chalakanth

User experience for the techies

What do I think of when considering ‘user experience‘ for the technical folk?   What makes it easier to do their jobs?  What helps them do their jobs better?

Techies include the following sorts of resources.

  • Programmers
  • Testers
  • Dev Ops
  • Program Operators

As always, common factors that I listed in the post, User experience in an enterprise system, apply to these resources as well.

Programmers can see everything

Interestingly, it appears that programmers occupy a special place in the enterprise.   Everything, systems and data, that any corner of the enterprise sees and uses, must be accessible to some programmer or the other.  Who builds these systems?  Programmers.  Who do you call when anything goes wrong?  Programmers.   Nothing can be hidden from the programmers.

This means that the the user experience considerations that apply for everybody else in the enterprise, which I have written about in other posts, apply to programmers as well.

One thought occurs to me.   Doesn’t this kind of all-pervasive access raise privacy issues?  Not to mention security concerns?  I wonder how enterprises deal with this.

 

A Domain Specific Language (DSL)

Often, for some reason or the other, a programmer is asked to perform a business task.  The enterprise system typically supplies business users a graphical interface for this work.  Programmers can use that interface too.  However, programmers have technical skills that typical business users may not have. Further, programmers have responsibilities other than performing business tasks, which means they are looking to save as much time as possible.

Hence, if it is possible to provide programmers an alternate interface, which is more powerful, and more performant, even if more technically complex, it would be a good thing.

In some of my previous work, programmers did considerable customer support work. Often they would have to perform some activity that meant wading through pages and pages of UI, in order to make one small change, or press one button.  I heard them lamenting the lack of a more ‘expert’ kind of interface. After all, they arguably had more technical expertise than the rank and file business users.  We could have used a scripting solution. A couple of lines of a well designed DSL (domain specific language), would have put them all in a good mood, not to mention saved a lot of time, and energy.

Say that you have to change the type of roof, on the 3rd barn of the farm that is insured by farm policy, FU-237EKS. After the change, the policy must be assigned to an underwriter for review.   In the UI, the change happens on the 8th screen of the farm policy. The assignment to the underwriter is a further 3 screens down.   Rather than schelp through all that UI, some folks I knew would have liked to execute something like this script.

FU-237EKS.barns[3].roof = shingle
underwriters['nate silver'].reviews += fp237eks

However, keep in mind that it ought to be possible to design the graphical user interface so that it provides the same kind of power, and efficiency. The recent, industry-wide emphasis on usability is all about this kind of improvement.  The point here is that alternatives to GUIs (graphical user interfaces) exist, which might more naturally fit programmers’ sensibilities.

I also wonder if there might be certain kinds of business functions that are hard to represent in a GUI.  Some complex, but one-off, workflow, which has to be created on the fly, for instance.  This is a question to explore.

 

Some items related to support

  • You must be able to change the logging level that is in effect without stopping the application.
  • You must be able to add muscle to the system, without stopping anything.  Bring more servers on line, add more threads to a running server, and so on.

 

Software Configuration Management

Essentially, all of configuration management must be automated.

Check out, and check in of code; build, test, assembly, and release of an application, must be completely scriptable.  You should be able to do all of this at a click of a single button, or the issue of a single command at the command line.

In some of my previous work, even though the code base was all in one source control system, we used to have to explicitly issue about 60 check out commands. We never automated the check out. So to
create a new workspace, we would do a lot of manual work – 60 clicks of the mouse, 60 commands at the command line.

Releasing a new version of the application was a multi-step, manual process, which would require some Dev Ops person to be up at ungodly hours.

Some releases, especially emergency patches, were horrendously complex. Some poor schnook, sitting in India, used to have to painstakingly undo changes to several parts of the code base, make the release, and then restore all those changes.

Needless to say, this was error-prone. Disasters, big and small, begging to happen.  This should never be the case.

Software configuration management (sometimes referred to as build management, release management), must never be a burden to the developer.   Folks that specialize in this work (Dev Ops), must hide the complexity by automating it all away.   If you are using tools that do not lend themselves to this kind of automation, well, you are using the tools that developers cannot love.   This is infrastructure, which is meant to remove some of the drudgery from a developer’s working life.   So let us have useful, and reliable, infrastructure.

 

Testing

One of the most critical lessons of the Agile philosophy is the recognition that developers must also test.   The Agile world asks, how does a developer know he is done with a task?  The Agile world answers, he proves it with tests.  When all of his tests run successfully, the developer is done with his work.

Each developer must be able to test her work independently of other programmers.    This means that each developer must have separate sandboxes for code, and data.

Developers have their own sandboxes for code by virtue of using a 
source control system.  However, in my previous work, I often 
encountered resistance to setting up independent sandboxes for 
the data.  I never really understood this.  Why couldn't each 
developer have their own copy of the system database for instance?
Isn't this sort of thing quite inexpensive these days?

We must automate the generation, and load, of test data.

In one of my previous jobs, many tests required testers to create an
insurance policy.  These were manually entered, a laborious process,
which took significant time.   

As you can imagine, testing was not as rigorous as it could have been,
because it was just too hard to setup the data required for the test.

The system’s user interfaces must support automation.   This is necessary not only for functional testing, but more importantly, for load testing.   You have to be able to simulate many users banging on the UI.   For this to be done with any kind of rigor, you have to be able to drive the UI with scripts.  Keep that in mind when you construct the UI.

Tests must run continuously.  If you have ‘continuos integration‘ going, you have this in place.   Continuous integration is a feature of software configuration management.   Every time a change is checked into the source control system, you must automatically kick off a build of the whole system, which, by definition, includes tests.   This allows you to find errors sooner rather than later.   Continuous integration is possible only if all of your software configuration management is automated.

Finally, a replica of the production environment must be available to the developers.   Often, you run into errors that only seem to happen in production.   Give developers an environment that is identical to production, where they can test, and debug problems, without messing with the production environment itself.  Without this, you are asking developers to be brilliant, which seems like a high risk strategy.

 

Techies other than developers

So how about testers, dev ops personnel, and program operators?   These folks perform functions that have been covered above, and in earlier posts.

The section on testing applies to folks that are exclusively black box testers.   The section on configuration management applies to dev ops.   Earlier posts on graceful processes applies to program operators.

 

chalakanth

User experience for managers

There are at least two types of managers in an enterprise, right?

I think of them as ‘business managers‘ and ‘systems managers‘.

How are they different, in so far as user experience is concerned?

Business Architecture vs. System Architecture

We can approach this question using the same yardstick that I used in an earlier post, ‘User experience for business employees‘.  Business managers are expected to know the business, and not necessarily any one enterprise computer system that helps run the business.  A business manager should be able to move between companies that are in the same business, but may use different enterprise systems.   Within the same company, the enterprise systems may change as technologies evolve, but the business might stay largely the same.  Changing enterprise systems ought not to be the business manager’s concern, bread or butter.  So who is responsible for the enterprise system, which helps run the business.  Enter, the systems manager.

The business manager knows the goals of the business.  She is familiar with the various functions, capabilities and resources that collaborate to achieve the goals of the business.  Does that definition sound vaguely familiar?  It should, because that is the general definition of an architecture.   A business manager is cognizant of the business architecture.   A business architecture is separate from, and independent of what we could call the system architecture – individual computer based systems each with its own capabilities and responsibilities, interacting in well defined ways to implement the business architecture (aka the goals of the business).

For instance, a simplistic insurance company may be organized around these components – sales, underwriting, billing, and claims.   A business manager knows the responsibilities of each of these business components, and how these components collaborate with each other to produce outcomes that the insurance company wants.

However, the billing department might run its business on the backs of four different computer systems – a billing app that manages transactional billing data, a document management system that manages documents coming out of the billing app (bills, delinquency notices, etc.), a high volume print manager, and a messaging system that helps the billing department collaborate with the other business components – claims, and underwriting, and sales.  This is the system architecture that implements the billing component.   The billing manager’s focus stays with the business component as a whole, while some IT manager must know and keep control over the computer systems that help run billing.

 

User experience for a business manager

Truth be told, what a business manager requires will change from business to business.  I have little knowledge of any business, so there is specificity that I am not going to be able to provide.

However, thinking about this at a general architectural level, and applying anecdotal experience gained from working in a few enterprises, I believe we can come up with a list of what a business manager might find useful.

 

See the work flowing through the business architecture

The business manager will need to be able to witness, and evaluate the business that is flowing through the business architecture.   Two sorts of  views will be useful.

  • A snapshot of the state of things at a certain moment.  Now, two hours ago, closing time yesterday, etc. This should allow creation of a real time tracker of the business.  Any hotspots, bottlenecks?
  • Aggregate data.  The business that was done in some duration – all day today, the week so far, in the last 6 months, etc.

Similar questions will need to be answered for parts of the architecture.  Say just one component, like claims in an insurance company.

  • Snapshot.  How many claims does each claims adjuster have outstanding at the moment?  What is each claims rep doing – in the office, out in the field, etc.  
  • Aggregate data.  How many claims were paid, and how many rejected in the last 15 days?   How much money was paid out and by whom yesterday?  etc.

 

Presentation

The information described above must be available in two forms.

  • Old fashioned kind – reports, tables, graphs and charts.

 

Alerts

The manager must be able to setup alerts, and notifications, on arbitrary events of interest.   These alerts should be available on devices, and social platforms of the manager’s choice.

 

User experience for an IT manager

The user experience requirements for the business manager apply to IT managers as well, with one difference.  The IT manager wants information on how the system architecture is performing.

Consider the example of the billing component described earlier.   While the business manager is interested in how the billing component as a whole is performing, the IT manager will want to keep track of how things are going with the four computer systems that run billing – the billing app, the document management system, the print manager, and the messaging system.

  • A realtime visual representation of the work running through the billing workflow.  This must include the number of and the type of various billing transactions, the documents going to the document management system, what the print queues are doing, etc.  This will show me hot spots.
  • How many of the Missouri auto policy billings were finished today?
  • How much did we pay out as agents’ commissions last month?
  • Map delinquencies by region, but I don’t want a spreadsheet.  I want it represented in shades of color on a physical map of the country.
  • And so on.

 

How to get there

As with any user experience problem, you have to start with accurate knowledge of the business.   In any environment, we have to know the business architecture well, in order to satisfy business managers’ requirements.

Reporting requirements for system architecture demand that each computer system in the architecture must expose snapshot, and aggregate descriptions of the work that is going through the system.

Finally, we are going to have to pick up expertise in data visualization beyond filling spreadsheets.   There seem to be many tools out there for the client, which can be supported in the backend by either the JVM, or node.js.

 

 

 

chalakanth

User experience for business employees

Business employees

Who am I referring to exactly?   After all even the IT developer who builds and maintains the enterprise system is an employee of the business.  In fact, I mean folks that are not IT employees.   I am referring to people whose primary knowledge is the business of the enterprise, and not computer related skills.

For instance, she is a certified underwriter of farm policies.  She is not expected to know SQL.  She is not expected to be able to setup CRON jobs, or put together a Lucene query, or even an advanced Google query.  She does not tune the Oracle database where her policies reside.

What does it mean for such employees to have good user experience?

 

User experience

Common characteristics

At the outset, the common characteristics, as described in these posts, apply to business folks too.

Besides these, there is a perspective that applies to business folks specifically, I believe.

No training

Business resources must really only need training, experience, and expertise in the business, and not in whatever enterprise-wide computer system that is in place.

For instance, an underwriter should be able to come into a new insurance company, and knowing no more than how to use a keyboard, mouse, and perhaps a touch screen interface, and without formal training, should be able to very quickly learn and be productive using the existing enterprise system.

Anything the business resource has to learn, she must be able to learn painlessly, by just using the system.

The interfaces that the business user encounters must be a clear, natural, and seamless representation of her knowledge of the business.   The system should guide the user down paths that are instantly familiar, and obviously correct.

The enterprise system must leave little room for mistakes.   Even when the mistakes happen, they must be caught early, and there must be little or no cost.  This is essential to facilitate experimentation, and self-learning.

Transparent

You know that the user experience is good when the enterprise system recedes into the background.

The computer system must not register in the user’s mind as an obstacle, as a challenge, or as anything at all that is above and beyond her knowledge of the business.

Granted, regardless of how convoluted a system is, once a user learns it, the system will recede into the background.  That is almost unfortunate, because that is how a lot of clunky systems come to be.

However, say you have to make a change to the system.  Or say you want to replace the system.   How much resistance do you encounter?  If the business complains about having to learn a whole new system all over again, your user experience is suspect.

To put it another way, your system’s interfaces must not add any cognitive burden, beyond that which the business expertise itself requires.

How to get there

The fundamental business

Good solution design begins with effective business analysis.  Before diving into solutions, business analysis must first describe the essential business problem.  Volere, a Requirements and Business Analysis consultancy has a good definition of such analysis, which it calls ‘systemic thinking’.  To paraphrase Volere, you want an understanding of the essence of the business, without being prejudiced by any solutions, whether digital, or the old-fashioned kinds.

In a lot of my past work, the product of business analysis included 
someone's notion of a solution too, typically a user interface 
designed by folks with knowledge of the business, and good intentions, 
but not much else.  

Folks with the expertise (in user experience design) to translate the 
essential business rules, processes, and outcomes, into a transparent 
computer solution, never got a chance to understand the business at all.  
Result, more often than not, avoidable errors, unnecessary iterations, 
and ultimately, an interface, that was not useless, but that was less 
optimal than it had to be.

These were common refrains - "They will get used to it", "This is a 
documentation issue", "This is a training issue", etc.  All telltale signs 
of user experience that has room for improvement.

Human interaction design and construction

There are folks with the expertise to take the description of the essence of the business that systemic business analysis produces, and design a system with the characteristics described above.

Much of this expertise has been codified, as guidelines, patterns, and frameworks, which a competent generalist can learn as necessary.

Here is a list of resources that must serve as our guides.

Further, design is an iterative process, which will include the following sort of cycle.

  • The human interaction designer comes up with a design.
  • The design is implemented as some kind of prototype.
  • Users use and evaluate the prototype.
  • Tweak, enhance, start over, until everyone arrives at a satisfactory destination.

As this suggests, besides the design expertise, you have to be able to repeatedly construct, deploy, review, and change these solutions quickly.

Construction skills include the following.

  • Create plain wireframes with a tool like Balsamic.
  • Create colors and images laden, HTML, and CSS mockups with tools like Dreamweaver, and Photoshop, etc.
  • Create live prototypes with RAD frameworks like Ruby on Rails, or Django (Python), or Grails, or Play with Scala etc.  In particular, my personal interest is in the Java eco-system (Grails, Play), and a pure Javascript solution (for instance, Bootstrap.js, and BackBone.js at the client, and node.js in the backend).

You have to have the infrastructure and the skills for continuous integration, and continuous release.

Part of the review capabilities must include the ability to run usability tests.

Finally, there will be times when interfaces will have to change deep into the construction of the system.  Your engineering must be such that the interface can change quickly, without adversely affecting the backend.  You never want to say to the client – “It is too late to make that UI change.  You should told us this earlier,”.

chalakanth

As a generalist, what must I know regarding ‘transactions’

I believe, a generalist, or a team of generalists, must offer these skills, related to the implementation of ‘business transactions‘.

The failure of a business transaction must still leave the system in a safe, and valid state. As a ‘generalist’ I must either know how to achieve that goal, or know where to quickly find a solution.

Platforms

As always, I want to be able to solve this problem in two platforms – the Java eco-ssytem, and Node.js.

 

Short-lived business transactions

Most of us are familiar with ACID transaction support in relational databases.  Relying on this support is only recommended for short-lived business transactions.

Database transactions are typically implemented by locking database tables for a particular user, which forces all others to wait till the locks are released. This necessarily slows the system down, among other complexities. Hence the recommendation that ACID transactions be very short-lived.

Here are some examples of short-lived business transactions.

  • Change the address of a customer. Typically you have already gathered the new address, and you simply have to update a few tables with the new data.
  • Apply a payment against a policy. Again, the whole transaction is typically an update to a few tables.

In the Java eco-system, this sort of short-lived transaction, when applied against a single database, is implemented with the JDBC API. We must be able to able that, using Java, Scala, and Groovy.

I must be able to talk to relational databases, and manage ACID transactions against a single database, using node.js.

 

Long-lived business transactions

However, often, there are business transactions that are long-lived, and must behave gracefully.

Here is one example of a long-lived transaction – migrating old insurance policies from one system to another.

This is historical data, often several years worth and can be voluminous. It contains many different parts, like contacts, coverages, changes made to the policy over the years, documents, etc. Accepting all of the policy into a new system can take a significant time. We used to run into policies that took 20 seconds to process completely. Things will go wrong, and when they do, you would like to cleanly rollback all of the incoming data. However, you cannot keep an ACID database transaction open for 20 second, 10, or even 5 seconds. That locks up database tables, which in turn will severely diminish your ability to handle load.

Here is another example – business workflows that extend over several days.

They are initiated, passed around to several folks, and then eventually completed. If for some reason this business process ends in some kind of rejection, or failure, you may want to discard, or perhaps archive data that this workflow created.

Consider that new accident information is received for an automobile policy. Maybe some documents are uploaded. Some premium adjustments are made. Some bills are generated. Underwriting, and billing managers review, and sign off. This process may take several days to finish. Say after doing a lot of work, you discover all this work was done on the wrong policy – perhaps an ex-husband’s. How do you roll back this work, and data that has been accumulating over several days? Surely not with a database transaction.

So how do ensure that such operations are well behaved? If necessary, how to ensure that these long-lived business transactions exhibit ACID properties?

As a ‘generalist’ I must know standard approaches, and solutions to this problem. Further, I must be able to implement these solutions in the Java eco-system, and in node.js.

 

Single database vs. multiple

In a large, heterogenous environment, you are often working with several databases. Perhaps all documents are in some legacy SQL Server DB, and day to day transactional data are in a fast MySQL DB.

How do you implement ACID when a business transaction, even a short-lived one, works with data that is distributed across more than one database?

In the Java world, there is the JTA API, which supports so-called ‘distributed transactions’. But very few people seem to use this. As a ‘generalist’ I must know what the alternative is.

Similarly, I must know how this problem can be handled in node.js.

 

Polyglot persistence

This is just a special case of the multiple database scenario. The data repository can be anything at all – relational DB, NoSQL DB, text based index, messaging end point, flat disk file, etc.

How do you implement ACID when the business transaction works with many different kinds of data repositories?

For instance, say you are recording an auto accident. Photos of the car might go into a noSQL database, like MongoDB. A description of the accident is saved to Oracle, and this information is also parsed and pushed into Lucene. Finally, a notification is dropped into a queue that a claims adjuster is watching. If this transaction dies for some reason, you want to rollback the changes you made to each of these very disparate data repositories.

chalakanth

First Contact, Australia

It is winter in Australia now.

You know, winter, as in, cold. Well all right, it is just chilly. The temperature swings between the 30s and the 50s. Yesterday I think it crossed 60. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Think again.

None of the dwellings I have been in, have central heating. That changes everything. I can handle low temperatures outside the house. In fact, I love winter in the U.S. However, apparently, inside the house, I need a steady, balmy, 70 degrees.

My sister’s apartment, a very nicely appointed 2 bedroom, which costs a pretty packet of Australian dollars, does not have central heating. A beach cottage that we rented for the weekend, which was even nicer, and plenty expensive, did not have central heating. My nephews tell me that friends of ours who live in detached houses, do not have central heating. It seems to be the norm here.

Australians, damn their hides, are hardy types. Restaurants in the city have outdoor seating, which is almost always taken. It is a chilly, blustery, 55, and there are folks on the patio with a sandwich and fries. I am sorry, but that is nuts.

I find myself going to bed early, because I know that within a few minutes, my bed is going to be warm. In the mornings, I am getting out of bed late, for exactly the same reason. A hot shower has never seemed so good; once I am in, I never want to leave. During the day, I can’t bring myself to do any kind of work. Every activity requires braving the chill. Everything you touch is cold. Everywhere you put your foot down is chilly. The cold is seeping through my clothes, past my skin, into my bones, and has touched my mind. I am one of the wretched in a Dickens novel, on the verge of consumption, and will fade away in the next 10 pages. Or, maybe I am just living inside of a refrigerator.

My last stop was India, where it is summer. All my clothes were meant for India. Nothing I have is helping. I have taken to wearing two of everything – two tee-shirts, a tee-shirt and a shirt. I am going to bed fully clothed. Needless to say, I am running through my clothes fast. And that leads to another problem.

The house does not have a dryer. Most folks drip dry their clothes. But how do you do that in the winter, with temperatures in the 50s? My sister tells me, “You better do your laundry soon. The clothes take 2 days to dry”. Of course they do.

I have had to buy myself some warm clothing. Do you know what passes for common winter-wear here? Hoodies. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. My sister gave me a bright blue hoodie that was lying around the house. Where is the gun, I am thinking. I am not wearing a hoodie unless it comes with a gun, and a hip holster. Yes sir, that gun is going to be unconcealed.

Ah well, this is probably just my usual bout of culture shock. First contact always seems to be a little rough for me.

In any event, word to the wise – if you are visiting India, and Australia in June, and July, remember, you have to pack for two seasons.

chalakanth

July 4th, Thiruvannamalai

Where were you on the 4th of July?   I was in Tiruvannamalai.

We started the Girivalam about a quarter past 4 in the evening, and in a little less than 3 hours I was done; drenched in sweat, a couple of pounds lighter, and just as dumb and lost as before.

For the uninitiated, the Girivalam is a 14 km, quite flat, circuit around the base of a hill, which folks treat as a Shiva lingam.

The Shiva lingam is a stylized idol that performs stand-in duty for Shiva, 
who is one of the three big guns of the Hindu pantheon.  A simplistic 
view of the Hindu totem pole has three folks at the top - Brahma, 
who creates everything, Vishnu, who protects the good stuff, and 
Shiva, who destroys the bad stuff.   

Did these guys have project managers to get work done?  I googled
"god of engineering", and found one, Vishvakarman.   I googled
"god of project management".  Nothing.  Okay, that is a little funny.
However, despite the risk of angering the gods of comedy, it is not hard
to see that engineering, the 'making of things', inherently includes 
'project management'.  

You are supposed to do the Girivalam with faith in your heart, and nothing on your feet.  I cheated on both counts.   What can I tell you, I am a terminal agnostic.   As for the feet, woolen anklets from REI, and New Balance walking shoes, did me just fine.    I felt no pain until almost the last mile, when my toes began to hurt, and I developed a blister on my right feet.

While I was struck by no epiphanies, I distinctly remember shaking off a fog of mild misery that had been hanging over me for a couple of days.  Where it went I don’t know.  As I ate a relaxed dinner after the walk, I could not even remember what I had been kvetching about.  I wonder, is that all it takes?  Put your head down, and keep going, one step at a time.   If you have good shoes, that is half the battle.  I suppose you could also use a solid pivot to walk around.  Is that what God is?   I might just be able to handle that.   Perhaps that is why Tiruvannamalai has become a sort of favorite of mine.

No, I can think of one more reason.

In Tiruvannamalai, the worship has no shortcuts.  That walk is 14 kms no matter how rich you are, or who you know.

I have visited several temples on this trip to India.   In almost all of them, there would be the throng, standing in lines, sitting under shelters, waiting, waiting, for their turn to enter the main sanctum.    And then there would be us, who never waited.  We would walk right past the throng, through special routes reserved only for folks who paid extra money, or simply knew the right people.    They would stop the throng dead in their tracks, and send us in, instead.   We would be in and out in a few minutes, and the throng would start to move, and then of course, stop again, when the next bunch of muckety-mucks came along.

I rarely feel the need to visit a temple.   A visit to the temple holds little spiritual significance for me.  It is nice to be with family, and the temples are often very interesting.  However I can see how much it means to other people.  Perhaps for that reason, cutting the line at temples makes me acutely uncomfortable.   I don’t want to be part of the throng, waiting interminably, working that hard, to get into a temple; and I can see no reason why I should get an easier ride than anyone else.

Walking around the hill in Thiruvannamalai, I don’t have to worry about all that.   Mostly, I felt a mild concern about the shoes.   Would Shiva be irritated, and with a lazy flutter of his third eye give me athlete’s foot?  Or maybe cramps?   That sort of thing.  Simply put, the Girivalam is a great equalizer.

After completing the Girivalam, we crashed early.  Next day, my parents dragged me out of bed at 5:30 AM, and got me to the big temple by 6:30 AM.  We had the place practically to ourselves.  What a relief; this is the only way to see a temple.   We were out of there in half an hour.  Then came a quick breakfast (my usual, pongal vadai).  Come 8:00 AM, we were on the road again.