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Usability and the Business Analyst: Smuggling UX at the UK IIBA

There’s a new contraband changing hands in clandestine boardroom exchanges in the most powerful businesses in the land. It doesn’t fall off the back of a lorry, or get swept up on the beach, following the sad demise of some stricken thought tanker, however. No, this new currency is traded under the cover of business analysis. This illicit commodity is user-centred design.

I recently attended an event run by the UK chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis, hosted at Credit Suisse, in their rather nice offices at Canary Wharf. The event was a panel-based discussion of how user experience and business analysis might gracefully collide, somehow becoming something more than the sum of their parts. Put another way, how does user-centred design affect the business analyst?

The panel

On the panel were erstwhile and engaging practice professionals from both sides of the collision: Cennydd Bowles and Chandra Harrison, with many years in user-centred, experience and interaction design (other design practices are available) and Jake Markham, who built the business analysis and design practise up at Credit Suisse. It was chaired by Nick de Voil, from De Voil Consulting, who conveniently bridged the gap between user experience and business analysis.

Nick Dunlavey of Information Architects, who had invested significant effort in pulling the event together (largely crowdsourced via twitter, incidentally, in case you’re wondering how a meeting of UX and BA professionals in an investment bank gets put together), kicked off proceedings in the plush 7th-floor theatre with an admission. He has been smuggling UX into projects. Appropriately, he’s been using Cennydd’s Undercover User Experience Design book as a reference to do that, and thought it would be a good idea to try and link usability and the business analyst.

To set the context for the discussion, Chandra and Jake took some time to talk about, respectively, what user-centred design and user experience is and where we are with it right now, and the development of the business analysis skills and competencies framework for Credit Suisse.

Understanding user experience

Chandra gave a whistle-stop tour of UX, from its mostly overlooked early development in product design to its subsequent and most recent focus on user satisfaction, via world war one biplanes, personas and skills matrices. She was careful to describe user experience as ‘just a term we use at the moment’ and to be clear that ‘user experience’ is not a profession, but, rather, it simply describes ‘what users experience’. What we really do, as practitioners, is apply user-centred design as an approach to system design that supports those experiences. As it turns out, most of the tools and techniques we use to do that are very similar to the tools and techniques that business analysts use, but, critically, we talk about them in very different ways. It might be rather too simplistic to say that business analysts focus on business and user experience designers focus on users, but it’s definitely the user that is the differentiator. The depth of understanding and appreciation of user behaviours, gained from years of observation and dialogue, is what user experience brings to the business analysis party. And then eats all the canapés.

Business analysis and user experience

Following Chandra, Jake was also keen make an admission before he began his talk. He is also a ‘professional smuggler of user experience’. Since Jake is responsible for defining the activities of the business analysis and design group at a company like Credit Suisse, this is good news indeed. In talking us through his own history at the company, we got an invaluable insight into how a global investment banking business is defining its business analysis function and how closely that may be aligned to user-centred design practices. Ultimately, the business analysis function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but it’s focused clearly on the bottom line for the business and the customer. Conversely, the user-centred design function is about identifying needs, collaborating on requirements and facilitating solutions, but focused clearly on user needs. This means that there are clearly opportunities to embed used-centred methods into the business analyst skills and competencies framework and satisfy goals for business benefits and enhanced user experiences.

As I read the definitions of the four roles that have evolved from Jake’s business analysis taxonomy, I was simply changing the job titles for those we use in user experience and the descriptions were pretty consistent. For Business Architect, read Information Architect and you’re nearly there. In line with a comment Cennydd later made about the demise of specific ‘user experience’ roles, I don’t really see the need for the fifth, UX-specific role Jake suggested they might need. Rather, the user-centred design methods and practices should pervade across all roles.

In the middle of all this, Jake also put up a slide that had some enormous numbers on it that spoke to the scale to which a global investment banking business like Credit Suisse operates, at which point I had to check I was wearing the right glasses.

Questions, answers and opinions

On to the panel session itself, and thanks to a brief introduction by Nick, I think I now know what a lasagne panel is. I can’t imagine why I never knew before.

The debate was eloquent, lively and, with the inclusion of Cennydd, was determined not to just turn out stock answers or platitudes. For the most part, the panel vehemently agreed when questioned on things like the business benefit of usability, quantitative measurement, accommodating user requirements without scope creep (BAs love scope creep), and the perception of user experience design operating exclusively in the digital space, on web and web apps. One of the emerging themes was the business benefit of creating ‘value through change’ rather than working to functional requirements. I can’t say I grasp this concept well enough to say whether I agree or not, but if it means understanding user needs, and designing, possibly disruptively, for that, then I’m all for it.

I’ll be honest, I took more notes when Cennydd spoke than when others did, since he catches the zeitgeist of my profession better than anyone else right now, but I did admire Chandra’s enthusiasm and deliberately wider view of usability and Jake’s measured, literate and erudite responses. However, Nick de Voil probably expressed the relationship between user experience and business analysis best:

User experience practitioners have permission to ask people how they work, operate, and do what they do. This approach has emerged as accepted practice in the last few years and it is this that makes them a powerful ally for business analysts.

As I have spent a number of years as a globalisation manager for a large corporation, I was amused to see that nobody wanted answer a question on globalisation strategy. I think we all know you might as well ask for alchemy on toast. I was also reminded, from previous work with another investment bank, that if someone from a global trading division asks a question, you need to be ready. They are scarily efficient in their questioning and can spot flannel through walls of lead.

If you thought about going to this event because it had ‘UX’ in the title, but didn’t go because it had ‘BA’ in the title, you missed a trick. Both our professions require a broadness of understanding that can only be developed through immersion, discourse and appreciation. Many thanks to Nick Dunlavey, the UK IIBA, Credit Suisse, and, of course, the panellists for a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening evening.

And there was caviar. You’ll go next time, won’t you?

listening post: holy ghost! – say my name

Writing to be read: A workshop on being a better writer

Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles have written popular and successful books, articles and blogs on user experience. On Tuesday evening, I attended a writing workshop, where they shared tips, tricks and best practise for ‘better writing’.

I write too much. When I write about an event, I fill the page with clever, but meaningless sentences. Seeing the details of the workshop, I thought it would be a great way to learn from others and share opinions on what makes a better writer. It ended up being all that and more. It was an insight into methods and practices that Martin and Cennydd use in their own writing, highlighting that personal approaches to writing differ, but common creative techniques and some rigorous editing can nearly always improve output.

First off, Martin shared some of the tactical armoury he has developed through his own writing. He focused on tips and tricks for writing to be read and was able to provide some excellent examples of the dramatic impact simple devices can have. Some of his advice was common sense, while some was quite crafty. Some was plainly evil, but, nonetheless, common practice, when writing with particular targets in mind.

Cennydd, on the other hand, wanted to help us understand that after writing, the real work starts. Editing your content is just as important as writing it. Through a series of classic examples and anecdotes from his own experience, he gave practical advice on analysing and improving your own writing, through careful, considered editing. In common with Martin, Cennydd also was keen to make the most important point of all: if you can’t speel, please don’t write, especially if your grammar do suck.

It was thoroughly enjoyable evening, with practical, actionable advice. Clearly, there is no one ‘right way’ to become a better writer, but if you can learn from others’ experiences, you can, at least, take steps in a better direction.

[This post is an edit of the previous post ‘This title is clever but pointless and inefficient’. It is an attempt to put some of the learning from the writing workshop into practice and so it’s not a great post, more of an exercise. If you prefer one or the other, leave a comment. You might not like either of them, which is more likely]

listening post: the soft moon – circles

This title is clever but pointless and inefficient

This is the post I would normally write about being at an event in the city with a collection of like-minded individuals who were compelled to attend to on the promise of solace at their smiting of writing with encouraging words from the scribers of note that can say what they wrote with articulate summary, a sprinkling of chummery and, not least some encouragement, wrapped up in wit, delivered in earnest, with meaning, to whit, I give you a paragraph to be used as example, to print and to squint at in lieu of a sample of how you could simply just dribble away like a gibbering goon for the rest of the day.

Except, I now know better.

This evening I attended a workshop run by Martin Belam and Cennydd Bowles, which, ostensibly, was about being a better writer. That sounds like a rather lofty and grandiose concept, but, you know, I like those. Realistically, the workshop was more about personal approaches to writing, learned writing skills, need-to-know and evil-to-use devices for being read, and a heavy dose of editing. Oh, and spelling. And grammar. Which, I plainly flout irreverently and irreconcilably and even irresponsibly. In fact, there were so many golden nuggets of ‘better writing’ advice that I didn’t even have time to flippantly flap about it on the twitter.

Not really knowing what to expect from the evening, I did approach it with an open mind, and an open bottle of Corona. I was hoping that I might get some opinions other than my own on what might constitute good writing and take those opinions away to inform my future output. I did get that, but I also got a rather delightful insight into the methods and practices of two writers that I rather admire. If were to make some dubious football analogy at this point, which I am going to, I’d suggest that Martin’s approach was that of a wily, crafty, tactical midfield genius, who has a great eye for an opportunity, knows all the tricks and can pick out the killer pass most of the time. He’s always the first man to be picked, notwithstanding his occasional tendency to argue the toss with the gaffer over formations. On the other hand, Cennydd would be more of a silky, clinical, methodical kind of player. While apparently effortless in his command of the ball and organising the team (for he does wear the armband), he will be the one on the training ground under the floodlights at 2a.m., repeatedly kicking a ball at a wall until he can predictably hit the same brick every time.

All of which is just a way to say that when describing how to be a better writer, you necessarily end up describing what you’ve done to try and be a better writer yourself, and this will be different depending on who you are. Martin and Cennydd described quite different experiences and approaches, but they shared a common aim. Clearly, there is no right way to become a better writer, there are many right ways. However, what this evening demonstrated is that if you want to focus on a few of the many, some of those right ways are more righterer than others.

Tomorrow, as an exercise, I shall mostly editing the life out of this post before publishing it again. It will be like harvesting antimatter with a sock.