What Liquid Liquid can teach us about agile agile intranet management

March 27, 2008

Nope, that’s not a typo, I do mean ‘agile agile’. I’m trying to emphasise that if parts of an intranet are being delivered in an agile manner – be it crowd sourced wiki-style content or applications provided via agile software development – then the intranet manager needs to be agile too. Agile management for an agile delivered intranet.

It sounds like heresy to criticise agile methods, and I want to be clear that its benefits outweigh any disadvantages. But there are disadvantages, this is where your governance can bridge a gap. I’m lumping together applications and User Generated Content (UGC) such as wikis, but that’s because they both suffer from a similar problem, feature creep, lack of direction and an inability to differentiate important tasks from less important tasks for specialised (but highly vocal) segments of the user community.

I’ve seen claims that an agile intranet needs no management, that it is somehow self managing, but that’s not been my experience at all. An agile intranet needs an agile governance.

The ‘G’ word, governance, has an unfortunate air of formal, civil service rigidity, and this may be why ‘agile governance’ is perceived as an oxymoron. It doesn’t have to be.

Agile Governance in an intranet:

  • Is an enabler, not an impediment to innovation.
  • Minimises cost and waste, and maximises business value of the intranet.
  • Ensures that the legal, security, operational requirements are covered of the organisation but not in away that reduces point 1 and 2.

We’re still honing our agile governance standards, it will probably take a while to get them right, but I would expect them to include:

  • No anonymous user provided content
  • All systems / sites have an effective feedback process to a named owner
  • An effective removal process
  • An effective dating process, so that users can be confident of relevance
  • All systems / sites meet accessibility standards (and maybe some minimal usability ones?)

Anyone suggest something I’ve missed? I’ve not included what could be called “best practice” because it is difficult to generalise that, but I think there is probably a need for sharing best practice (e.g. my comments on making wiki’s effective) without making that “governance”. There still needs to be measurement of user success and a drive to reduce end-user failure. 

Neither have I said anything about specific technologies, though standardising on a set of platforms is a good idea in terms of support.  It’s just that I don’t think the issue of really getting benefit from agile / social intranet is about picking a technology.  Here’s a link to a blog post that explains why .

I picked Liquid Liquid as the pop music link because of the double name (I could have also picked Talk Talk or Duran Duran). But I like Liquid Liquid best… very interesting band and it’s a shame they aren’t widely known. They were an exciting collision of garage punk and funk blazing a path that still sounds innovative 25 years later. A mate of mine, Keith, runs a popular club night in Glasgow is named after one of their tracks – Optimo. but the link here is to one of their most influential tracks, you’ll probably recognise snippets from later more popular songs.

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What The Thompson Twins can tell us about intranet management

March 18, 2008

…or how to cheat when trying to assess stuff from design agencies.

In the late 70s – early 80s, I was living in Edinburgh and was a serious music fan, in between occasional studenting I went to see a lot of bands, maybe 3- 4 every week. Many of them were amazing, local bands like Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars, The Associates, The Visitors, The Freeze… and also touring bands like Joy Division, Magazine, Pop Group, Fad Gadget, Birthday Party, The Cramps… I could go on…

But one thing I noticed is that I was useless at spotting which bands would later have success. I once saw a band called The Young Marble Giants who I thought were just gorgeously life-affirmingly special… a band that never troubled the compilers of books of chart placings. They were supported by a band I thought of as wretched, obvious and talentless; The Thompson Twins, soon to be Smash Hits and TOTP regulars.

I’ve been going to see bands for well over 30 years now and I still can’t spot a winner.

I’m better at spotting good intranet designs, but only because I cheat by having a short mental checklist of things to avoid. All intranet managers should have such a checklist for rejecting things that are probably a bad idea. Quite often you will be asked to judge a site based on sketchy details from a design agency. A pdf of a screenshot or a few pages of ‘greeked’ text so that means you have to cut corners and play the odds.

Here’s another comparison: movies – I’m useless at spotting box office success too – if a movie stars Chuck Norris, it’s a safe bet I won’t like it, my checklist then -my heuristic- is that it’s not a good movie if Chuck is in it. Now maybe I’ll be wrong one time in 100 – and I’m not saying that this tells us anything about that movie’s popularity – but it’s a good rule when there are too many good movies and not enough time.

Here then is my checklist:

  1. Will it be easy if I need to add or remove something?
  2. Is there a page heading about one inch down, one inch in?
  3. If I screw up my eyes so I can hardly see, does it look balanced (define balance how you like).

And that’s it really. There are other things I’ll look for in a finished design, valid HTML, semantic markup, headers in sentence case, alt attributes in images etc, but they can be fixed.

The first point is maintainability. You will have to change that design… A real red flag is Flash used as navigation – I know its possible to do this well, just as theoretically it’s possible that someday Chuck Norris makes a good movie. But the flash navigation sites I’ve seen are usually a maintenance headache and an accessibility nightmare.

The page heading thing is basically to cover what I think of as predictability. Every time you click something the most common thought nearly everyone has is ‘ did I click the right thing’ confirm that (by a page title that explains the page) and you’ve won half the battle.

And the screwed up eye thing, well – not sure what the point is, but it seems to work.

Could I have used a checklist to tell if other people would like a Chuck Norris movie – or indeed the Thompson Twins?

Yes and no, I’ve weeded out the dodgy stuff, but I need to now pick the best stuff. The next thing to do is define a “persona” of a person that likes movies with Chuck Norris in them and work out how typical this persona is to my overall audience. For an intranet site I need to think about what typical users know, what their goals are, what else they use. A lot of this stage is less about overall design and more about arrangement and organisation and content creation. Define your personas, check they are accurate representations of your audience, check your personas can achieve their goals. Oh and don’t give them silly names.

But personas and their users stories aren’t a magic bullet see this discussion (via Phillie Casablanca, esp Kerry’s comment – cheers!) you eventually need real people giving you real information. I mentioned the Thompson Twins, I first saw them as a raggle taggle sub scritti politti band… but a year or so later I saw them again, supporting David Bowie. They still sucked, but I could see the rest of the crowd liked them, they had radically changed into a glossy electro-pop confection, they were getting very good (if you like that sort of thing).

The key point here is they evolved after they launched… I don’t know how difficult it is to work out you need to change if even the 50 or so people who saw you supporting Young Marble Giants one rainy night in Dunfermline, and who look like the sort of people to go see almost anything, still think you suck.  But they did work out they should change, and did. Intranet site ‘hand offs’ happen too quickly too often, the site is launched the same day the development guys finish, but you are going to get the most, and best, user information in the first couple of weeks you launch, especially if you don’t have a public beta have a development period that covers the period after launch. Use that period to improve your site, improve you personas and re-write your user stories.

Summary, in case you can’t be bothered reading all that stuff about CHuck Norris and obscure welsh post punk groups.

  1. Assess design quickly based on maintainability, predictability and the screwed up eye thing.
  2. Define user personas and their associated stories, optimise the site for them.
  3. Get it out there and be prepared to fine tune it often during the post-live launch period.

No chance of a Thompson Twins link – sorry, but here’s the Young Marble Giants.
Despite having little success in their lifetime the were pretty influential, Kurt Cobain liked them a lot and Boards of Canada / Ghost Box owe quite a lot to them. This is ‘Final Day’ the sweetest song ever about the end of the world…


Give me a reason to love you

March 16, 2008

Agile software development is a collection of principles about the development of software.

It’s much discussed and has many enthusiasts and detractors, I’m fairly keen, though I am concerned about the usability of the output; that’s been much discussed too.

A long time ago I came across a book which suggested that the principles of software engineering (at the time mainly a linear process called “the waterfall model”) could be applied to website design, and suggested that this be called “media engineering” – I liked the book a lot, but the concept never really caught on.

I guess it didn’t catch on because the majority of people involved in internet / intranet production come from a different background and didn’t want to go through the rigours of formal software engineering processes just to get some web pages created. But also because formal software engineering methods didn’t have a good reputation, they were slow, bureaucratic and failed to deliver, so suggesting they be applied to web site design felt a bit like suggesting in 1969 to the newly formed Led Zeppelin that they wouldn’t be successful unless they followed the techniques of the previous years best selling artist – Engelbert Humperdink.

However software engineering has changed since then and there are many great ideas for ways of working that are ripe for re-use by intranet managers.

Here is my first stab at suggesting a few things an agile intranet manager should do:

Agile intranet management

What will agile intranet management look like?

1. Much shorter design iterations. Have reviews of content every month.

It need not be – indeed it should not be – an extensive analysis, merely a trawl through available information to find out if anyone can improve anything. You want to answer the question: “What problems are people having and how can we fix them?”

2. Don’t talk to users, observe and measure them.

Agile methods use many techniques to remove themselves from the old ‘statement of requirements’ built-in-stone binding agreement that is out of date before the software is finished. You need to measure (automatically if you can) how successfully people can achieve their goal when using your site. You only get that information once you have something out there and working, so get something out there quickly and lead the folks using your site to help you improve it.

For instance, if you have a ‘help’ or a ‘FAQ’ or a ‘feedback’ or a ‘contact us’ link, get rid of them. (A lot of people like FAQs, but I think they are an admission of defeat – the goal is not having people asking questions frequently!) Instead have a link saying ‘Can’t find what you want? Tell us’. This is very similar to the agile software development discussion about not listening to users (via JermolineFND ). Never ask your users (and especially not ‘key stakeholders’ “What do you think?”.

Agile intranet management is going to be important, as more and more social and collaborative techniques make it into the enterprise. The reason for this is that these technologies require the user to actively want to use the features or the system fails, being obsessed with end users and delighting them is the only way they can work. When it comes to “social/web2.0/collaborative” platforms agile software development isn’t agile enough.

Which leads to the choosen pop music to go with this post. The new Portishead album P3 is fantastic, but the title of this posting is a quote from Glory Box from their first album ‘Dummy’, and if you’re searching for a manifesto for the agile intranet manager, then forget the cluetrain, all you need are the lyrics of Glory Box.

“we’re all looking at a different picture,  through this new frame of mind, a thousand flowers could bloom, move over and give us some room”

Give me a reason to love you indeed.


How to solve the ‘make it less boring’ problem.

March 4, 2008

Actually, I’d really like folks to contribute this time, I’m getting an OKish hit rate of about 20 a day (I’ve not publicised this blog much and I won’t until I build up a few more archives) but getting few comments. C’mon folks feel free to chip in.

The ‘make it less boring’ problem, is the most important thing facing any intranet manager. At conferences it regularly features as the most common moan. I’ve suggested before that its such a problem that you should go to great lengths to avoid letting people make the comment. And the reason it’s a problem is that almost always, the knee jerk fix is to make the site worse.

Things you could do to make a site less boring:

  • reduce the text so that the good stuff is easy to access
  • refresh the content regularly, with a newsdesk or even a blog type feature
  • split up the text and use ‘pull quotes’ to aid scanning
  • measure the efficiency of typical users finding the information they want and prove the site isn’t boring at all, merely efficient.
  • Have little interactive elements such as ‘coffee time quizes’ (but its a fun quiz not an exam!)

Things you shouldn’t do to make a site less boring:

  • Add a flash animation – or any type of animation
  • break long pages into smaller ones with a next link- we’ve all worked out how to horizontally scroll thanks
  • Replace text with images of text

I could do with more user stories here from intranet managers – how did you solve the ‘make it less boring’ puzzle?

The musical piece I’m adding to this is the only you tube track I can find from the mighty Rothko. Its not at all boring.

Rothko were originally a group of three bass players, using this restricted line up the provided several amazing albums of lush and staggeringly beautiful music. Indeed I wish I hadn’t used the phrase ‘restricted line up’ because it wasn’t. But they did get lots of critical comments about why not add vocals and a drummer and a kazoo player… Mainly from people who didn’t notice that it didn’t need those things and adding them would have made the music less special.

Here’s a link to their first album on emuisc