Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Iteration

The definition and use of iteration ...

"Where did the Office team at Microsoft get their inspiration and ideas for the last version of Microsoft Office?"

I've been asking this question to different teams of developers every month, for the past 15 years. Every team comes back with the same list of sources, even though, over that period, there have been no less than six new versions of Office and tremendous advances in technology.

The answer is always "from watching and listening to the customers and users of the previous versions of Office." In other words, the newest version can only exist because there were previous versions. Microsoft's team has been iterating their designs, one after the other, to get to where they are today. And they're still iterating.

Iterations are a key piece of any engineering effort. You take an idea, develop it into something, try it out, see how it works, and then start all over again. Microsoft, and every other software company, does this with every new version.

Of course, the release of the new version of Office isn't the only iteration since the last version. The team has iterated hundreds, if not thousands, of times, using the same exact pattern. It's just that they don't show those iterations to the public (and only some iterations to the armies of alpha and beta testers).

And this is one of the great paradoxes of design management: The vast majority of iterations are never seen by anyone outside the team. So, it looks to the outside world that, when a great product comes out, that the team just sat down, thought it through, and built it, without any trial or errors. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Dissecting A Successful Iteration

Iterations are key to successful design. They help reduce risk by letting us get all the bad ideas out of our system early, keeping only the best of the best.

Unfortunately, we've found that many teams don't know how to iterate effectively. Good iteration is a deliberate activity, with four important stages: planning, implementing, measuring, and learning. The best teams focus on each stage appropriately, making sure they get the most out of it. While iterations can be very short, (we've seen teams that can iterate a dozen times in a single day,) the best teams don't short change any of the stages."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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