Reprinted from ASAE’s TechnoScope Newsletter, April 2009

By: Jacqui Olkin and Jeff Ward

The last thing your executive leadership wants to hear is that they need to make another investment in technology. But online commerce, communication, publishing, learning, collaboration, and networking are more important than ever. In today’s market, associations must pitch IT projects more effectively and execute them in a way that will yield the most valuable results with the highest degree of efficiency.

The Scenario

It’s been a year or two since your last major technology initiative. Perhaps you completely redesigned your website and integrated it with your new AMS package or invested in a rewrite of a core business application. The project started off with a lot of enthusiasm and optimism. You spent months documenting requirements and selecting a vendor. By the end, you were exhausted—and so was that second vendor you hired. Things took longer than expected, and the change orders resulted in some tense meetings. Although your organization declared the initiative a success, the end users never seemed satisfied, and the project’s post-mortem uncovered more lessons learned than kudos and commendations. Sound at all familiar?
In this economy, the last thing your executive leadership wants to hear is that they need to make another investment in technology. But this is no time to be penny wise and pound foolish. We know that online commerce, communication, publishing, learning, collaboration, and networking are more important than ever. Strategic improvements—even small, inexpensive tweaks and enhancements—can help sustain us in tough times and give us competitive advantage for the long haul.

So what’s the best way to approach a technology project in these tough times? How do you convince senior management that it will be worth the investment? How do you ensure that things will be done efficiently and cost effectively and that all of the important stakeholders—on your staff, board, and membership—will get what they really need?

What you need is an approach that does more with less and speaks the same language as the business stakeholders who are concerned about costs and measurable return on investment (ROI). A user-centered, iterative approach that combines an agile methodology with usability is an ideal way to address these challenges in today’s market.

Be Nimble, Be Quick

The traditional “waterfall” approach to IT projects emphasizes heavy paper deliverables, out of a desire to “lock down” requirements early in a project. This methodology is based on the myth that early specifications reduce waste. As we know, needs change over time—especially in a rapidly changing market. Priorities may change, staff may change, budgets may shrink, and you may learn more about what is really needed most. The system requirements you wrote (and paid for) months ago may end up significantly different or even obsolete before anything is built in a waterfall project.

By contrast, an “agile” approach to IT is a flexible methodology based on some truly radical ideas:

  • People are more important than tools and processes.
  • Needs change, and that’s okay.
  • Working software is a lot better than documentation.
  • Your time is better spent collaborating on the project than negotiating contracts with your vendor.

Yes, it’s all just common sense.

The highest priority in an agile project is to satisfy stakeholders (these can be your leadership and end users) through the rapid and continuous delivery of usable software. Requirements in an agile project are captured as simple “stories” about what the users need to be able to do. These requirements are then prioritized with the help of key stakeholders (who can include your users), and development is chunked into manageable iterations that will roll out and be tested according to a predictable schedule. It’s all very orderly and adaptable, to minimize risk while responding to changing needs and priorities. And even if an unforeseen circumstance arises and you can’t finish everything you set out to do, you’ll still have usable functionality to show for your efforts.

Focus on Value

With tighter budgets driving business decisions, senior leadership will appreciate the agile approach’s focus on delivering early value—getting something working and in production sooner rather than later. If you have ever heard the phrase, “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it,” you know that users want something to react to.

Let your users set the priorities and guide implementation decisions with regular feedback. Often, requirements believed to be important at the beginning of a project become insignificant or irrelevant as priorities change and new information is uncovered. Instead of fighting this natural process, embrace it and use it for competitive advantage.

Simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential to eliminating wasteful spending on unnecessary features and functionality. Discover what works and what is “good enough” before investing more.

Focus on Usability

People are more important than tools and processes. This central belief of the agile approach is also a foundation of usability.

A focus on usability (user friendliness) can produce a win-win for end users and those watching the bottom line. Often, costly problems (low web traffic, too many phone calls to your staff, poor online sales conversions, low awareness of services, registration page or shopping cart abandonment, or high training costs) can be addressed by making inexpensive changes that improve usability.

To guide your efforts, find out how your end users want and need to use the system or site and test modifications to make sure they improve usability. A usable system will be used more often and more extensively than one that is hard to use, creating a stronger and more profitable relationship between your organization and the end users.

Senior leadership will appreciate hearing that they may realize both improved customer satisfaction and increased revenue by making informed, incremental changes to an existing system rather than overhauling it completely. By doing some before-and-after testing, you can even report the efficacy of incremental changes in time and dollar figures.

Users themselves will appreciate being involved in design and modifications. The communication loop you create and the buy-in it fosters can be important to the overall success of the project.

The following usability techniques can help you learn about your users, diagnose a system’s or site’s strengths and weaknesses, define requirements, validate designs, test functionality, benchmark, and measure ROI:

  • Usability testing;
  • card sorting (a way to organize information);
  • analysis of traffic and search analytics;
  • survey research;
  • ethnographic research (observing users in their own environment);
    interviews; and
  • focus groups.

Like agile practices, usability techniques are adaptable and scalable to various projects and budgets, so use them to your advantage.

Summing It Up

In these uncertain times, we can’t stop doing IT projects. We just need to pitch them more effectively and execute them in a way that will yield the most valuable results with the highest degree of efficiency. Our recipe for success is:

One part agile methodology, to address priorities and produce results fast, and one part usability, to make sure you deliver what your users want and need.

This recipe will help you make the most of these lean times and the better times to come.


Jeff Ward is a digital strategist at The College Board, and is an agile scrum master.

Jacqui Olkin owns Olkin Communications Consulting, which specializes in usability, taxonomy, and user-centered design