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Role Modeling Steps

We will use the following steps to identify and select a useful set of user roles:

  • brainstorm an initial set of user roles

  • organize the initial set

  • consolidate roles

  • refine the roles

Each of these steps is discussed in the following sections.

Brainstorming an Initial Set of User Roles

To identify user roles, the customer and as many of the developers as possible meet in a room with either a large table or a wall to which they can tape or pin cards. It's always ideal to include the full team for the user role modeling that initiates a project but it's not necessary. As long as a reasonable representation of the developers is present along with the customer, you can have a successful session.

Each participant grabs a stack of note cards from a pile placed in the middle of the table. (Even if you plan to store the user roles electronically you should start by writing them on cards.) Start with everyone writing role names on cards and then placing them on a table, or taping or pinning them to a wall.

When a new role card is placed, the author says the name of the new role and nothing more. Since this is a brainstorming session, there is no dicsussion of the cards or evaluation of the roles. Rather, each person writes as many cards as he or she can think of. There are no turns, you don't go around the table asking for new roles. Each participant just writes a card whenever she thinks of a new role.

While brainstorming roles, the room will be filled with sounds of pens scratching on cards and will be punctuated by someone occasionally placing a new card and reading the name of the role. Continue until progress stalls and participants are having a hard time thinking up new roles. At that point you may not have identified all of the roles but you're close enough. Rarely does this need to last longer than fifteen minutes.

A User Role Is One User

When brainstorming a project's roles, stick to identifying roles that represent a single user. For example, for the BigMoneyJobs project it may be tempting to write stories such as "A company can post a job opening." However, since a company as a whole cannot use the software, the story will be better if it refers to a role that represents an individual.

Organizing the Initial Set

Once the group has finished identify roles, it's time to organize them. To do this, cards are moved around on the table or wall so that their positions indicate the relationships between the roles. Overlapping roles are placed so that their cards overlap. If the roles overlap a little, overlap the cards a little. If the roles overlap entirely, overlap the cards entirely. An example is shown in Figure 3.1.

03fig01.gifFigure 3.1. Organizing the user role cards on a table.

Figure 3.1 shows that the College Grad and First Timer, as those roles were intended by their card writers, overlap signficantly. There's less but similar overlap among the other cards representing people who will use the site to search for jobs. The Monitor role card is shown with only a slight overlap because that role refers to someone who is relatively happy in her current job but likes to keep her eyes open.

To the right of the job-seeking roles in Figure 3.1 are the Job Poster, Recruiter, and Resume Reader role cards. The Recruiter role is shown overlapping both Job Poster and Resume Reader because a recruiter will both post ads and read resumes. An Administrator role is shown also. This role represents users internal to BigMoneyJobs who will support the system.

System Roles

As much as you can, stick with user roles that define people, as opposed to other systems. If you think it will help, then identify an occasional non-human user role. However, the purpose of identifying user roles is to make sure that we think really hard about the users that we absolutely, positively must satisfy with the new system. We don't need user roles for every conceivable user of the system, but we need roles for the ones who can make or break the success of the project. Since other systems are rarely purchasers of our system, they can rarely make or break the success of our system. Naturally, there can be exceptions to this and if you feel that adding a non-human user role helps you think about your system, then add it.

Consolidating Roles

After the roles have been grouped, try to consolidate and condense the roles. Start with cards that are entirely overlapping. The authors of overlapping cards describe what they meant by those role names. After a brief discusson the group decides if the roles are equivalent. If equivalent, the roles can either be consolidated into a single role (perhaps taking its name from the two initial roles), or one of the initial role cards can be ripped up.

In Figure 3.1 the College Grad and First Timer roles are shown as heavily overlapping. The group decides to rip up the College Grad card since any stories for that user role would likely be identical to stories for a First Timer. Even though First Timer, Layoff Victim, Geographic Searcher and Job Seeker have significant overlap, the group decides that each represents a constituency that will be important to satisfy and the roles will have important but subtly different goals for how they use the BigMoneyJobs website.

When they look at the right side of Figure 3.1, the group decides that it is not worth distinguishing between a Job Poster and a Resume Reader. They decide that a Recruiter covers these two roles adequately and those cards are ripped up. However, the group decides that there are differences between an Internal Recruiter (working for a specific company) and an External Recruiter (matching candidates to jobs at any company). They create new cards for Internal Recruiter and External Recruiter, and consider these as specialized versions of the Recruiter role.

In addition to consolidating overlapping roles, the group should also rip up any role cards for roles that are unimportant to the success of the system. For example, the Monitor role card represents someone who is just keeping an eye on the job market. A Monitor may not switch jobs for three years. BigMoneyJobs can probably do quite well without paying attention to that user role. They decide they will be better off focusing on the roles that will be important to the success of the company, such as Job Seeker and the Recruiter roles.

After the team has consolidated the cards, they are arranged on the table or wall to show relationships between the roles. Figure 3.2 shows one of many possible layouts for the BigMoneyJobs role cards. Here a generic role, such as Job Seeker or Recruiter, is positioned above specialized versions of that role. Alternatively, cards can be stacked or positioned in any other way that the group desires in order to show whatever relationships they think are important.

03fig02.gifFigure 3.2. The consolidated role cards.

Refining the Roles

Once we've consolidated roles and have a basic understanding for how the roles relate to each other, it is possible to model those roles by defining attributes of each role. A role attribute is a fact or bit of useful information about the users who fulfill the role. Any information about the user roles that distinguishes one role from another may be used as a role attribute. Here are some attributes worth considering when preparing any role model:

  • The frequency with which the user will use the software.

  • The user's level of expertise with the domain.

  • The user's general level of proficiency with computers and software.

  • The user's level of proficiency with the software being developed.

  • The user's general goal for using the software. Some users are after convenience, others favor a rich experience, and so on.

Beyond these standard attributes you should consider the software being built and see if there are any attributes that might be useful in describing its users. For instance, for the BigMoneyJobs website you may want to consider whether the user role will be looking for a part-time or full-time job.

As you identify interesting attributes for a role, write notes on the role card. When finished, you can hang the role cards in a common area used by the team so they can be used as reminders. A sample user role card is shown in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3 A sample user role card.

User Role: Internal Recruiter

Not particularly computer-savvy but quite adept at using the Web. Will use the software infrequently but intensely. Will read ads from other companies to figure out how to best word her ads. Ease of use is important, but more importantly what she learns must be easily recalled months later.

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