The individualism of software development

I’ve been immersing myself back in the world of agile methods in the past couple of weeks, and one thing above all else has been striking me; agile methods are focused on the individual.

This is particularly notable because I’m thinking about the ways in which collaborative software could help to improve the ways in which teams can operate. Yet within the language of agile we see “customer” or “user” (both singular), but never plurals or “team” other than in the context of the development team. This seems to me to be more than semantic nicety, but much more of a fundamental issue when it comes to thinking about how groups of people might benefit from software technology.

It’s the sociologist in me speaking, I’m sure, but I see the challenges of individualistically-designed group software all around me. Take the networked diary, for example: designed on the principle of each individual managing their own time (or for the lucky few, someone managing their time on their behalf), the result is a chaotic system where because it is easier than it ever has been to organise meetings, so many of us spend all of our time in meetings wondering what we’re supposed to be doing there.

A team approach to the challenges of time management wouldn’t start with the premise that my time is mine to manage but would balance the requirements of team, individual, and ultimately the productivity of the group as a whole. I’m certain it wouldn’t look like Outlook, or Google Calendar or any other of these desk-diary metaphor systems that have become the bane of so many working lives.

Or take email – the triumph of individualistic software interface design over group reality, or “the to-do list over which you have no control” as I once heard it put (if you happen to know the source of that marvellous line, please do let me know).

Email starts with some user stories along the lines of “I want to send messages to someone else” and goes downhill from there.

The opportunity here isn’t in “re-imagining” elements of these services into a more modern, Cloud-centric, app-enabled world. The opportunity would come from people sitting down and working out the group dynamics of how teams operate and starting from that point rather than from the individual. The problem is that quite quickly our development methodologies compartmentalise things down to the individual, the user or customer,  but unfortunately collaboration is a team sport.

Weeknote 212: limits of agility

Things I have learned this week:

- that the boundaries of where agile is good and agile is bad are very unclear
– being based in London for more than a couple of days a week makes you bump into people you know
– coding is the developer’s hammer to a world exclusively of nails
– clearing a drain is a remarkably satisfying thing
– the obvious often isn’t to others

Next week: my eldest starts school. Where did those five years go? Oh, and final push for our event on the 23rd- come along!

Who’s watching?

So the much-hyped Apple product launch event came and went. A couple of new (bigger) phones, a payment system and a new album from a bunch of has-beens. Oh, and a watch.

Apple Watch. Not iWatch because someone else bear them to that brand. A new “form factor-defining” product from Cupertino?

Now let’s be clear here, I didn’t think the iPad was going to change the world. In fact, given recent sales figures I’m still not entirely sure. What about wrist-based computing? It’s going to be interesting…

On the one hand, if anyone is going to make smart watches work, you’d be foolish to not bet on Apple. iPod, iPhone and iPad have all been dramatic commercial successes. They don’t always hit, though: Apple TV seems to get forgotten, and for good reason.

But smart watches are not new form factors that are purely competing with older computing forms. The wrist is a piece of body-estate with plenty of existing cultural value and significance.

We don’t need traditional watches. Many people have stopped wearing them as their core function, telling the time, is replicated in so many places in our multi-device world. But at the top end of the market, people aren’t wearing watches to tell the time. Watches are jewellery that are telling others about the owner.

And here is one of the two challenges that I see for smart watches generally, and for the Apple Watch in particular. Much of Apple’s schtick is around stylish, desirable objects, not technology. How will they compete against some of the most luxurious brands in the world in the battle for the wrist? An expensive watch isn’t a beige box.

And whilst you could argue that expensive watch-wearers aren’t the target market, they have been for the successful products that have gone before. Can the Apple Watch succeed in being an aspirational product without being on the wrists of the Tag Heuer set?

The other cultural factor at play with smart watches is the significance of looking at a watch. If you’re with someone, a glance at your wrist sends a message. Often “you are boring me”. That’s a lot to unlearn.

Now that might look like a tiny, insignificant thing. But it’s exactly those kind of tiny things that can prevent or hold back the adoption technology for years. We’ve have video conferencing, for example, for years. I’m certain that it’s the psychological factors (people generally don’t like seeing themselves on screen; conferencing usually has many that eyelines are wrong with participants looking slightly off-camera that makes them appear untrustworthy) and not the technology per se that have held it back.

Apple Watch is a neat bit of kit. It’s not clear what you would use it for, but that was the same with many new technologies. The big questions for me are whether Apple can overcome these cultural issues to make the product more than a brief interlude before the next significant form factor comes along.

Upcoming events


I’ve a few events coming up in the early autumn…

On September 23rd I’ll be taking part in an event organised in conjunction between IG Digital and Zoodikers to launch the report on the research project I conducted for IG over the summer on the use of social and digital channels in customer engagement. The report covers the results of interviews with 65 organisations, and paints a picture of the state of social customer engagement in 2014. Sign up for the event for free (it’s part of the broader Social Media Week), and you can also register here to get a copy of the report when it’s released on the 23rd.

On September 24th, I’ll be doing a Webinar for The Marketer, again on the results of the IG report, but from the angle of increasingly personalised marketing. You can register for that one here:

In October I’ll be speaking about the IG Research, and also my ongoing Social CEO project at the Social C-Suite Meetup. Organised by Damian Corbet, you can register for the event for free here.

Twelve months with Chromebook


A long-standing friend of my mother’s asked me to take a look at their PC this evening. It’s the sort of thing that happens once in a while when people know that you “do computers”, and to to fair I quite enjoy it in the same way that I quite enjoy a Sudoku puzzle once in a while.

The challenge was that Jackie’s old laptop had bust, and so she wanted me to set up her new one – a cheapish (£350) Asus job.

The first challenge was getting the old (HP Windows 7) beastie to do anything at all. On powering up the fan came on, a light, and then nothing. Booting into the BIOS, running a hard-disk check, and then rebooting seemed to ungum whatever it was that was preventing the thing from booting.

The next stage was to get the new PC up and running, switch over the data, and then tidy up. I gave myself a couple of hours. The Asus, a model that was launched in October of last year, four hours later is still installing update 70-something of 84, having already run another dozen updates over four reboots. And all of this will hopefully get me to the point at which I can run the Windows 8.1 update from the Windows Store.

If the first few moments that you have with an object set the tone for the life of the relationship, this user experience is going to seriously sour Human-Computer interactions for some time to come. I’m only glad that Jackie, not a particularly IT-literate person, is shielded from this.

Through this painful process I’ve been reminded again about how different my life has become since starting to use Chromebooks… because, for the most part, I just don’t have to worry about things like systems updates like the ones I’m currently experiencing. People like Jackie really don’t need to be worrying about such things either, but I’m still not convinced, quite, that the browser-only simplicity of ChromeOS is quite ready for the retiring baby boomers.

The Windows thing is painful because Windows tries to be all things to all people: for end users it tries to be both a tablet and a PC whether you like it or not; to OEMs it tries to be a platform that can be tweaked and customised to provide some sort of product differentiation; to Microsoft it provides the base of their platform proposition, a standard experience, but also a tool for their OEM partners. The net result of all of this is a fairly unpleasant user experience. I bet that the number of Microsoft folk who ever unbox a year-old model third-party device and take it through the new user experience can be counted on one hand.

A couple of days ago I read a nice summary of where ChromeOS fits: if you’re the sort of person that does stacks of heavy spreadsheeting, are dependent on the power of the local processor, then at the moment it doesn’t. But if you are somebody for whom the majority of your computing now is through mobile devices, ChromeOS might provide the bridge when you need to do a bit more typing or need a bit more screen space. In a work environment these days I’m in that category. I reckon that a large proportion of home users are these days as well…


And then this happened…

Weeknote 211: OHMS


What I have learned this week:

- HDMI can plug straight into DVI (dull, but has changed my use of monitors (and hence my posture), all with a £5 cable…)
- Every organisation is defined by it’s abbreviations (three-letter or otherwise)
- Collaboration is a team sport (my new favourite aphorism)
- Agile is incredibly individualistic (blog post to come…)
- spending some time running a workshop with some very bright young sixth-formers is a very rewarding way to spend a lunchtime

Next week: the usual juggling as I become a single-parent family for the week.

Networks versus media

The research that I have been recently undertaking for IG Digital has been highlighting a distinction that has been apparent to me for some time now. Whilst individuals tend to regard social networks as a means for two-way communications, organisations primarily view social media as an opportunity to transmit information, to broadcast.

This is evident in the way that most of the organisations with whom I spoke saw, roughly speaking:

- Twitter (and to a slightly lesser extent Facebook) as a marketing channel
– LinkedIn as somewhere where HR could advertise jobs
– and unsolicited communication from customers via social channels as something to be triaged into established customer service channels (email and phone)

This all makes nice logical sense, but I see something of a time bomb. At a time when use of telephone and email seem to be in decline in how many of us want to communicate with each other, organisations tend to be reinforcing those channels as the way that they want us to communicate with them. At very least this is going to result in a mismatch in customer expectations.

Here comes an opportunity in many markets, though. The opportunity to differentiate yourself from you competitors not by the product or service that you offer, but by the way in which you communicate, you converse with your customers. By being networked with them.

You can join us for the launch of the IG Digital report The Social Challenge as part of Social Media Week on September 23rd.

You can also sign up to receive the report by email when it’s published on the 23rd.

Matt Ballantine's thoughts about technology, marketing, management and other stuff…


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