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documentation…conjunction junction, what’s YOUR function? April 6, 2007

Posted by andrea in the IA/BA world.
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I’m often asked what I do, like everyone I suppose, who lives in T.O. It’s easy when it’s someone in “the industry”, not so much when it’s my parents’ friends, or my friends’ parents. Or other people, like my husband, when we first met. Now, of course, I’m the beep-whirr-beep girl, as far as he’s concerned (even though his business is the “go to” metaphor when talking about this stuff…he renovates homes).

me: I, uh, work in the web industry, making websites and online applications
pf/fp: oh, so you build websites? Our nephew does that.
me: no, I don’t actually “build” them
pf/fp: oh, so you design them? you’re a designer!
me: um, no, I don’t know how to make anything beautiful, sadly.
pf/fp: ???
me: I….create a lot of paper, and documentation, that helps the people who CAN do those things do them. Like, blueprints, after the zoning commission is through with them.
pf/fp: ?? Websites need architects??
me: (quietly) um, yes. Now, I think I have to turn my chair THIS way. Or go refresh my drink.

This is from an email that I sent to a lovely project manager I worked with, and who got it, but needed the arguments to sell BA stuff to the client:
IA is tangible, design is tangible, code is tangible. BA stuff isn’t, really. You know the metaphor of IA being the house’s blueprints? BAs are the zoning commission, the soil engineers, the forestry supply and demand, and the House & Home magazine that the customer dreams about, and wants to make happen, even though their 600 sq.ft. loft doesn’t resemble an English manor. Kind of.

Yep, one sort of BA grew out of a need to understand the rules and policies of a business. They’re usually geeks who understand a particular industry really really well. Like property and casualty insurance. They know the ins and out of policy administration and can tell you why and how the “rules” of whether or not you get jack squat when your house burns down are driven. Sometimes, they really understand software development, too. Sometimes. Some business analysts, conversely, come from software development – where their thing is what systems do, and what certain types of systems do – workflow, benefit administration, document management, etc. Sometimes those people are a nice, balanced combination of industry and development.

But..they’re missing a piece: users. Oh yeah, those people who will or will not adopt a new system, or make the whole business process faster or slower? Yeah, them.

Traditional systems development (enterprise or app specific) still has a long way to go to understand users. Why should they? The users they build for are usually a captive audience, who have to use the new software if they want to keep their job. Who cares about them? Which is why you get training that sucks, and employees who have a flurry of post-its around their monitors, so they remember what they can and can’t do when they’re trying to process a bill payment over the phone.

I’m working on a project right now, where I asked my main admin user to walk me through how she sets up an online community. She laughed, and said she couldn’t really, because she has 30 pages of notes that she has to have in front of her when she does that. Egads. I just want to give her a hug.

Web development is probably harder, but ultimately more innovative than regular system development. Like Morag said (and as soon as I find her wonderful explanation of “whither the BA?” I will post it – it’s beautiful), Web sites aren’t just pages anymore, or very few of them, and a lot are actually useful in peoples’ lives – online banking, online shopping, online dating – anything where you can do something virtually. I renewed my driver’s licence online – huzzah! Web sites are applications in and of themselves, AND we have the opportunity NOT to make the same mistakes that traditional systems development did.

The Web is way out in front in that respect. Web users don’t have to come back to a terrible site, they’ll abandon it. So we have IAs who understand and watch and note what’s working and what doesn’t in the screen for real people. And keep them in mind when crafting a user experience that makes sense, to the users. But all the arcane rules and reasons why you can only make 4 payments a month exist. And if the IAs have that kind of knowledge communicated to them up front, it makes their design job more comprehensive in the beginning. Harder, but I’ve yet to meet an IA worth their salt who doesn’t relish the challenge.

The rarest BA is one who understands that there’s a dance between system development, business drivers, and last but not least that there’s a real person at the end of the screen – there, you’ve got something really cookin’ now. Wow – user goals and needs.

There’s a really good diagram of how much it costs to fix the “oops, we didn’t tell you before” stuff during design and development. For every change made in a project: it costs $1 to fix it in requirements, $10 in design (IA, technical, or creative), $100 in development, and $1000 in QA.

I know I’m basically preaching to the converted here, but it’s something that comes up again, and again. Thousands of Dilbert comic strips back me up.

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