Saturday, August 25, 2012

Process: Is it Really a Dirty Word?

A common refrain I hear all the time in my role as a consultant is, "we don't have time for that." The "that" is usually process improvement, requirements gathering and review, or some form of testing. In other words, planning. Usually the people who tell me they don't have time, have some basis for this statement. In many cases they support a client whose requirements change constantly. If they put too much time into planning, the requirements they're planning for would change before they finished.

I get that. I was a developer in the trenches for 12 years. Most of that I spent in pretty loose environments where requirements gathering consisted of someone in leadership giving me an elevator speech about an idea they had. It was my job to turn that idea into reality. If I was lucky, I got to talk to a real user and see how they might actually use it.

Nowhere I've ever worked was as averse to process as the White House. I worked as a lead developer on from 2001 to 2005. Each day was a new priority, a new crisis, a new fire. We rarely acted, only reacted. Sometimes we had to create small applications with a few days to go from a good idea to deployment. Sometimes we had only a few hours to accomplish the same.

Typically, our team of six developers and designers would be told on one day that we needed to develop a site to highlight a hot issue or upcoming trip. We would have a few days to deploy it. In addition to design work, each project almost always necessitated code modifications to our content management system to accomodate a custom component. Our documentation consisted of an email from the White House Internet Director outlining the project. Testing was a quick run through of the site by the developer just prior to moving it to production.

We were very responsive and accomplished some pretty notable things pretty quickly, but we also got bitten by a lack of process on many occasions. When we did, our mistakes usually ended up in the Washington Post. Here's a few examples:

May 2000 - This incident predates my time at the White House, but was a legendary reminder to us of the consequences of silly mistakes. President Clinton planned a tour to promote an education initiative. To support the trip, included an interactive US map highlighting each stop. The developer finished the map late one day, it was quickly reviewed by the White House Communications Office and went live early the next day. One of President Clinton's stops included Owensboro Kentucky incorrectly placed on the interactive map in Tennessee. The Associated Press picked up the mistake and had a field day making fun of the irony of an education site that was weak on geography. The incident even offended some Kentuckians.

January 2001 - Again, this one predates my time at the White House, but not by much. Since President Clinton was the first President to have a web site, President Bush was the first President to have to build a new web site from the ground up. The contentious 2000 election and ensuing delay in deciding a winner meant that the White House web team had a matter of weeks to rebuild a new site reusing the boilerplate content such as Presidential biographies and tour information, while at the same time building a platform for communicating the President's agenda to the American public. The solution they decided on was a quick and dirty site to go up on inaugeration day, to be replaced several months later by a more polished site to last through the administration.
What they accomplished was absolutely remarkable . . . with one small glitch. When the site launched in a behind the scene frenzy on 20 January 2001, someone forget to remove placeholder text on the front page that said "insert something meaningful here." Of course picked it up and instead of reporting on the remarkable transition of, the headline read, "Anybody Home at"

July 2003 - This next one I could write a book on. I had a front row seat for this project, but luckily managed to stay out of it. The White House receives thousands and thousands of emails per day. Way too many for anyone to sort through and at this time, there was no automated system (other than to scan for threats). The White House Communications Director decided he wanted to rectify this situation by building a system to respond to each email with a form letter addressing the senders concerns. However, building a system intelligent enough to discern that seemed a difficult task. I honestly don't remember the details of why this seemed so difficult, but I think budget and accuracy were concerns. 

The solution as designed required the sender to fill out a comment card like form describing the content of their message with a series of check boxes, drop downs and radio buttons. It also included a text box at the end that allowed them to make an open ended comment. The idea behind the form was to capture discreet fields in order for White House staffers to more easily mine the data. After filling out the form, the user would be emailed a form letter in pdf format based on their selections.

On paper, this makes total sense. The White House receives better information about how the American people feel from a database of discreet data points than they do from thousands of letters that they can't possibly read through. However, the human element got completely ignored. Even though most people instinctively know that the White House receives way too much email to read through each one, everyone who takes the time to email wants to believe that someone on the other end is thoughtfully reading their comments and considering them before responding. This system completely removed that illusion. Instead of feeling as though they were communicating a thoughtful point of view to their government, they felt like they were taking care of business at the DMV. People hated it.

If anyone at any point in the design process had thought to test this with actual users they would have immediately seen the problem. This concept was so flawed it, a simple paper prototype test would have sent up huge red flags, sending the whole project into redesign and saving the government money and the Bush administration embarrassment.

I realize as I close this blog entry that I have not implicated myself in any of these examples of process gone wrong. That's not my intention. Rest assured, I had plenty of my share of gaffes and errors that made it to due to hurried testing or poor planning. I've been screamed at by some cousin of a Rich Texan more times than I care to remember. However, nothing I ever did at the White House is as painful for me to admit as my involvement with Barney-cam.