Monday, September 30, 2013

Customer focus in product development

Goal of any business is to provide  product/services that delight its customers. When designing a new product/service, businesses put lot of efforts  to understand customer needs.  Interviews, Surveys, Focus groups are some of the techniques that are used. While the insight of  the development team, if they also happen to be the customers as in the case of  IT products in Social media space may be helpful, real test of the new product/service happens when it is deployed.  If the product is entirely new, customer may be ignorant whether a feature would be useful or not or may not  be able to express his needs clearly. In such a case use of prototypes and evolutionary development  would be helpful. In this post, I would share few examples of customer focus and how they can provide unexpected benefits as well.

First let us consider the production of digital magazines. As we all know digital magazines try to mimic the look and feel of print magazines. So they provide two up views, nice animation of page turning, but as the resolution of most computer monitors is poor, they provide  zoom levels of one or two, which may not be sufficient.  One new vendor (Example: Digital DNA epaper) has come up with a feature where the selected article is provided in HTML, where the  text size would be much easier to read.

As a second example, let us consider the publishing of podcasts. If this is just an audio file, it needs to be downloaded and played. Alternatively it can be streamed.  As our rate of reading is much faster than our rate of listening and also provides opportunities for skipping content,  providing a transcript of audio would benefit customer a lot. (Ex:Steven Cherry's Computing podcast on IEEE Spectrum)  It is also helpful if the accent of the presenter is  not familiar to the customer.

As a third example, let us see how the audiovisual recording of conference sessions are being served. Most of these are just served as streaming video files, may be some times with timeline table of contents.  The presentation slides used by the speaker usually are not mixed or provided with the video.  This product will delight the customer, when customer can access the content in different ways like read the slides, read the transcript, listen to only audio and  view the video recording. (Example: GUADEC 2013 Conf sessions by SuperLectures)

While providing the multimodal features is a challenge because of the additional effort needed,  there will be significant benefits in terms of attracting more customers. Not only that, providing the contents in multiple formats particularly text formats also helps the content accessible to search engines and thereby increase their accessibility.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tool integration Kaizen

As per Wikipedia, "Kaizen" (改善) is   Japanese for "improvement", or "change for the better". It  refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, and business management.  This word  became popular with Toyota Production System, though the word originated when Americans started training Japanese with a program called "Training in Industry" post second world war.    

Kaizen  is started when a problem is noticed in an operation. It is also used  as a first step in implementing productivity improvement initiatives in an organization. As team members can easily participate in the idea generation and implementation, this initiative is easily adopted.  Though IT tools are widely used in  organizations
, there is usually lot of manual work required when putting together  progress and/or review reports.  The improvement required may not be priority for the organization, hence some sort of a kaizen is called for.  I illustrate the same with a simple example from Earned Value measurement exercise.

When I worked as a Project Manager for a product development, we used MS Project for planning and tracking. For Earned Value computation for a task we need PV, EV and AC. PV stands for Planned value, i.e the amount planned for a task (it is expressed in person hours rather than  money, as the project was contracted based on a Time and material model). EV stands for Earned Value, which is an indication of the progress on the outcome of the task. AC is the Actual cost  incurred for the task.  Effort spent by team members is captured in a separate tool, which was developed to cater to the project and its life cycle phases. User's entries with respect to task are also captured in a field.   As a team member can work on multiple tasks and a  task can be worked on by mutiple team members, it is not possible to find the actual effort that was incurred for a specific task. Asking team members to update the data in both tools led to consistency issues.  So the tracking consisted of more of the variance in the planned effort versus actual effort at the project level.

The kaizen that I proposed and implemented  consisted of adding a custom field(task number) to Microsoft Project and using that to map the team members efforts in the time sheet tool, by having the team enter the task number followed by the description of the tasks.   Microsoft Excel was used to process the exported  time sheet data  and MS Project data. The updated date was finally imported into Microsoft Project. This along with improved definition for EV of  a task  and manual updates from the members allowed us to compute Schedule Performance Index(SPI), Cost Performance Index (CPI) metrics at a task level.  Traffic light representation of these metrics made the project status more visible to every one thereby improving the tracking and ultimately the project performance.

Modern tools provide support for tool integrations or provide open interfaces.  Do take a look at the various tools that your team uses and identify how the lack of integration is impacting the work. Start an integration  kaizen to improve the productivity. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Managing digital Subscriptions

Sample view from a newsreaderAs professionals, we all need to keep up to date with industry knowledge through professional and trade publications. Few years back, the paper publications are the norm and one can always file them and study them when one gets free time.  Nowadays, institutions have started offering digital publications, with advantage of lower price and fastest delivery(over Internet) and  availability in multiple formats.  Unfortunately for people habituated to reading paper copies,  switching over to electronic magazine does feel cumbersome. While magazine publishers have tried to mimic the feel for a paper copy, by providing 2 up views (two pages view),  giving animation of turning a page, user has to play with zoom settings and scroll settings  to be able to read an article.  I feel most comfortable when I can read the article in HTML format, though I have to click on Figures to be able to read and understand them. Unfortunately not all publishers provide HTML views of articles (IEEE is an exception)

Graphic for Atom Feed
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Another aspect is about  keeping up with latest issues of magazines . Institutions send out an email when the new issue is ready. You may file it in a 'Read and Reference folder'. If you subscribe to several magazines, websites, blogs, it becomes very difficult to manage the flow. Recently I switched over to using Feedly  Newsreader as a way to  get to the feeds  from all the sites of interest.  It makes it easier to browse the feeds  and read articles of interest. Still you may need to select some for later reading, in which case, you can use the newsreader 'save for later' feature.

BTW, if you would like to keep up with updates on my website,  you can click on the feed icon on the top left of my website and add the URL you get into your newsreader.  

The applications also  allow you to share articles of interest using social media.   Do you have any other tips? Please share by commenting on the blog or where you see the reference to this in Social media. Thanks

Monday, September 09, 2013

Making Project Inquiries effective for knowledge transfer

Every project team would like to learn from their past experience and use that learning to improve the future. Other project teams also would like to learn from the experiences of past projects in order to do a better job.  While each project is unique, there are common characteristics among a set of projects undertaken, with respect to technology, client, end customer etc that can yield useful lessons.

Project teams usually conduct these inquiry meetings at the end of a phase. In this, the relevant metrics for the previous phase are presented and the reasons for successes and setbacks are gathered through brain storming and captured in an document. The templates used for the project inquiries are  usually not appealing as they simply consist of tables and numbers. Usually, the document is put into a repository and  it  is not likely that the lessons learned would be used by other teams. I suggest few practices  that will increase the value from project inquires.

  • Compare actual Productivity metrics with the estimates used for planning and update plans for the next phase of work.
  • Capture the lessons learned  in the form of an engaging stories with pictures, drawings and  have it shared on-line and off-line internally.  Consider the structure for capturing these stories by  assessing the project from project management  phases (Initiation, Planning, Execution and Control, closure) as well project management knowledge areas (Scope Schedule, Cost etc) .
  • Encourage the project team  to also share the findings in appropriate industry forums as these are great opportunities  to learn from outside the organization.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Benefits of Open source practices in corporates

Having had experience with open source and  corporates, I am interested in exploring how open source practices are helpful for  corporates. I share couple of  examples and  ideas on how organizations can adopt these practices.
Photo credit: Auregann, Wikimedia Commons

The first example I share is about experiencing autonomy. Motivation is  one of the keys for accomplishment. While Industry typically utilises monetary and other rewards for motivation, Open source does not offer much scope for it. So what motivates Open Source Volunteers?  It is autonomy, the freedom to contribute to an area of interest. By being an active volunteer they may get recognition in due course. Fedex days, a 24 hour hackathon, which gives  freedom for employees to build a piece of software that delivers benefits is a practice that has caught on in the industry.

The second example that I share is about having a open tool eco system which includes version control, issue tracker, mailing list, forum,  task management, and wikis. etc  to support  software development and making it publicly available inside the company for other colleagues to participate. This is called 'inner source'.  I came across an excellent paper "Open collaboration within corporations using software forges" by Prof. Dirk Riehle, which described the analysis from SAP, Microsoft, IBM,HP.  Upto 7.5% of relevant employee population participated in these initiatives in 10 to 18 months of launch. The benefits of these include attracting volunteer and motivated contributors, better quality, utilisation of experts, better support and easier transition from Research to Product engineering.

Fedex-days can easily be tried  by Indian software or engineering companies of any size. While 24 hours may be good enough for simple ideas to be transformed to working demo,  other ideas may require second or third instance of  the initiative or  optionally can be taken up by the research team.

For Inner source,  a company or its business groups  with 100+ employees would have better chance of success. As innovation becomes key for excellence,  these practices can be great enablers.

How does open collaboration work  in your organization? If you need help or would like to discuss more, do get in touch.