Designing in Alignment

by Johanna Rothman. Originally published in Cutter's Business-IT Alignment E-Mail Advisor, December 8, 1999.

I was recently with a client that was having trouble completing its high-level design spec for a key internal system. The spec the designer delivered was 50 pages of dense text in a small type size. The sponsor refused to read it, and without the sponsor's agreement, the client couldn't go forward with the design. The designer was hurt, confused, and quite upset. “Why won't they read my spec? I put in everything they wanted, and now they won't even read it?”

Every phase of a product must be completed in alignment with your sponsor — including the design phase. Be aware that some sponsors are uncomfortable with what they perceive as “strange” notation. Others are embarrassed to admit that their (perhaps aging) eyes make it difficult to read small type. Sometimes, the sheer size of the design document intimidates sponsors. Finally, some sponsors think the design document may reflect the actual product.

Here are some suggestions for aligning your design activities with your business partners:

  1. Discuss the high-level design with your sponsor. Start with a top-level overview, and discuss examples of what the sponsor is considering and how those examples work within the context of the top-level overview.
  2. Designs aren't just text. Use pictures and diagrams to explain the context, show the relationships of the data, or whatever makes sense and helps the sponsor understand what's going on.
  3. Use people and props to show the sponsor what's happening. One sponsor was quite concerned about the speed of the completed payroll system. The designers had built in parallel processing, but the sponsor couldn't figure out how the system initiated the parallel processing. We used people as props, each with a role to play. One was a supervisor, who tracked the time and looked to see how much more work was required. We gave the supervisor a clipboard and the input parameter — the trigger to start more parallel processors. We used other people as processors. By walking the sponsor through the design, the sponsor was able literally to see the system as we had designed it. If you're using software-specific terminology, it may be worth trying a few “corny” tricks to get the sponsor to understand how the system will work.
  4. Keep the design document to 20 pages. Sponsors want to know they can read the whole thing in a reasonable amount of time. This may not be your only design document, but if you can't describe the design in 20 pages or less, perhaps you don't yet understand the design.
  5. Keep the type size to no smaller than 12 point. Those of us who need bifocals will thank you!

Keep your sponsors informed in ways that fit for them. Even if you've already worked through the requirements with your sponsor, they may have to sign off on more equipment or the next phase of the project. Who knows, by trying to explain the design to your sponsors, you may deepen your understanding of it.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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