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Neon Smoke

Design Time Lords

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

How many times has your project aimed for the elusive Minimum Viable Product? Keeps your Scrum Master happy, your story points in check, and your Product Owner somewhat tethered to sanity. Targeting it is akin to a sonic adventure – unpredictable, occasionally brilliant, but not always a guaranteed triumph across the product development galaxies.

The last few days have been a time-travelling whirlwind. Between all the highlights at Microsoft Ignite and my time at the Build Stuff conference in Lithuania, it got me thinking; in this vast cosmos of features, how do we architect timeless products people love? What if, instead, we fall into a trap of not building with intention or a vision? It puts into serious jeopardy the conscious move from Minimum Viable Product to a Minimum Lovable Product.

What inspired this cosmic conundrum?

Certain announcements from Microsoft Ignite got me excited and thinking about more intention into solving customer problems.

  • Microsoft Copilot Studio and its extensibility opportunities for Copilot for Microsoft 365 or custom copilots with a visual development environment

  • Environment Groups for Managed Environments and governance at scale

  • Copilot features for Dynamics 365 Field Service and Customer Insights

This was, my dear companions, incredibly complementary to all the sessions and technical discussions at Build Stuff in Vilnius, Lithuania. This was the #1 software developer conference in Europe, attracting individual talent and companies from every corner of the IT universe. Three sessions stood out:

  • Intentional Code - Minimalism in a World of Dogmatic Design by David Whitney

  • User testing in production: how to run a public beta by Eli Holderness

  • Challenges and opportunities of building an experimentation platform and culture in Vinted by Jev Gamper

Allons-y, on piloting an app's design TARDIS.

There are so many products and features, where should the architecture start?

There is no perfect recipe, just like no perfect companion to the Time Lord. The reality remains, every day the available tech stack is growing and keeping up is a challenge for everyone. Whether you are a consultant, in-house IT team or tech leader, drive intention with design thinking.

No matter what sonic screwdrivers you use to build your business solution, focus on solving real user problems which will amplify IT value. Whilst the business traditional BA requirements gathering may seem like a safe way to avoid the Daleks, it won’t help you keep up with ever-changing user needs. Instead, you can use design thinking methodologies to identify and connect the business vision to your architectural direction.

Is there a different method to unleash my team’s imagination and solve problems together?

Ever heard of Mural? It is a fantastic tool to co-create with teams virtually through interactive collaboration spaces. There are many amazing features to scream for, such as:

  • Unlimited members and visitors invited

  • Rich library of templates for various needs or ways of working e.g., Agile

  • Visual collaboration and facilitation

  • Diagramming and meeting outlines

  • Depending on your license, added security features e.g., SSO and MFA

If you want to find out about licence plans, from free ones all the way to enterprise ones, see here.

So how can Mural help design better products together?

Here are a few of the many activities you can do with Mural boards during your product development lifecycle. Your board will always be available to update, and you can control as an owner who gets to make amends to maintain it as a single source of truth. Click on any example image for more details on how to use each template.

  • Root cause analysis: With the use of templates such as the fishbone diagram, deep-dive into the multiple layers of symptoms and root causes which resulted in previous designs or applications not working as expected.

  • Requirements and feedback gathering: One of the struggles is the disconnected approach; business stakeholders provide requirements for systems and processes they do not engage with day-to-day instead of involving end users to highlight opportunities and pain points. Also, requirements live in disparate documents with jargon and inaccessible formats. Instead, use the product requirements document to envision everything from the problem statement to scope, personas, functional and non-functional requirements or success metrics. This central point of reference will be available for reviews as business needs evolve, and to sense check against Azure DevOps, JIRA or other requirements management systems.

  • Project retrospectives: Rose, Bud, Thorn, or other activities, can provide more engaging, honest, and granular feedback at the end of reach project or sprint release. Focus is spread between what went well (rose), what didn’t (thorn) and opportunities to explore (bud) with affinity clustering through taking turns in group voting. 

  • Design strategy ideation: Stop silos by bringing architects and development teams together (e.g., wireframes, blueprints, user journeys or architecture diagrams) to ideate and innovate. Instead of a technical design Visio document no one truly understands, work together to simplify solutions, boost performance and champion users with UX Designers and Change Managers.

  • North Star definition: This is quite helpful to define the business vision, mission statements and principles you would like your architectural and product design should follow. This charter, with collaborative exercises such as the Round Robin, can help prioritize as a team items in your sprint backlog, or changes requested through the Change Advisory Board.

If you are interested in learning more about design thinking and the related LUMA institute certifications, you can explore it here. LUMA believe any individual, team and organization has the potential to innovate but may not know how.

So, what does a good solution look like?

As a functional consultant with a lengthy background in UX, adoption and being an end user of multiple CRM systems, I stand by the WCAG accessibility guidelines from W3C which are excellent design principles:

  1. Operable: Your solution should be easy for someone with minimal context or different tools (e.g., keyboard over mouse) to use. Also, the simpler it is, the more you decrease both performance and cognitive load.

  2. Perceivable: Can users understand where each feature is to perform a task, or what images mean? This is why adding navigational breadcrumbs and alt text enhances interactions.

  3. Understandable: Messaging is a key element, and working with Change Managers to champion the language users will resonate with matters. Anything from how navigation links work, to the tone of voice of your customized copilot and error messages, build with intention.

  4. Robust: When building a solution, consider the use of assistive technologies such as screen readers to advocate for Accessibility. Get yourself familiar with Microsoft Narrator, or other popular tools such as JAWS or NVDA to see how someone actually users a screen reader.

Bonus accessibility points:

To become an accessibility superhero for over 1 billion people, here are some testing tools to check out. You may even wonder, is Windows Copilot the ultimate accessibility tool for PCs?

  • Visual Studio Accessibility Checker  from the Tools menu in Visual Studio

  • UI Accessibility Checker for accessibility problems with Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) and other UI Windows implementations

  • Inspect.exe as a Windows-based tool to check an element's accessibility data

  • Accessible Event Watcher to validate Microsoft UI Automation and Active Accessibility events when UI changes

Let’s float in this digital ocean together, not apart

Building with intention for impact, both business and human, is the ultimate Design Time Lord’s goal. As Leonardo Da Vinci said once, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Co-creation is the best way to unite your development team under a single identity and mission. On the other hand, bringing users on the same journey means you can show them the wonders of your apps from the start, and make them eager to hop on board. After all, it is not just a matter of keeping up with what’s new, but also predicting how quickly new becomes old and obsolete. Mission achieved, dear companions!

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