After Hours

Streamline your project work with this workflow process

Putting a workflow methodology into practice can help consultants ensure that their clients get exactly what they need. Here's a sample of a successful workflow process used by a software solutions firm.

A successful workflow process provides a framework for developing timelines, building teams, and defining goals and milestones. Regardless of project scope, a standard set of procedures can expedite your work and help you ensure all bases are covered as you walk new clients through each step.

Greg Picarelli, technology director (CIO) of Electronic Ink, recently shared the details of his five-step workflow process with us an interview. Use his methods to create your own process from scratch or to refine a workflow that you already have in place.

An illustration of the process
The quickest way to gain an understanding of Electronic Ink’s workflow is to see it in graphic form. Figure A is a Gantt chart of Electronic Ink's workflow process.

Figure A
Electronic Ink's workflow process

Phase 1: Inform
The first step in Electronic Ink's process is the Inform phase, in which consultants form a picture of the client's current situation and their goals and expectations of the software the consultant is about to build.

Picarelli pointed out that it's important to get an accurate "before” picture at this stage so that after the project is complete, you can use it as a gauge to answer the question, "Did we add the value we hoped to add?" The consultant will also talk with the client about key metrics, how they might be improved, and how the software will address those issues.

"We like to get the client to articulate what they’re really hoping to accomplish," Picarelli said. "From the word 'go,' what we like to do—and encourage our clients to do—is get in a room and really clarify business goals, strategic goals, and how they're aligned."

At the same time, the consultant is also trying to determine what strategies and tactics will fulfill the client's goals. It's important to get away from the buzzwords and into the tangible business goals, Picarelli said.

For example, if a client says their goal is to build a customer relationship management (CRM) system with a certain set of capabilities, it's important to have the client explicitly define what they're expecting the system to do.

"In building a CRM application, our research would say that there are really four or five tools that you could look at that do very, very different things under this huge umbrella term of CRM," Picarelli said.

Phase 2: Discover
Once the client has articulated the needs this new project should fulfill, Electronic Ink's consultants move into the Discover phase. During this period, they meet with users to seek out and validate the similarities between what the business wants to achieve and what the users really want and need, Picarelli said. The consultant's job is to reconcile the differences between the business goals and the users' expectations.

At this point, consultants should learn everything they can about their client's infrastructure and users. What type of desktop computers are they using? What's the type and speed of their Internet connection, and how often do they use it? What is the user environment like? What applications are the users currently employing?

At the end of both the Inform and the Discover phases, Electronic Ink's consultants meet again with the clients to "calibrate" the views and information they've gathered.

"We try to put that back to our clients in a way that says, 'You said this and your users said this. Here are the similarities, here are the discrepancies, and here are a set of recommendations to reconcile those,'" Picarelli said.

By comparing the goals of the client with those of its users, consultants can lay out a tactical plan of action in which the most important features are implemented first. In that way, the consultant can continually give the users the next most important functionality that they need while working toward the ultimate goals of the business.

"Every time you're giving them something, you're giving them the most important thing," Picarelli said. Eventually, you'll meet the objectives of both the users and the business.

Phase 3: Plan
After the users' and the business' objectives are thoroughly investigated and discussed, the next step is to formulate a plan. During the Plan phase, every detail of the solution must be specified. Picarelli said the consultants must ask themselves questions like:
  • How are we going to solve the problems that the business and the users have?
  • How do we give them the tools?
  • How do we lay out the capabilities?
  • What are the tactical steps?
  • What is the architecture?
  • What are the visual representations with which the users will interact?

When creating a project schedule, consultants should specify all of the client’s key objectives uncovered in the Discover phase and revisit those points after each milestone is met. The plan is continually defined as the consultants, the client, and the users review the deliverables that Electronic Ink comes up with, Picarelli said.

Visual representation: The first draft
Initially, the architecture of the system is developed "on paper" for the purpose of efficiency and cost. It's easy to get those plans in front of users and get feedback prior to spending money on building the application, Picarelli said. Whether you use a whiteboard, Photoshop, or some other software to build the visual, he said it's important that it contain as few embellishments as possible.

"We separate the issue of aesthetics—color and font, actual screen organization, screen design, and the look and feel of the GUI [Graphical User Interface]—from the information architecture," Picarelli said.

By leaving the "look and feel" for a later discussion, you can answer important questions, such as: "Can you accomplish your tasks, and can you find the information that you are looking for if we represent the information in this way on these screens?" If you include logos and fancy typestyles, "they'll simultaneously be reacting to color and font alongside of trying to tell you how to lay it out and how to organize the information. You get all these conflicting things….You end up with something that doesn't achieve what you need," Picarelli explained.

Once you've validated the information architecture with users, you can then address the GUIs, branding, and artistic issues.

Technical prototypes: The second draft
After the visual representation is laid out, you can then proceed to the creation of a technical prototype. At this point, you are looking for technical areas of risk or circumstances that will make this system perform poorly, Picarelli said.

For example, when Electronic Ink built a content management system for a large publishing firm, it made the system's navigation scheme four levels deep to accommodate the client's needs. However, the company's desktop computers and network infrastructure paralyzed the system.

"You may have the slickest design in the world, but if it takes 15 seconds to load, people aren't going to use it," Picarelli said. "Performance will drive usability as much as navigation or the aesthetic treatment."

Any issues that will affect the day-to-day function of the system should be investigated and alleviated during the technical prototype phase, he said.

Phase 4: Build
The Build phase includes coding and building the solution, creating test plans, testing the solution, and creating maintenance plans to sustain the program.

"Throughout this phase, we’re doing lots of quality tests—even daily, if possible—to test each unit of the code," Picarelli said. "Then we would tie it all together and do integration tests to ensure that we have these pieces, but do they work well together? Ultimately, we would push that out to users in a staging environment and get them to do user acceptance tests."

Users who test the solutions are typically chosen through a collaborative process between Electronic Ink and the client. A “human factors” team would then consult with the client and explain, for example, that the designers would want to meet with the marketing team to talk about branding issues, and that the technology people should meet with the employees who run the client's infrastructure or the people that are currently building applications.

"We say that we want to talk to these kinds of users with these kinds of challenges, and they might specify people that have different job functions, and you want to talk to one from each or a couple from the most critical [groups]," Picarelli said.

After testing, the final step in the Build phase is the actual deployment of the solution.

Phase 5: Evaluate
After the system has been deployed for a period of time, it's helpful to both the client and the consultants to evaluate the solution.

"It’s a natural follow-up to determine the things we can do to make it better," Picarelli said. "It’s a process of going back to the metrics we had in the beginning and asking, 'Did it work?'"

Electronic Ink's Client Relations department actively seeks feedback from past clients to ensure that they're happy with the results of the project and to encourage repeat business. However, throughout the entire project, client involvement is a vital component.

"Our best work is when they’re most involved," Picarelli said. "We won’t even work on a project if we’re going to do it in a vacuum or if clients and users won’t be involved.”

How does this differ from your workflow process?
Do you have a method of serving your clients that you'd like to share? Send us the outline of your workflow. If we use it in a future article, you'll win a TechRepublic coffee mug.


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