Value at the heart of agility: from concept to practice

While I was attending a conference, a colleague tried to convince me of the benefits of an iterative approach, compared to a sequential development approach. According to him and to a well-tested marketing slogan, Agile can only bring value faster. So he started to describe to me, with the energy of a convinced zealot, the example of the design of an automobile according to the Agile and traditional approaches.

He has just switched from a scooter to a motorcycle, and I interrupt him with three massive arguments, which explode his false good idea in mid-air:

  • I work 200 km away from my home
  • I have to wear a clean suit when I go to work, whether it’s windy or rainy
  • I don’t feel safe riding in a vehicle with less than 3 wheels (or even 4 for good measure)

Therefore, MY minimum viable product, a car if I am referring to my colleague’s iterations, or more pragmatically a fast, comfortable and covered means of transportation, in the sense of “ jobs to be done”, is not only delivered faster with a traditional approach, but also with less waste. Indeed, none of the intermediate iterations can find favor in my eyes. So they don’t have to be built to solve my problem by making me wait for the “final¹” solution. As he looks at me, both incredulous and disappointed, I admit to him that if I am perfectly convinced of the benefits that Agile can bring, we still need to look at its central concept, Value (with a capital V), and what this can mean for the user or the final customer.

Autopsy of the value

First of all, it is essential to understand that value is not an absolute concept. It evolves according to :

  • Individuals and their needs (on shorter and essentially urban journeys, a bicycle or scooter is much faster and more suitable, as is the subway)
  • Our perception (a child’s comforter has only a very limited market value, but its sentimental value and the immensity of its grief when it is lost is out of all proportion to its value)
  • The context (a bottle of soda, although it provides the same content, costs up to ten times less at the exit of the production line than served in a discotheque or in a chic bar)
  • Societal evolution (a synthetic diamond could be perceived as less polluting, more ethical or both if it is made from fine dust from atmospheric pollution, rather than extracting it from mines that exploit underpaid workers in countries that promote arms trafficking and sales)

Then, we must be aware that our notion of value is highly dependent on psychological factors, conscious, unconscious or even induced. In particular:

  • The halo effect (a well-known cognitive bias, which makes us overvalue things worn or praised by known or reference persons. Thus James Bond’s Omega watch or his Aston Martin have seen their sales explode, as have those of Leonardo Di Caprio’s blue striped suit… what else? An espresso, perhaps)
  • Social confirmation bias (another well-known effect, described in particular by Robert Cialdini², which means that the fact of being appreciated by others, ideally in large numbers, makes us appreciate an object or a service more. This is the principle of user reviews on commercial sites, pop-up marketing that pushes us to buy as others have just done, stars dear to the restaurant and hotel industry). In our age of “likes” and this quasi-compulsive need for social recognition, some people take advantage of this to manipulate us with more or less benevolence.
  • From a possible priming (a phenomenon widely described by Joules and Beauvois³ and validated through numerous experiments such as the one describing the tenfold pleasure we feel, for example, when tasting what we think is a rare and expensive wine)

Putting value back in the center

Tools to identify value

Just like my unfortunate colleague, you will have understood that this Value, which is constantly asserted to us like an immutable credo and which would naturally result from the application of a set of practices or rituals (as if traditional approaches did not care about value or time), is neither as simple to approach, nor as magical and systematic as we would like to believe. I would never criticize the benefits of Agility, when it is well applied; I do not agree with the idea that Agility would be the Value or that it would have a monopoly on it.

Defining value is first and foremost a question of humility. It’s about going to our users and listening to their needs. At a time when information technology is reaching the greatest number of people, we need to show empathy. That is to say, understanding what our customers feel, what their overall experience (Ux) of our product (or service) is and what solutions we bring to their problems. This first step, even before looking at requirements, automation, DDs of all kinds and code, is called the empathy map. It is our first contact with the outside world, that too often unexplored world that lies beyond the limits of the project. From this confrontation of the project with the real world, the vision of the product is born, which can be materialized through tools such as Roman Pichler’s “Product Vision Board”.

If the Product Vision Board seems, at least at first sight, to be a tool essentially intended for Business Analysts, Project Managers and other Product Owners, it is also a real gold mine for the tester, especially in a context of participative and collaborative development; Agile, therefore. Not only does it allow us to quickly compare our understanding of the product / service / project with that of the other team members (and in particular those who represent our users and customers), to better understand the ins and outs or the challenges; it also allows us to better design and structure our test scenarios or our acceptance criteria. Last but not least, it serves as a natural framework for the design of possible personae, a kind of archetype, intended to model and personify those who believe in us and our product every day…even to the point of paying our salaries. Because even if nothing replaces the authenticity and richness of a meeting with our users, such exchanges are sometimes too difficult to organize, and this is where the personae come into play.

Customers and custodians of value

It is therefore for them, for lack of real users, that we will develop and test our products and services. They are still the ones we will have in mind when structuring questions or doubts will arise during the different phases or iterations of development (and testing):

  • How would Yoko see this new feature? Would it help her more or would it slow her down? Wouldn’t the associated cost set her back? Will
  • Mike see the benefit? He should like it anyway…more than its absence / current implementation

If the use of personae does not replace usability testing, user-centered design and other participatory designs — these approaches are not exclusive — when they come from our knowledge, real or supposed, of our customers and users. They are supported by trends from marketing, market research, competition,…. They are (or should be) the closest thing to reality.

In a modern, multidisciplinary, collaborative and cross-functional development world, the tester, more than any other team member, must be the guardian of value, even though he or she is neither the sole owner nor the sole manager. This is the role that is expected of him.

To be able to fulfill his task, he will have to develop other skills in addition to his traditional ones, which will lead him to understand, qualify and quantify the true Value even better. He will have to appropriate different tools and skills, previously reserved for others, to get out of his comfort zone and off the beaten track in order to satisfy customers and users and even, who knows, exceed their expectations.

References

  1. Even if the concept itself does not bring any finality but a constant evolution in search of more and more value
  2. Influence and manipulation
  3. A little treatise on manipulation for honest people

Originally published on Agilitest’ blog.

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