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Property 6. Easy Access to Expert Users

Continued access to expert user(s) provides the team with

  • A place to deploy and test the frequent deliveries

  • Rapid feedback on the quality of their finished product

  • Rapid feedback on their design decisions

  • Up-to-date requirements

Researchers Keil and Carmel published results showing how critical it is to have direct links to expert users (Keil 1995). Surveying managers who had worked both with and without easy access to real users, they write

. . . in 11 of the 14 paired cases, the more successful project involved a greater number of links than the less successful project. . . . This difference was found to be statistically significant in a paired t-test (p < 0.01).

Their research led them to a specific recommendation: "Reduce Reliance on Indirect Links." In other words, get real access to real users.

Does it take less than three days, on the average, from the time you come up with a question about system usage to when an expert user answers the question? Can you get the answer in a few hours?

All very nice, but how many users, and how much time?

Even one hour a week of access to a real and expert user is immensely valuable. The more hours each week that an expert user is available to a team, the more advantage they can take of that proximity. The first hour, however, is the most crucial.

The other thing that is important is the length of time until a question gets answered. If a question won't be answered for another three days, the programmers are likely to put into the code their best current guess, and may forget to recheck their decision when they are with the users again. Therefore, they should have telephone access to the expert user during the week.

Here are the three user access methods I hear about most often:

  • Weekly or semiweekly user meetings with additional phone calls. You may find that the user loads the team with information in the first weeks. Over time, the developers need less time from the user(s), as they develop code. Eventually, a natural rhythm forms, as the user provides new requirements information and also reviews draft software. This natural rhythm might involve one, two, or three hours a week per expert user. If you add a few phone calls during the week, then questions get answered quickly enough to keep the development team from going off in a false direction.

  • One or more experienced users directly on the development team. This is only rarely possible, but don't discount it. I periodically find a team located inside the user community or is in some way collocated with an expert user.

  • Send the developers to become trainee users for a period. Odd though this may sound, some development teams send the developers to either shadow users or become apprentice users themselves. While I don't have a very large base of stories to draw from, I have not yet heard a negative story related to using this strategy. The developers return with a respect for the users and an appreciation for the way their new software can change the working lives of the users.

Keil and Carmel name additional user links, including facilitated teams, user-interface prototyping, interviews, tests, bulletin boards, usability labs, observational study, and focus groups. In a quick search on the Internet, I turned up a number of companies that specialize in finding subjects and testing software with real users.

I distinguish between the expert user and the business expert, because they are often different people. The business expert knows the business policies, including which are fixed, which are likely to change, and the dependencies between them. Users generally don't know this information. On the other hand, the expert user knows which operations are common and which are rare, what shortcuts are needed, what information doesn't really have to be entered, and what information needs to be visible at the same time. The business expert won't know this information, since it comes only from continuous daily operation.

The development team will contain a business expert (see Roles in Chapter 5). That person may be the sponsor, or the expert user, or it may be the lead designer. Such a person is almost always available to a project, and so I don't fuss about it so much. The expert user, on the other hand, is usually missing, to the detriment of the project, which is why I fuss about it so much here. Easy access to expert users provides a safety net for the team, as well as being a competitive advantage. It is likely to be a critical success factor for a small team.

"Okay, we've got the users—now what do we do with them?"

You need to know what they want, what their sponsors are willing to pay for, where their fast and rare-but-significant usage patterns lie, whether you have overlooked something critical. You need the users before, during, and after design.

Before you get too far into designing the system, you need to identify the user roles that the sponsors consider the most important people to fit the application. These are the focal roles. The system will present different "personalities" (e.g., fast and efficient or warm and friendly) to each different role. The designers will accentuate one personality over others, and you want to make sure they accentuate the most important one(s).

The technique described in a section of the next chapter, Essential Interaction Design, is one way to identify the focal roles and personalities to develop. The attraction of this workshop technique is that you can gather the information in just a few days.

During design, you will need answers to many small questions. For this you need easy access to expert users on an ongoing basis as described in this section.

After design, when you think you are done, you need users again, to evaluate your results. If the system will go to a few, local users, simply invite them in for a test drive. If, on the other hand, you have a large number of geographically dispersed users, then the cost of evaluation is greater. I don't know of any special efficiencies for this situation. Techniques for usability evaluation have been described for decades (customer focus groups and usability samples being the prime examples).

Before I leave this property, I ask you to read again the last paragraphs of the frequent delivery, in which I describe the troubles arising from not arranging for real user feedback. Even teams that do every other practice in agile development find themselves facing catastrophic bad news at the end of the project if they neglect such feedback during the project.

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