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Are Automated Agile Tools Tactile Enough?

by Ben Hughes on Sep 07, 2007 |

Picture the scene, an image of all that is Agile. A developer picking a card from a task board and taking it to her desk. The tactile feedback of the card in her hand, the sense of ownership, when writing her name on the card, and the sensory feedback of placing it back on the board in the ‘In Progress’ column.

Take the other scenario, of the developer opening a browser, logging into the PM system, selecting a task, reading the story, changing the status with a deft click of the mouse et voilà, ownership is hers. As too is tactile deprivation.

Enter the science of Social Informatics:

Social Informatics (SI) refers to the body of research and study that examines social aspects of computerization, including the roles of information technology in social and organizational change, the uses of information technologies in social contexts, and the ways that the social organization of information technologies is influenced by social forces and social practices. - Rob Kling - Center for Social Informatics

While there are some tools that try to address this problem, through more tactile interfaces (such as drag and drop of story cards in Mingle) there remains a sensory barrier between the user and the system, which in some cases (for example accessibility) can have an alienating effect on the user. More fundamentally however, does the sytemisation of processes (including agile methdologies such as Scrum) actually make the team more productive, or does it simply distract the team from (literally) the task in hand?

Many believed that technological innovation was a major factor in productivity and assumed that investments in information technology would be reflected in national statistics when the cumulative capital stock of computer systems was large enough, they would result in improved productivity statistics. Some economists coined the term “productivity paradox”, after Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow (1987) wrote, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Solow’s assertion counters the common assumption that computerization would directly and dramatically improve productivity.

In Agile teams the focus is on people and the needs of the team, with the primary mechanism being through social feedback, however should we stop there? The popularity of nintendo’s latest games console has introduced a new form of human computer interaction to a wide, diverse and wanting audience. Should agile software developers and tool makers heed the lessons learned in the games console industry (as some have)? What balance should we have between reporting and traceability against fulfilling the basic tactile needs of human beings?

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On being kinesthetic by Deborah Hartmann

I've discovered that I absorb info better when I'm moving. Pacing in front of a whiteboard with a marker is enough for me, or scribbling with a stylus on my tablet computer. In fact, I rarely go back to most of my notes - it's the act of capturing them that does it for me.

So, whether the information is on a wall or in a computer doesn't seem to affect my learning. BUT does it affect how I perceive and execute teamwork? I must admit, I really do like seeing team info on a wall, and some of the teams I've talked to have a wall display even if they are also capturing in a tool for a distributed team member.

I've not had occasion to use any of the Agile project tools that simulate a taskboard - there are now several out there. Folks: what do you think of them? Is the simulation adequate? Does it accomplish what is needed?

Kinesthetic and agile by Sebastien Plisson

I completely agree that we, human, need to move to learn and work better. The whiteboard remains a very good way to achieve team work more efficiently. In my perception, the fact to draw/write common facts and goals on a common whniteboard is very important and pleasant, I feel more involved and more target oriented.
In french, "agile" is directly linked to the meaning : "moving easily" related to body movements, thus, in my opinion, agile process and tools should include this "semantic origin" of "moving during the learning/working process". The body helps the mind to learn.

With the help of the University of Calgary, Ral has taken a different turn by Ryan Martens

Ben, I would love to replicate the physical world of a large whiteboard in our product, but the hardware is really getting in the way of that usability. I enjoyed the novelty of the wii demo's but in the end, there are no wii's on software practitioner desktops. As an agile project management solution provider, we are more worried about breaking developer flow than pushing the cutting the edge on tactile world in computers. (though we love our wii tennis and bowling:) For this reason, we make Rally's task management a seamless part of the Eclipse Mylyn and Visual Studio task management systems. This helps developers stay in their tools and in the flow. When it comes to planning versus task management at Rally, we teach people to plan on whiteboards and our product makes it easy to round-trip off the whiteboards for cross-team roll-up, dependant and delegated work management. This is the true compelling reason to buy an Agile Project Management solution.

On the other hand, we have been working with Frank Mauer's team at the University of Calgary on an open source product called Agile Planner. This software uses drag-n-drop cards as a metaphor too. However, Agile Planner has a very unique capability that it allows for multiple mouse inputs from networked computers. As a result, Agile Planner lets distributed teams plan on a distributed whiteboard with multiple people standing and working at the board.

To me, round-tripping from whiteboards, keeping practitioners in the flow and enabling distributed whiteboard planning are the problems of the day. For the future, 2nd Life might be the place to replicate the physical gesturing world and I hold some promise for RFID cards too.

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