Thursday, March 17, 2005

Thoughts on web development

In a panel on "How to Make Big Things Happen With Small Teams" Jason Fried of 37signals presented a model of web development that focuses on developing user interfaces and prototyping very early in the process. This approach deemphasizes extensive strategy and requirement definition in advance of the design process and focuses on an iterative process of creating and evaluating working prototypes. Fried's theory is that time spent creating use case diagrams and strategy documents is time not doing "real" work. Furthermore, these documents are of marginal value, as it is common for people to interpret them in different ways. Jason suggests that these documents can be useful for the developer or within the development team, but that client input is best solicited once they have something to play with. This approach is complemented by Fried's philosophy of building light, general software without extensive feature sets.

The panelist of "How to Inform Design: How to set your pants on fire" emphasized the value of usability testing. Actually, it largely assumed that the audience understood the value of usability testing and focused on various methods of designing metrics and collecting quantitative and qualitative data.

These approaches to web development are instructive for the processes that I use in designing web sites. I embrace our current brainstorming and strategy doc system, but beyond that I need to fight my own tendency to over plan larger projects. I should put a greater emphasis on prototyping and markups as a way to solicit "client" input. This will be easier once Vijay and templates allow us to crank out working UI much sooner. I’ve also evolved my mindset from believing that I am 90% of the way “there” once a site is first "launched" internally to thinking that I may not even be half way there.

I believe that as a team we may need to do more to help offices think about the needs of their users and measure how well the site is serving user needs. Currently our strategy discussions identify our audience and our goals, but we are still light on user goals and user experience. I also highly recommend that we consider more robust prototype testing in internal software development projects.


Blogger Brittany said...

When you talk about "the site" are you refering to the NDI inter/intranet or to field office sites. I hope you are refering to the NDI site, because I think that there are a bunch of ways in which NDI could use the internet to bring people from disparate field offices together. I think this will serve to help the organization feel more like the small "family" that it was in the early days and also spark greater cross-firtilization among programs.

Obviously we need to maintain the high-quality of material that is posted to internet--published documents, press releases, etc. But perhaps the intranet could be a place where information is shared on a quicker, more informal basis. One time when I was in Sierra Leone, Niall (former country director) said that he thought that the intranet should be updated so often and have such useful information that field staff would make it their home page. I think that there are so many ways to make the intranet an exciting and useful place (not that forms are not useful and exciting, because they are.) For example, what about chat rooms or bulletin board for country directors and other field staff to post questions or ideas. Or what about moving DemForum away from an email format an onto the website where people can comment freely on articles without feeling like they are clogging their colleague's in boxes. What about developing a system to provide daily (or even more frequent) updates on programs and politics in countries that are making headlines as elections or other events approach, such as West Bank, Ukraine or Togo. There could also be a way for NDI staff in DC and around the world to comment on these events.

I know that none of these are new ideas. And of course I realize that a dynamic intranet would be a little unweildly, and probably require more staff dedicated to keeping it current, but I think that as NDI expands around the world we should look for ways to bring all these people together. In talking with field staff, I get the impression that they feel pretty remote at times.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I think there is definitely something to this notion of users making more useful input when they can see the markups. We have lots of experience with people mis- or differently interpreting what is included in our requirements docs.

I think the importance of raising all the questions in those conversations that precede the requirements docs are the key. And it is true, the design docs are really for the developers of the site. Maybe we should front-load our project mgmt approach with mark-ups in the very early stage, afer the conversations but possibly in conjunction with our requirements doc. Not a bad idea.

I would also say that limiting the scope of the req docs, and basically investing no more than an hour or two on them as we currently do, is not too much overhead.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

Brittany, I use "the site" to refer generically to whatever website I am working on at the moment. Your suggestions on NDI's intranet sites are great. As you suggest, there are many other ideas out there for making the intranet more lively and useful. Part of the challenge to redesigning the intranet is sifting through these ideas to select the right balance of useful tools without overwhelming people with features.

Chris, I agree with that approach. I wouldn't go so far down the Xtreme development road as Fried does. The devil is in the details though. I'm still not quite sure how best to deal with situations where the "clients" aren't quite sure what they want. Determining far we have to go down the development/markup road before we can get more useful input may tend toward art over science.

4:41 PM  
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7:05 AM  

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