Mindlessly going through the design process motions

I have to admit that I still read Mini-Microsoft regularly (and occasionally sneak in a comment) even though I’m no longer a Microsoft employee. Mostly a combination of schadenfreude and getting insights on how to lead, manage, and reward software projects (mostly how not to do them.)

Hamilton Verissimo’s story

Today I read Hamilton Verissimo’s story that someone posted on Mini on why he left Microsoft. I found the following two snippets especially interesting:

For PMs, like me, some manager pushes idiot time-consuming exercises like scenario validation…two months to produce collateral that is bound to be useless in six months, since everything is likely to change.

I’m a big believer in scenario-based design and believe that, when done properly, is the best way to make a good design great. Consequently, I found this slam disturbing.

BTW: I’m not impressed by the “bound to be useless in six months, since everything is likely to change” claim. That’s a classic technologist argument to weasel out of something you don’t want to do. (Disagree? Try this exercise: The iPhone was released in June 2007—well more than 6 months. Identify the 10 top original iPhone scenarios that have completely changed since then. Should be easy to do if this claim were true. How about 3? OK, give me just one.) But I think what he’s really saying is that giant specs aren’t effective, which I completely agree with.

But then Hamilton goes on to describe the challenges he faced:

One thing that really frustrated me was that those random suggestions come from intuition, instead of actual scenarios/facts/data, and commonly show how disconnected MS employees are from the real world. In my case, as I worked in the developer division, it demonstrated how people there were disconnected from how developers work, and what they value. I had to constantly remind them that we should strive for simplicity since developers don’t have the time to become expert on our product, since it would be another tool in their toolbox.

Here, Hamilton has just made an excellent case for why scenario-based design is so important. We have a natural tendency to design for ourselves—to make decisions based on what we think is best given our own personal preferences and context. Scenario-based design, when properly done, forces us to make design decisions based on our target users’ point of view, by considering their personal characteristics, goals, and context. (Isn’t this what that “idiot”scenario validation is supposed to do?) Scenarios are a model of the facts and data we have about our customers. And designing from the target users’ point of view makes a huge difference!

Mindless process is evil

So, what’s going on here? Does Hamilton support scenario-based design or does he think it’s a waste of time? I’d love to ask him in person, but in the meantime I’ll have to speculate. The key words above were “when properly done.” My observation while at Microsoft was that the typical scenario-based design effort was a waste of time. The “scenarios” were actually just thinly-veiled feature advertisements, that did nothing but support the existing plan and inevitably ended by claiming a thrilled user. Such “scenarios” are just a process tax and don’t lead to better design.

While it’s good to have a design process, mindlessly following a design process without understanding the point behind it is just a waste of time. If your team is just going through the motions without making things obviously better, you’re doing it wrong!

If you do only one thing: Make sure everyone understands the goals behind each step of your design process. (A bit of training is a good thing!) Constantly evaluate what your process is buying your team and your product. If the benefit of a step isn’t worth the cost, find out why. Either fix the step or get rid of it.

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