Evolving a Personal Software Design Process

Self observing is always a dangerous proposition.  I remember my father-in-law, Dr. Michael Keleher, always remarking “the doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”

The following notes are a result of self-observing myself when I am designing innovative software.  Who knows what the real process is that I use.  Although I am sure that in the real process, procrastination plays a large role.

Over the years I have collected several descriptions of design processes that their authors have either offered as descriptive or prescriptive models.  Recently, I came across a model from Stan Davis and David McIntosh in their book The Art of Business: Make All Your Work a Work of Art.  I have added a few steps to their process description to fit what I go through.  I am not sure at this point whether I would recommend this process, but it fits the types and scale of software product and business design problems that I am most interested in.

The context of their model arises from the authors comparing “flow” in the economic world and in the world of art.

The core design process model from Stan Davis is:

  • Hunch
  • Immerse
  • Simmer
  • Click! (the Ah Hah step)
  • Verify

To this model I would surround it with two other steps:

  • Unease, discomfort or stuck – something doesn’t feel right.  I’m frustrated and don’t know why
  • Hunch
  • Immerse
  • Simmer
  • Click!
  • Verify
  • Find the productivity metric

A brief explanation of the steps follows (some from Davis, some from me):

  • Unease
    • I get this background discomfort that something isn’t right in my thinking or in the world.  It could be a more general issue like with business design or it could be specific to a product I’m working on.  Or it could be part of switching from analysis to synthesis mode while working on a business problem.
    • It is like a dissociated pain.
    • The symptoms that help me recognize this state are:
      • I find that I am reading a phenomenal amount of fiction junk books
      • I really do not want to take part in any social situations
      • Very low energy
    • To get out of this state, I do one or more of the following:
      • Take an unrelated seminar
      • Teach or mentor
      • Go hiking
      • Seek out an old friend for a discussion on what is new or different in the world
  • Hunch
    • Scientific breakthroughs often occur when there’s an exception to a rule.  Scientists and stock market mavens both call these anomalies.  In other fields they are called insights.
      • Example from The Art of Business:  “On a trip to Europe, Howard Schultz noticed the abundance of cafes.  Unlike their counterparts in the US, they served a range of drinks that extended beyond regular and decaf.  They had a comfortable place to sit for as long as they wanted.  And they had plenty of customers who were happy to pay a little extra for the experience.  Schultz came back to Seattle and built that hunch into Starbucks.”
    • For me, a 35 year old hunch has kept me driving to develop a document visualization tool as a way to get extreme productivity for knowledge workers.  After many failed attempts (analogous to the development of commercial airplanes – DC3 described by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline to differentiate between what is necessary and sufficient), I finally succeeded in proving the hunch with Attenex Patterns.

  • Immerse
    • “You have to take in all the materials before you start sorting them out and eliminating anything.  You want to open yourself up and take as much in as you can without analyzing it.”  p. 106
    • “Whether you are an artist or a business person, preparing for a piece requires you to take on a student like role, learning what is on your palette, what materials you have to work with, and what effects you can put together.  The best way to learn about something is to learn how to do it yourself.”
    • My ability to immerse myself has grown by leaps and bounds with the advent of the Internet and Amazon.  By the time I get into the simmer stage, I have usually amassed the electronic equivalent of two bankers boxes of articles and have ordered about 50 books related to the topic I’m researching.  With the advent of the Amazon Kindle ebooks and the iPad Kindle Reader, all of this immersion material can be with me all the time.
    • This is also the stage where I enter into dialog with people who have the suspected problem, along with “experts” who have experience in the arena.
    • If possible I try and observe the actions of folks who have the problem.
    • I cast as wide a net as possible to explore the problem space.
    • I look for what are the key questions that people are researching or are struggling to articulate.
    • From the human centered design perspective of user research and observation, I am looking for that “got to have” latent unmet need.
  • Simmer
    • “After you’ve immersed yourself and before you have a breakthrough is that period when you sift, stir, rearrange, and wonder why it’s taking so long to get it right.  This is the stage where chance favors the prepared mind.” p. 106
    • “Software evolves, and it needs time for simmering and debugging.” p. 107
    • This stage is where I start my tentative exploration of the solution space.
    • I like to find similar pieces of software or analogous books, looking at form, function, layout and content.
    • I start exploring the supplier base – what can I buy rather than build.
    • I start the business model and profit patterns exploration along with looking for potential competitors.
    • I pay particular attention to whether my energy continues to build or dissipate.  If my energy dissipates, then I know that the timing is not yet right for the innovation.
    • I alternate quite a bit between the Immerse and Simmer states.
  • Click! or Ah Hah!
    • “This is the most talked about and least understood phase in the creative flow.  In mental terms, it’s the most artistic and least economic part of the process.  It’s also the shortest in duration.  You can’t really plan for an epiphany; what you can do is recognize when you have it.” p. 108
    • “The most frequent kind of epiphany is the retrospective epiphany.  It’s the recognition of what you just did, the enjoyable and emarrassing realization that you didn’t know you were having an epiphany, when you really were.  By the time you notice it, it’s already happened.” p. 109
    • In almost every design that I’ve done there has been a very clear “Click!” state.
    • This is the time of the conceptual prototypes.
    • Almost simultaneous with this state, I try to generalize the insight to see if it scales.  This is my how I know that it is a genuine “Click!”.  I also go through the stage of envisioning myself using it.
  • Verify
    • “Great! So you’ve had an epiphany.  Too bad that’s not enough.  Just having a great idea doesn’t qualify as creativity.  Now you’ve got to vet your big idea.  Creativity does not mean a straight line from idea to completion.” p. 109
    • This is the time of the behavioral prototypes.
    • The key effort for me in this stage is can I explain the creation so that the software engineers will understand it?.  Over the years I’ve learned that it is easier to explain if I’ve been peripherally involving them in the “Immerse – Simmer” cycle.
    • Collections of stories begin to emerge.
    • The one pager description and 30 second elevator pitch emerge.
    • I start putting together slide shows and making sales pitches to see if I can pre-sell the idea even before much expense is spent in building it – both to potential purchasers and potential investors.
    • I look for that moment when the potential customer or investor tries to rip the prototype from my hands, not caring what the price is.
  • Productivity Metric
    • One of the things that became clear in the development of the first two Attenex software products (Patterns and Structure) is the creative power that comes from having a clear productivity metric.  With Patterns we discovered a productivity metric very early on – reviewer document decisions per hour.  By adding a productivity test to the standard stages of human centered design, and agile software development, we had an instant guide as to whether a piece of functionality was good or bad for the product – did it increase or decrease document decisions per hour?  With Structure, even after four years, we still had no clear productivity metric (the problem with almost every knowledge management application).  As a result, we had to give up on the development and marketing of Structure.

One might ask in looking at the above, how this design process is the same or different than the model I’ve shared before with the six circles?

The Socha-Walter Software Design Model presented above assumes that it is a group process with a multi-disciplinary team.  The personal software design model is unique to the way I think and work within the context of the group model.  There is a mapping between each of the steps that fit into the group design model, and that is a topic for another time.

What is your personal software design model?  How does it work in collaborative design processes?

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Human Centered Design, Knowledge Management, User Experience, Value Capture. Bookmark the permalink.

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