First Impressions: Sprintly for Agile Product Management

Items View

Items View

A few weeks ago, I attended the first StartUp Product Summit in San Francisco, and I was really happy with the event.  I shared some thoughts about my favorite speakers after I attended, but since then, I’ve also been checking out the products some of those speakers make.  I’ve been kicking around an idea for a web-based service for a while now, and I thought I’d start to log some user stories for it with Sprintly, whose CEO was a speaker at the Summit.  As Joe outlined in his speech, there are a ton of products in this space, and I have experience with a handful of them (RallyDev, Jira with Greenhopper, OnTime).

First impressions are incredibly important when choosing software in a space where there are a lot of choices available, and my first impression with Sprintly is that they get it.  When I signed up for my 30-day free trial, it was very easy for me to create my first product and my first items, and I really love the UI.  It’s simple and clean, while still achieving a lot in terms of presenting a significant amount of information without overwhelming me with it. In minutes, I had 20+ items created, and though I haven’t yet done much with those items (I’m just too early in my own process), I did have reason to make edits after I created the items, and to reorder them.  Those basic functions in the Sprintly UI are implemented perfectly – intuitive in-line editing for every piece of info on my story cards, drag-and-drop re-ordering of items on the screen.  I can say without reservation that I’m really looking forward to further using the product, and I intend to upgrade to a paid account at the end of my trial.

That said, there are a few minor changes I’d make.  First, while it was very easy to set up my first items, I couldn’t tell immediately where they went.  That’s because Sprintly defaults to their ‘Dashboard’ view.  While I imagine I’d use this view more often later in the process, right now, I’m only creating user stories, so I’m working entirely in the ‘Items’ view (Item being the generic top-level data object that acts as a user story).  It would make more sense in the on-boarding process to dump a new user into the Items view first, since all new items fall into a queue called ‘Someday’ as soon as they are created, and this queue is only displayed in the items view.  The Dashboard view only displays items that are in the backlog, currently being worked on, or are completed, and that’s the disconnect.

As soon as I figured out that’s where I needed to be, though, I’ve had no issues with navigation in general.  I’ll also add that the other main views offered in the app seem intuitive, though I don’t yet have useful data to look at.  When I load the screens, they don’t show me my items because I haven’t put any of them in the backlog or estimated them, or begun working on them, so things like velocity and the team cadence don’t yet have data.  The other thing I’d recommend is that Sprintly place their logo on all the screens.  As you can see in the associated screenshot, the logo is nowhere to be found on a working view, and it’s a really nice-looking logo.  The little sprinting man is perfect for dropping into a page header unobtrusively, and they do use it as a sort of ‘loading’ indicator when you switch from one view to the next, but it goes away after your screen loads.

A final note is that while I had the opportunity to hear Joe Stump speak, and that piqued my curiosity about the product, I also really like what I’ve found online.  In the company’s blog, Joe explains how they made some recent major performance improvements, and talks about his philosophy about the Agile Manifesto, and I really like his style.  It tells me that the company isn’t just making another product to track user stories.  They expose what agile means to them, how they use it, and lift the covers on some of their code along the way.  In terms of first impressions, after spending maybe an hour with the product, I’m walking away thinking this is the kind of company that wants to contribute to a community, and if Sprintly can leverage that and bake it into their culture and operations on an on-going basis, it may be a valuable tool in their quest to collapse  and consolidate what is now a pretty heavily segmented market.  I think the tech community is made up of people that largely want to support other people that give back, and this is a fresh new start-up that I’m happy to get behind.

Book Review: Sketching User Experiences

buxton_sketchingLast fall, I took a Human-Computer Interaction course offered by Stanford’s Scott Klemmer on Coursera, and one of the books he recommended was Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.  Subtitled, ‘getting the design right and the right design,’ the book is highly engaging and full to the brim with rich content.  Published in 2007, the title is a few years’ old in a space that is constantly evolving as technology continues to advance and innovations in design abound, but the principles Buxton espouse transcend specific technologies or implementations of design paradigms, and thus, I believe the book will have a premiere place on the shelf of anyone that has anything to do with user experience design for a long time to come.

Best Practices +

A major goal of the book is to discuss best practices, specifically in an area that is common to the design of all things, whether physical products, software, hardware/software combo, or services.  The central thread among what could be perceived as a disparate collection of “things,” is the concept of “sketching the user experience.”   Buxton’s use of the term “sketching” is much more broad than you might think, which could be a drawback for someone that wants to focus on developing better literal sketching-with-a-pencil-or-marker skills, though he does address the topic, and has since published a companion workbook with some colleagues that supplements this  book well in that regard.

When I put the book down, I felt “sketching” referred to a collection of activities, perhaps best described by “discovering, thinking of, experimenting with, tinkering with, planning, and ultimately, capturing and representing” various complete user experiences, including less tangible things like the space between objects, screens, points in a process, and states, and the motivation for choosing to engage or not, deciding when to disengage, and whether to return.  A designer or design team’s ability to accomplish that set of activities relies on using many, many tools that go beyond the pencil and paper sketch, though the simple sketch holds a very significant place in the arsenal of design weapons.

Reasoning

One of the things I liked best about this book is the way Buxton reasons about design.  For every point he makes, he raises and tackles the counterpoint as well, making for some very convincing reading.  His writing has a noticeable scholarly bent to it, which I found refreshing in a field where many books are about passing trends or the latest technological approaches to design.  Buxton makes a strong case for the development of much more robust curricula and design programs in higher education, while also imploring industry to take design more seriously, especially at the C-level.  Still, this book is full of practical advice; it just happens to be very well backed up by research.

Passion

Buxton’s passion for design jumps off of every single page, and I think this makes his writing very compelling.  It’s hard not to get sucked in by a writer who is not just excited about what he writes about, but also frustrated at every turn that there are so many gaps in the literature, so many companies that don’t “get” design, and little to no formal study of the history of the field, as you would see in other arts.  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a book that’s about complaining.  To the contrary, when Buxton points out issues, he also offers solutions, which is largely what makes this book so useful.  I particularly liked that one of his aims was to “lift up the covers” about design thinking for the benefit of non-designers, while placing responsibility on both groups to put some effort into understanding each other’s language, challenges, goals, and processes.  He repeatedly emphasizes that different types of resources belong in the design process playing different roles at different stages, and I think he does an excellent job illustrating, for example, how engineers and designers complement each other, but do so best when they are utilized the right way.

I strongly recommend this book for designers and non-designers alike, along with its Workbook companion.  Even if you think you have a job that has nothing to do with experience design, you will walk away richer for the experience of having read it.

Guest Post: MOOCs – Boon or Bane

While I’ve been knee-deep in Udacity’s CS-253 Web Development course, I’ve also been exchanging emails with Soumabha of Bytes and Banter. He, too, has been taking advantage of courses at Udacity and Coursera, so I asked him what he thought the pros and cons of these new educational systems are. Below are a few of his thoughts.

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SoumabhaSoumabha is a blogger, technology enthusiast and a freelancing marketing analyst. He is a computer science engineering student in BITS Pilani, one of the top colleges of India. His thirst for education and love for comics drives him to post on his blog Bytes and Banter
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One of the hottest debates raging in higher education right now regards the effectiveness of MOOCs. In case you are wondering what a MOOC is, the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These courses aim to target a global audience and generally reach them through video lectures or sharing slides and docs of their courseware. As the name implies, they are open to anyone, delivered online, and because they are free, they tend to get massive numbers of enrollees.

This concept of free online, video-based instruction was started by Khan Academy but it was Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence course offered by Udacity which amassed a whooping 160,000 students that brought the word MOOC to the world. Then came the Stanford initiative, Coursera, along with MIT’s edX and now there are many more developing sites increasing by the day, while the early leaders add more courses and schools to their offerings regularly. But enough about the history; let us come to the main question – Will this technology actually change the face of education?

MOOCs have the potential to actually meet a person’s quest for knowledge, transforming what might only have been a dream to a reality. While some MOOC sites are better than others, the ‘big three’ – Coursera, Udacity and edX have already impacted a million lives by making available to the masses the video lectures of professors from Stanford, Princeton, The Wharton School, MIT and many others. I for one, coming from a middle-class Indian background, got exposure to wonderful subjects and it has changed my perspective a great deal.

MOOCs also enable students to participate in discussions with a wide variety of others with different backgrounds, tastes and from different cultures. Friendships are formed, and these new ‘classmates’ can provide that extra push you might need to keep progressing in a course. The MOOC services encourage collaboration and connection-making, as can be seen with the recent addition of the Google+ hangout feature in the course webpages.

One feature which is very useful for working people is the ability to watch and do exercises at their own sweet will. Udacity’s courses are self-paced, which enables a wide range of people to join and helps the office-goers to manage time in office and get quality education delivered right at their doorstep. Thus far, Coursera’s courses are offered only at specific times and students move through the material as a huge cohort. In time, perhaps their courses will run all the time, too.

As with any technology, there is never such a thing as all good and no bad, and MOOCs also have a downside, the most famous being plagiarism. I once searched for course reviews and to my horror I landed on a site where course questions and answers were publicly discussed in a particular forum. Many people post code for Computer Science courses in their ideone / github account and often forget to keep it private. This just invites the cheaters to use the working code and pass it on as their own. Many students have complained about the lack of security and awareness which leads to plagiarism.

The value of the certificates students receive is also a big concern. While these courses are often the same courses offered at their brick and mortar schools, MOOC participants receive no college credit, and instead get a certificate of completion. When my friend took his Algorithms by Tim Roughgarden certificate to a placement interview, he was clearly told that these online certificates would not be recognized. Hiring companies realize it could have been anyone sitting in front of the computer, so the MOOC websites are finding it really difficult to increase their certificate value in the corporate world.

Finally, will MOOCs actually replace the in-school and the hands on teaching approach? Well that is debatable. There are many advantages of the MOOC system but the feeling of studying in a small class of 40 is something entirely different and maybe even irreplaceable. The special attention of a teacher, a structured 6-month timeline with written exams and the individual monitoring of not only subject-wise knowledge but also the behavioral aspects of a student work are quite essential.

Although MOOC services have a long way to go, nevertheless it is a huge step taken to bring education to every house (or at least the ones which have a computer inside). The development in this field can only result in some good and as the hurdles are crossed, this new way of teaching will continually improve.

Compare and Contrast: Udacity vs Coursera

I decided recently to brush up on my coding skills, because I haven’t really exercised them in a while, so I took the opportunity to try a course at Udacity to kill two birds with one stone.  I’ve been using Coursera for a few months now, and I was curious to see how Udacity compared – and Udacity had a CS101 course I could take immediately.  I don’t really need a CS101 course in general, because I was a programmer for a handful of years, but this course is taught using Python, which I have little experience with, so I decided to really go back to basics in order to pick up a new language.

The biggest difference between Coursera and Udacity is that Udacity’s courses use rolling enrollment, which means you can start anytime you like.  That’s a big plus over Coursera, where you have many more choices for courses, but often have to wait months for your course to begin.  I have no idea if Coursera intends to offer its courses this way in the future, but I think they should.  The power of these platforms is only amplified when anyone can start any course at any time. Another fairly striking difference can be found in the content of the home page when you load each site.  

At Coursera, if I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of the courses I’m registered for, and can click a ‘Go to Class’ button for any of them.  I like the design quite a bit – each course has an image, so there is something visually interesting on the page, and there is a progress bar for each course that has started to show you how far along you are in that given course.  To get any specific course information, I have to ‘Go to Class.’
At Udacity, when I go to the home page and am logged in, I see a list of announcements for the courses I am enrolled in, and there is a small widget in the upper right corner with a link to my courses.  Because Udacity leaves its courses open, they offer the opportunity to continue to engage, even after you’ve completed the course.  New content in the form of problem sets is added periodically, for instance.  So, one of the positive aspects of the home page announcements is that they may pull me back into a course I might otherwise forget about.  

While I tend to like very simple, clean, straightforward designs, I would like to see something visually interesting on this screen, which I don’t, short of an icon that appears next to each announcement. Another negative aspect of their approach is that when I click on the CS101 link to enter the “classroom,” the system automatically assumes I’m starting at the beginning and begins to play the very first video lecture.  The system does remember what I’ve completed already, which I can see because a green checkmark shows up next to each lecture or assignment I’ve already finished, so it’s fairly easy to scroll down to the first unfinished session and go from there – but it begs the question – if they’ve remembered where I left off, why not take me there right away?
Compare these two screens, and you’ll see both companies have implemented a very “white” design, with Coursera tossing in a bit of light gray for additional contrast.  I like Coursera’s approach a bit better because of that additional contrast, but think both designs are good in general.  Given these two, and what I like about each of them, below is a simple mockup of a design approach that would make me happier than either individual design does.

Human-Computer Interaction

I promised recently that I’d talk about a project I’m working on for the Human-Computer Interaction course I’m taking through Coursera.  The course takes us through a standard design process, starting with a very short and broad design brief and applying various methods to understand user needs.  Students move through 2-3 iterations of prototyping, beginning with low-fidelity prototypes using Balsamiq’s Mockups (a great tool, by the way), and advancing to higher-fidelity interactive prototypes using Justinmind’s Prototyper (I was less impressed with this tool – it has some serious usability issues itself, which seems ironic considering the space they’re in).  We create development plans, user testing plans, and conduct user testing, while also covering topic areas such as human cognition, visual representation, information design, heuristic evaluation, and creating and running experiments.  It’s a great hands-on course that also offers lots of theory and practical information if you have the time to dedicate to it, and if you don’t, there’s a lighter-weight track that offers all the lectures and quizzes without the hands-on project.

I chose to implement the hands-on project because I learn best by doing.  Having recently finished a Gamification course, and being a regular user of LinkedIn, it struck me that there really aren’t any broad, technology-based career or recruiting services that address career change or make the process of looking for a job a particularly fun or satisfying experience.

On the topic of career change, there seem to be too many companies complaining that they can’t find the resources they need, even with the ridiculous unemployment rates we’ve experienced in the past few years.  Add to that that people are living and working longer, and much more likely to have 2 or even 3 distinct “careers” over the course of their working lives, and you’d think this would be an opportunity someone would take a stab at.  I personally think there’s a need on both sides of the fence – companies need a broader pool of resources to pull from, and there are plenty of people that need jobs and can’t find them, or could use some help moving in new directions.  Jobs have become so specialized that it can be really difficult to shift after you have any significant experience.

On the topic of fun, I think a career site that focuses on more than just a place to post what amounts largely to an online version of a resume, and does so using gamification, would be a big hit with job seekers.  It can be disheartening to look for a job, especially when the path to the job you want isn’t obvious.  I think this calls for a service that analyzes existing skills and interests, while also mapping them to other compatible job types.  Think of a site that would be integrated with learning resources, give you the ability to test in certain skills, and reward you for building your skills or spending more time breaking down information about your history and interests.  A site that allows you to set multiple objectives so you can keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not normally think of yourself.

I could go on and on about this topic, but for now, I’ll share screen shots of both the low-fidelity and higher-fidelity prototypes from two screens in the project – the Home Page, and the page you’d see if you clicked on ‘Build my knowledge.’  In the end, my idea was a bit too big for the course, so I’m not going to be able to flesh everything out that I originally had in mind, but I’ve had fun with the concept and it’s gotten me thinking about not only literal design, but also about a real life problem that I think needs a solution.

Early prototype of Home page made with Balsamiq Mockups

Higher-fidelity prototype of the Home page

Early prototype of the Knowledge center screen made with Balsamiq Mockups

Book Review: Kill the Company

Early this past summer, I blogged about an article on an innovation book that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, and it was every bit as good as I thought it would be.  Kill the Company, subtitled End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution was written by Lisa Bodell, CEO of Futurethink.  Futurethink is a company that teaches other companies how to be innovative, and Lisa’s book is based on the methods she and her team have used with clients over the years.  These techniques are unconventional, and it’s easy to imagine the electric energy Bodell describes as she recounts her experiences using exercises, like the one the book is named after, with her clients.  Much of Futurethink’s approach is just a very smart reframing of problems and questions.  For instance, instead of asking, “How can we beat the competition?”, ask “How can the competition beat us?”

As I read the book, I realized that while there is a lot of power in asking different questions, the real strength of this exercise and others she describes is in giving employees the power to share their ideas – especially ideas we might normally call negative.  It’s rare that we’re allowed as employees to attack our own companies, and it’s probably all too common that we think new ideas need to come from somewhere else.  Why would we expect someone in finance to have a great product design idea, or a graphic designer to hold valuable insights about competitors?  We generally wouldn’t, because we think too narrowly; we pigeonhole people based on any number of characteristics that end up stifling their potential to contribute to making a great company.

The points I’m making are not revolutionary to those that study innovation, but Bodell’s book offers a passionate perspective and is motivating even if what she has to say isn’t new to you.  On the other hand, the book is full of practical tools that any group could use to evaluate just how innovative they really are, and to begin to instill innovation as a core capability that drives the culture of the company.  I say “begin to instill innovation as a core capability” because, as Bodell points out, innovation is about small changes that gather momentum and shift the way a company and its employees see the world and operate over time.  You can’t be a complacent company one day, go through an exercise or two, and wake up the next day an innovation powerhouse.  Having spent some years in marketing, an industry that already thinks it is really innovative, I’ve seen first hand how inaccurate labeling can simply exacerbate the issue.  Just because a company says it is innovative and creative does not mean it is; it is perhaps even more dangerous to be in this category because little to no effort is made to increase the innovation capability.

I’ve also seen major change initiatives fail precisely because they were major change initiatives, and Bodell does a good job of explaining that not only are small changes the sustainable ones, but often stealthy changes are much more successful than loudly lauded efforts.  This was a particularly interesting part of the book for me.  I’ve long been an advocate of transparency in any business environment, and my first instinct was that stealth wasn’t transparent, but as I read on, it wasn’t long before I saw the wisdom in Bodell’s statements.  The context matters, and stealth mode may be the only way to initiate grass-roots change in a larger organization, which will always be more effective than demanding change from the top.  In large companies, especially those with a particularly negative or complacent culture, many people just flat out won’t believe that management is interested in change when the call to innovate comes from above – or, they’ll feel as though they’re just being asked to work harder.  There are bigger gaps between the people in the trenches and company leadership, often marked by a lack of trust.  In these cases, it makes perfect sense to assemble a core group of influential individuals and challenge them to start to change the culture from within.  The key is to give them the support and tools they need.  This book will teach you how to do that.

Coursera Update

I am in free course heaven these days!  I blogged earlier about the Gamification course I started with, which was excellent.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the concept.  There are quite a few misconceptions about what Gamification is (for instance, it is not the same thing as game development or game theory), and this course will absolutely clear them up for you.  It is also full of excellent examples of gamification in real life and a decent overview of the psychology behind motivation, which is what gamification is really all about.  Having jumped into a few more courses already, I can also tell you that Kevin Werbach, the professor of the Gamification course, is pretty comfortable lecturing to a camera, which is more important than you might think.  That said, I’m excited about the other courses that are ongoing…

I decided some time ago that I needed to hone my design skills.  I have a long background in software development, operations, and some product development and management, as well.  I have always approached software with a feature-first perspective, though, and for too long I even classified myself as someone who isn’t creative.  At least not in an aesthetic sort of way.  I’m completely comfortable discussing, planning, and developing strategy about what software should do and how it should work, but how it should look?  Not as much.  The gamification course fell into that ‘what should software do,’ category, but my current courses are a bit different.  Here’s a quick overview:

Human-Computer Interaction (Coursera – Stanford) – This course is taught by Scott Klemmer.  I’m about 5 weeks in now, and knee deep in an interesting project.  We’re running through the a typical software design life cycle, using great software to design our products (which are websites or mobile apps), and acting as usability testers for each other.  For each assignment, we perform a peer review and analysis of the work of five other students.  Like all of the courses I will write about, the biggest benefit of the format is the “homework.”  It gives you a chance to really develop your ideas, and at least for me, doing is the best way of learning.  I’ll post soon about the project I’m working on.

Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society (Coursera – University of Pennsylvania) – This course by Karl Ulrich is pretty much what it says it is – a design course, about the “things” humans create, in which I will have to create a “thing” of my choosing (so long as I can do it in 8 weeks).  We’re just a week in, but so far, I like it quite a bit.  The focus has been on identifying problems that need solutions and designing those solutions.  This really resonated with the problem-solver in me, and I was glad I would be able to tie my project to something meaningful that drove me nuts.  Part of our first assignment, in fact, was to list things that drive us nuts.  The textbook, by Professor Ulrich, is also available for free in .pdf version.

A Crash Course in Creativity (Venture Lab – Stanford) – I’m in the second week of this course, and Tina Seelig, the instructor and Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, is completely comfortable in front of a camera.  In the first week, we listened to a TED talk she did about creativity, which you can find here.  In the next couple of days, I’ll be visiting half a dozen different stores, observing things about them from their atmosphere to design to the way their staff treat people to what they sell and whether people interact directly with their products.  The goal is to “pay attention” and look for insights and hidden opportunities.

Like any new technology, these Massive Open Online Courses have their drawbacks.  It is literally impossible to reach an instructor, so if you have a problem along the way, you need to be able to figure it out on your own or rely on your peers assistance in the forums.  Given that these courses are not for formal credit, I think that’s manageable, but I have had moments of frustration.  For instance, in one assignment, a file I uploaded appeared for me when I previewed my work, but wasn’t there when it was reviewed by peers, so I lost a significant chunk of points for a technical reason and I just have to live with it.  Again, the course isn’t for real credit, but it may impact what “track” I’m placed in at the end of the course, and all of these courses have at least two paths through them – one is equivalent to an audit, where you listen to the lectures but don’t bother with the homework, and others are based on how much homework you do, or how in depth you go.  Since they are not for real credit, I am focusing on the tracks that would at least get me certificates of completion that prove I did the work and got reasonable scores.

Another drawback is that tens of thousands of people do sign up, but many of them drop out along the way, and at least in the courses I’m taking, group assignments aren’t uncommon.  It can be pretty maddening to try to decide when to  just move forward without people.  There are also technical glitches and bugs that the Coursera staff is still working out, but that’s to be expected.  That said, the benefits still seriously outweigh the drawbacks, and this is just the beginning.  I’m sure companies like Coursera are going places we can’t even yet imagine.