface definition (UI). It is all encompassing. Things like color, texture, speed, efficiency, reliability, words, fonts etc. can fall into this bucket. Depending on what your product does, the list could be vast.

UI (User Interface) – This is interface between the user of your product (may not always be human – think dog door) and the product itself. Depending on how well you understand the users, the interface may be great or a complete miss. UI can be built without any consideration for UX since at the end of the day by definition, UI enables a user to interact with a product. To explain the previous sentence, think of a Light Switch. Your office may have light switches that are all the color red. If I give you a white light switch to replace a red one, it is still a valid UI solution since it can be used to turn lights on and off but from an overall UX perspective I have just changed the color to not match any of the other light switches.

Usability – Different users will have different usability needs. A cat door will not work with a large dog but may work with a small dog. Understanding the needs of your users will influence the User Interface. A misunderstanding here could lead to a UI that is only partly successful. In the perfect world, the UI should be a perfect match for the needs of the users.

 

UX-Good-Design-Components

Good Interaction Design means that the UI (User Interface) and the users that will use it are a great match and overall the interface creates a great UX (User Experience).

When we look at a well designed product be it software, web site or a physical product like a Dog Door certain things are evident:

  1. The User Interface ties in perfectly with the User of the product requirements.
  2. The Product looks and feels great to the user and the UI dovetails nicely into the UX.

 

UX-Bad-Design-Components

Bad UX means that the User Interface does not match the requirements of the Users and the overall UX is not great.

If we look at bad interface design it has missed the needs of the users and the overall user experience beyond the user interface is not great.

Why do we end up with bad interface design?

  1. Expectation that the person designing the User Interface (UI) understands the current needs of the users that will be using the product. Just because someone is able to build a UI that does not mean they understand the users that will be using the end product. Think of the light switch example given previously.
  2. Not building a new UI when it is not working or significantly changing the UI to meet the needs of the current users or new users without research.
  3. Usability requirements incomplete or the users of the product not understood. You could come up with a great touch screen application for use in food factories only to find out that they cannot have the glass of the touch screen on the factory floor because of contamination risks to the food product if the glass was to break in an accident!
  4. No research done with users to get their feedback on UI / UX / Usability before or after the product is created.
  5. Cost cutting done at the expense of Usability / UX i.e. the focus being on getting the UI released at all costs.

How to create good interfaces?

  1. Understand your users in detail.
  2. Work with experts that know how to establish the important interface requirements to meet the user needs.
  3. Track the user experience before and after the product is released to pinpoint problems.
  4. Don’t rely on the UI person to do the UX and Usability or to even have the skills to do this analysis.
  5. Leverage interfaces that have already established good Usability / UX and modify them to meet your product’s needs – Don’t reinvent the wheel unless your product further enhances Usability / UX and you have proven that with research.

 

Moving to Agile tougher in big IT shops with Offshoring

August 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Business Analyst Skills, Project Management, ROI 

This desire or thought that Agile is quicker can put blinders on the people who suggest it.

In a small IT shop of very structured environment it may bring benefit quickly but in larger IT shops it can be a different story.

When implementing Agile as a method of delivery you need to consider:

  1. Does my department need to interface with other departments for either development or testing?
  2. Will systems be available when my offshore resources need them.

 

Point 1 – the other departments.

You may have gone Agile but that does not mean your other departments have. Imagine if they are in the process of implementing a change or you find a bug in their systems. How long will it take them to respond is a question you should ask. Otherwise the expensive Agile team will be sitting around doing nothing while you wait for the other department to resolve the issue.

Point 2 – system availability for offshore resources.

It is not such a big deal when you are waterfalling a project that every now and again a system may be down for a day or two. In the Agile world, down time is measured in hours. Every hour that a system is not available to a resource means lost time in the Sprint window. It will not be long before the whole sprint is impacted.

Remember then the impacts of Agile when working with other departments and offshore resources as it may not bring you the benefits you desire.

Are you losing money by not monitoring how your customers are using your product?

July 13, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Business Analyst Skills, ROI, Web Sites 

If you have a product that customers use to reach other customers have you considered the ramifications should customers start to use it in unexpected if not undesirable ways.

The outcome here can be both positive and negative.

Think Craigslist.org – they came under the spotlight at one time because people started to use their software to sell sex and in some cases it involved trafficking of people. I am sure that the founders of Craigslist did not foresee this unfortunate outcome of their useful product. Gun manufacturers fall into the same issue with people using their weapons to commit crime.

Alternatively if you monitor how your customers are using your product you may find opportunities to expand beyond your original mission statement. Anecdotal story was that at one point, students at a university were taking the milk / bread crates from grocery stores to make dorm furniture at a university in Ohio. It got so bad that stores had to start arresting the crate thieves. Now some smart person at the company that made the crates realized they could sell them to the students and make some money. The rest is history.

It is important to keep track of how your product is being used by customers:

  • It can prevent damage to your brand.
  • It can provide a possible new revenue stream.

Checking job postings important for Project ROI.

This past week I was hired by a client to research a product idea that they had.

The client had done their own research and found out that the product did not exist today in the form they presented. They had even found a similar product targeted towards a different set of customers. Given that, they felt strongly there was an opening in the market for their product targeted against the customers they had identified.

Once I was hired, I gained an understanding of what the benefits of their new product was and who the likely customers were. I asked them to establish why they felt the opportunity was there – what made them unique.

Taking the knowledge provided by the client I then did research of my own.

1 – I confirmed that indeed there was potential for their product.

2 – I identified that indeed the product did not exist in the current form that the client was wanting to create.

3 – I crunched the numbers of the expected product cost against potential.

4 – I researched other companies that provided the same proposed solution but in a different market.

All looked strong for my client’s desire however I found a fly in the ointment.

Taking the list of companies in the different market who dealt with the same potential clients as my customer but without the product that my customer was planning to create, I did a job vacancy search.

Luckily for my client, the competition did not consider it a strategic risk to post their employment needs along with their company name. In fact with the strongest possible competitor, that company was advertising exactly for the skill set that my client would need to create their proposed product. In the company’s job advert, they went to great length to explain the direction the company was moving in and how it was a great opportunity to come on board and build the product.

A little bit of research saved my client from putting money into a product that another stronger competitor was getting ready to build.

I cannot say this will work every time because if the job openings had been filled at the competitor I would not have stumbled across the  job vacancies that described the direction of the company. As a back up solution, you can check the patent registry to see if any competitors have filed patents closely related to the product you plan to build.

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