Agile Development

faded picture of people working together as a teamI try to keep up on the latest techniques and trends in the web design environment, and today I stumbled across this:  The Agile Manifesto. While this isn’t specifically a new concept, it amazes me that it took until 2001 for someone to write it up. Even more amazing was an article I read about how the struggling economy is forcing people to adopt these procedures currently.

So…because customers can’t afford to waste money on elaborate documentation and software that doesn’t actually DO anything, designers are thinking that it is better to not work that way? I’ve never worked for customers who had the money to throw away on wasted research and documentation that will never be read. Well, that’s not technically true. Early on in my career I did work at a larger firm, and I distinctly remember being paid to document some software I’d written and wondering if folks would ever read it…but in general, I’ve always enjoyed working for people who would use what I designed.

Amusingly enough, though, that more elaborate company is where I learned my own philosophy toward customer centered design.

My first exposure to computers was as a very young child. Now anyone who knows me will laugh, because computers were only a distant concept at the time, but I had a teacher who thought we should know what a computer would be. She had us take milk-cartons and cut slits at the top and bottom. Then we put construction paper on the inside. The way it worked was that you’d write a question on one side of a little card and the answer on the other. You put the card in the top slot with the question side up. The answer would come out of the bottom slot, provided it didn’t jam up along the way. I’ve never met a computer that didn’t work in basically the same way…because it is really hard to get out something that you didn’t put in. Later, that would be formalized into the programming term: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

One of my parents’ friends watched me grow up with this passion for computers. So, when I was a Freshman in college (studying computer science), he hired me as a programmer. Actually, he tried to sway me away from college completely once I proved I could be taught to program. This was in the days when Fortran (the native language of dinosaurs) was popular on the face of the earth. Y2K was only a distant dream. I was asigned to deliver the early version of the product to the end users.

I went into a room filled with the clicking and clacking of the bits flipping in a computer the size of a large warehouse. We were installing one the size of a small store-room. (My laptop now exceeds that computers top processing ability, I’m sure.) I met the end users…and realized there was a real problem with our program. These were older men who had spent their lives physically checking pumps and driving all over town. We were asking them to sit in a control room for an 8 hour shift and occasionally push a button. They were not amused.

Now, this hardware was the top of the line at the time. It had monitors (not all computers did back then…) AND light pens…absolutely THE newest technology. I watched one of the gentlemen glare at his pen, step farther from the monitor and then take a shot at it with the light. He harumphed. The buttons were small — designed for someone sitting at the terminal.

At the debriefing meeting after this experience, I sat in a typical goldfish bowl of a conference room and explained to the more mature programmers and engineers that what we needed to do was make the buttons bigger, so they could turn it into a game. The volume level in that conference room was…intense. Still, in the end, they implemented "the girl’s" suggestions. The clients loved it.

I was amazed that it could be so easy to help people make that transition, and it taught me to be aware of my client’s needs. For years, when asked what my specialty is in relationship to computers, I’ve answered, "Teaching people and computers to get along together." More often than not, it is the computer that needs to be re-trained, not the humans.

I signed the Agile Manifesto today. 

 Photo © 2001, Ward Cunningham 

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