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.

3 thoughts on “The individualism of software development

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