Author: Junaid Bedford, Software Developer
Clients need the ability to create value within their business through the medium of software. In order for clients to realise the business value that they desire from their investment in software, they need strategic thinking partners in the software development space. They need a partner who will help them face the right problems and craft solutions that align with their strategy.
A useful method of engaging with clients to help them conceptualise the value they wish to create through the use of software is to conduct user-story workshops. A strategic thinking partner recognises that client engagement during a user-story workshop can occur in one of three distinct ways:
- A client might sense that they need some kind of product or service, but may not know what the product or service ought to be. This is an unframed challenge, or a blank-canvas situation.
- A client knows that they need some kind of product or service, and they have an idea what the product or service ought to be. This is a semi-framed-challenge situation.
- A client knows that they need some kind of product or service, and they are able to provide enough detail for others to know what the product or service should look like and how it ought to behave. This is a framed-challenge situation.
(Source: VanPatter, 2018)
In all three scenarios, user-story workshops can help stakeholders set a trajectory for taking purposeful action. Furthermore, in all three scenarios, stakeholders could benefit by changing their perspectives of a perceived problem and an envisioned solution, while generating user stories. The idea that changing perspectives could be beneficial when generating user stories will be discussed in more detail below.
Essentially, user stories are requirements which express desired business value in a format that all stakeholders can understand (Ruben, 2013, p. 83). In addition, user stories form part of an agile framework, based on agile principles, called Scrum. Scrum is used to deliver software products and services – though it may be applied to other contexts which might not involve the development of software.
A good user story is one that meets the INVEST criteria. It should be Independent from other stories, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Sized appropriately, and Testable (Ruben, 2013, p. 88).
Dimension of value:
A valuable user story has to add some kind of value to your customer’s business, and to the context of your customer’s clients. That also means it should add value to a potential user of a potential product or service (Ruben, 2013, p. 90). By implication, if a user story is not valuable it does not belong in a product backlog.
So how could we create valuable user stories? Do we ask the relevant stakeholders what they want and simply comply with their statements?
Henry Ford said that “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The intended lesson – if the perspective of a team remains unchanged, its members might engage in ideation that would simply produce more of the same ideas, faster horses. By changing the default perspective, stakeholders adopt pattern-creating behaviour (VanPatter, 2018), enabling them to look for opportunities beyond the ‘boundaries’ of their current cognitive frame and to conceptualize new forms of value, like a motor vehicle.
To understand the impact of changing one’s perspective consider the classic case in which tenants of a large office building complained about waiting too long for the elevators. A consulting firm was hired to solve the problem. and proposed replacing the existing elevators with faster ones. In addition to the faster elevators, computer controls were also added to improve utilization. However, both the faster lifts and the computer controls could not solve the problem. The tenants continued to complain of the long waiting times. The engineers eventually declared that there was no solution to the problem (Ackoff, 1999, Kindle locations 330-333).
It was a psychologist who looked at the situation from a different perspective that provided a solution to the problem. While the engineers saw the service as being too slow the psychologist saw the problem as one deriving from the boredom of those waiting for an elevator. The psychologist decided they should be given something to do. He suggested putting mirrors in the elevator lobbies to occupy those waiting by enabling them to look at themselves and others without appearing to do so. The mirrors were put up and complaints stopped. In fact, some of the previously complaining tenants congratulated management on improvement of the elevator service (Ackoff, 1999, Kindle locations 604-606).
From this, we can conclude that the engineers approached the problem from a purely technical perspective, while the psychologist approached it from a human perspective by assessing human behaviour. It is not that the engineers could not do what the psychologist did, but their technical perspective narrowed their vision to declare the problem unsolvable.
Changing perspectives can deliberately help stakeholders see a situation of concern in a different light enabling them to conceptualise new forms of value into their user stories. Changing perspectives can help stakeholders transcend the bounds of the familiar and leap into the unknown for novel possibility. The iPhone, for example, was conceptualised from a different perspective to the norm at the time. One could, in hindsight, deduce that it was conceived more-or-less as a mobile-multimedia-convergence device as opposed to a mobile-telephony device, and all work was launched from that unique perspective.
We can change perspective with a design method called reframing. Reframing is defined by Kolko (2010) as “…a method of shifting semantic perspective in order to see things in a new way. The new frame “re-embeds” a product, system, or service in a new (and not necessarily logical) context, allowing a designer to explore associations and hidden links to and from the center of focus.” (Kolko, 2010, p. 23)
Figure 1. The innovation search space. Adapted from (Nicholas, Ledwith, & Bessant, 2013)
By being aware of the perspective; cognitive frame; one is holding onto, it allows stakeholders to change it in order to view a perceived problem and an envisioned solution differently. In this way stakeholders can let go of previous conceptualisations. They can explore the problem and solution space from different perspectives such as a user’s perspective, a different cultural perspective, an enterprise perspective, a societal perspective, a parents’ perspective, and so on. This may lead to novel possibility and even innovation, as indicated by figure 1 above. It can also help connect seemingly disparate dots into a new ensemble with a logic of its own.
While, in a workshop setting, stakeholders cannot always come up with iPhone-like ideas, re-framing helps them create valuable user stories by not being limited by one perspective. The creative thinking that emerges and the generation of new possibilities can be captured in user stories and lead to better products or services.
To be customer-centric one cannot simply ask clients what they want. That is not enough. One needs to help them think through what they want, need and desire. That form of engagement is one of co-creating business value together through the generation of valuable user stories.
- Ackoff, R. L. (1999). Re-Creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1162/desi.2010.26.1.15
- Nicholas, J., Ledwith, A., & Bessant, J. (2013). Reframing the search space for radical innovation. Research Technology Management, 56(2), 27–44. https://doi.org/10.5437/08956308X5601098
- Ruben, K. S. (2013). Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide To the Most Popular Agile Process. New Jersey, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
- VanPatter, G. (2018). Humantific: Sensemaking for changemaking. Retrieved May 21, 2018, from www.humantific.com