BA and UX specialist: A winning combination for superior results in software projects

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I’m a fierce proponent of a business analyst role separate from other roles, such as project manager. As I’ve written in the past,

In my experience as a consultant, the most successful projects typically have a business analyst and a project manager working together to accomplish project goals. Activities such as planning the work to be done, identifying and securing necessary resources, determining tasks that must be completed, assigning the tasks, delegating authority, tracking progress, etc., are the responsibility of the project manager, while the business analyst remains in charge of producing consistent, complete, feasible, truly needed, accurate, traceable and verifiable requirements.

But what about user experience or interaction designers[1]? Does every software project truly need a UX/UI specialist (or team of specialists)? Or could this aspect of the solution be taken care by the collaboration between the BA and the development team?

BA and UX specialist: A winning combination for superior results in software projectsNot all software projects will require a UI/UX designer. For example, a project enhancing a system that already provides good usability, implementing changes with zero or little impact in the way users interact with the system, can be successfully completed without the intervention of a UI specialist. This would be the case of a project created to implement massive changes in the business logic that calculates the price of airline tickets, but with no effect in the screens customers use to check prices and purchase flight tickets.

In many other types of software projects, however, the quality of the user experience may have a huge impact in user adoption rates, time-to-market, customer loyalty, and future costs with end-user support and application maintenance, among other aspects that are important for the business. Table 1 illustrates how the UX designer role complements the tasks performed by the BA to provide the right foundation for the work of the technical team responsible for implementing a software solution.

 

Business Analyst

User Experience Designer

Implementation team

Main focus

Business problem assessment

Requirements discovery and documentation

Information Architecture

Visual Design

Interface design

Usability

Prototyping*, system architecture, data modeling**, technical design, programming

* If not executed by the UX specialist

** If not executed by a data-focused BA

Main deliverables

Requirements documents, business rules

Wireframes, visual comps, results of usability tests

System architecture and technical design documents, code

Examples of decisions

How to go about the requirements discovery process (interviews, workshops, etc.), when the requirements are considered “done”.

What to align
with what in an interface, when to use techniques like contrast and proximity to group and segregate
items in a display.

Which data structure (e.g., simple partitioning, associative array, 10-ary tree) to use to represent the content a large flat text file.

Table 1: How the BA and UX roles complement each other.

Arguably, a BA and a developer can work together to figure out the user interaction elements of a software solution on their own. That’s what happens in projects when there isn’t a budget or interest in bringing a UX specialist to the team. A BA may create wireframes the developer uses to produce the screens, and the developer may be responsible for decisions such as when to use a button vs. a link, or radio buttons vs. a drop-down menu to provide options to users. There are two main problems with designing the user experience in a complex software project without the help of an UX specialist, though:

  • Trying to recruit a single individual with all the skills necessary to be at the center of a systematic approach to defining a solution for the business problem (BA role) or effectively coding the specified solution (developer), who is also knowledgeable in information, interaction, and visual design, as well as cognizant of the advantages and constraints associated with the interface of various types of devices that will be used to access the application, and capable of designing and executing effective usability tests, (UX specialist), is almost like trying to hire a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci.

  • Even if you could find such a talented professional, there’s still the problem of competing demands for her time and attention.

Imagine you are in the middle of a project in which everything is going well (the business stakeholders have approved the requirements and the proposed look-and-feel, and the initial prototype built to confirm the solution was fit for purpose was a success). As the developers work on the final code, they discover that there is a problem with a data feed, which at times may prevent all the expected data to be included in one of the reports the application is to provide.

A solution must be found quickly to avoid costly delays in the project. The BA immediately starts to work on understanding and communicating the issue, as well as analyzing the alternatives to propose to the business stakeholders. Meanwhile, realizing that the report will have to include some sort of visual indication to alert users whenever the data set they are viewing is incomplete, the BA engages the UX specialist to begin thinking of how best to convey the information in the screen (using color codes? a warning message? an icon that when tapped or clicked opens a pop-up message explaining the issue?). In parallel, the developer will be working on the logic necessary to validate whether all the expected data was received in the last feed, or a subset is missing, thus requiring the warning to be displayed for users.

With each professional working on one aspect of the solution, it’s much easier to ensure the issue will receive the best possible treatment in the shortest period of time. In a case relatively simple like this, if time wasn’t an issue, it might be relatively easy for the BA and developer to work together and achieve a solution that was fit for purpose. But if time is limited, or the issue would have a more substantial impact in the user interaction design, having a UX specialist involved may become crucial to avoid creating a system that does what it’s supposed to do, but is so hard to navigate or complete a task with, that users refuse to adopt it.

Investments in usability can easily translate into better profit margins, sales/employee, success rates of new products, customer satisfaction, repeat purchase rate, dropout rate, length of new product introduction cycle, and more. Even a 5% improvement in success rate of a checkout process in an ecommerce website, driven by usability improvements, may represent millions more in revenue for the business. Likewise, cutting in half the time an employee takes to find a physician in the system to refer to a patient may create savings of millions a year for a healthcare company.

Creating an easy to use and pleasant user experience is a collaborative effort. In many of my projects, after seeing the visual comps a talented UX specialist designed, I’ve made a suggestion to reorganize the elements of a screen that was accepted and incorporated into the visual design. Or, during user acceptance testing, a user has asked for a change in color or size of buttons after using the application for a while. The key contribution a UX specialist brings to a project, though, is a deep understanding of UX principles, and the ability to bring together multiple viewpoints to “connect the dots” and do what’s right for the end users.

Smart companies know that ill-conceived software products end up costing them millions (if not billions) of dollars and many headaches. Some companies put UX specialists in charge of product requirements, some hire a BA to take care of the requirements and expect the project team to collectively make the interaction and visual decisions. Smarter organizations know that the combination of BA + UX offers the best approach to ensure that their software projects have a shortened programming time and delivers a superior product. Together, a business analyst and a user experience designer make it much easier to produce feasible-to-build, easy-to-use, attractive product that enables the user and the business to achieve their end goals. Their combined efforts make it possible for software developers to keep focus on the technical challenges of creating quality code for a well-designed software product that does complex things simply.

Author: Adriana Beal received her B.S. in electronic engineering and MBA in strategic management of information systems from two of the most prestigious graduate schools in Brazil. For the past 10 years she has been offering consulting assistance throughout the software development life cycle for organizations implementing large, complex software projects. 


[1] Interaction Designer, User Experience Designer, and User Interface Designer are usually interchangeable job titles. UI can be seen as a subset of UX -- it focuses on how you interact with an application, while UX is the sum of all that you experience with the application. For example, for the same UI to select and and play a video, you could have a different overall user experience depending on delays associated with video streaming, the sharpness of the images based on screen resolution, etc.

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COMMENTS

bulldogkc posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 8:07 AM
Adrianna, great article and I couldn't agree with you more on separating the BA role with other project roles. I find that the different roles often optimized for different personalities. When you try to put too many roles on an individual they end up putting the most emphasis on the role they feel most comfortable doing and tend to neglect the other ones. Having had to do this myself, I jokingly refer to individuals performing PM duties along with many other roles as application czars (or czaresses).

Then when the czar moves on to something else it makes turnover a mess because it's like losing an entire team. When you separate the roles that's not the case. For example, if a QA lead leaves the BA and PM can provide guidance during the transition.

One last thought on prototyping is that I find often for a data driven site with a complex data structure, it makes sense for the development team (or BA if they're technical enough) to do the prototype and then get feedback from UX.
claire.o'rourke@redvespa.com posted on Thursday, July 4, 2013 6:10 PM
Adrianna,

All true. I love someone has shared their thoughts on this.

I had the lucky experience of having a team of BAs and a small team of UX specialists so that made it easy for the teams to do things like

* junior BAs seconded in as UX juniors for a period.
* shared learning sessions,
* development of simple effective UX techniques for BAs tool kits
* adjustment of requirements elicitation based on UX feedback/perspective to ease the UX tasks...

The collaboration paid back value for both specialist practises as well as for any project delivery.. and clients and customers loved it.

So all learned something new but still had a foil or independence of perspective and the licence to specialise in their areas of passion.
jcvaughan posted on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 4:45 PM
Adrianna

Excellent insights. Am a UX Practitioner - often describe myself as "a BA with design talent" (no offense intended - It's my tongue-in-cheek attempt to recognize some of the same issues you raise)).

I agree that there's an implicit synergy between the two. Your article a good step in the direction of identifying and reconciling the issues. As an ex-Documentation Manager, I'd like to toss that into the mix as a valuable set of solutions.

"Deliverables" are a good place to identify & define responsibilities and boundaries. http://www.jcvtcs.com/-docs/index-uxp-tasks.html

Gotta disagree with the idea of prototyping outside of a fairly rigorous skillset. Clickable demosites and design with native code are an important aspect of efficient team process.
putchavn posted on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 5:27 PM
I have read up to "Imagine you are in the middle of .."

I fully agree with all your observations, conclusions and recommendations up to this point.


I particularly like "is almost like trying to hire a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci."

Some how it seems to me that is what Agile is trying to do when they expect every team member to do any piece of work without documentation.

Best wishes,
putchavn posted on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 3:42 PM
Adreana:

Your admin brought me here again.

AA: I share the same "fierce...." about BA particularly because it enables people with right attitude and skills to really add value at a much lower cost than engaging expensive geeks to do BA and RE jobs, which they are more likely to foul up with coding obsession.

BB: If a UX specialist is needed and available on call basis it is fine but if the UX skills are to be learnt, I suppose a BA and RE is better suited. As such a BA or RE is close to business and user and he would be well of learning UX than learning software design and coding skills.

CC: I would like to know from jcvaghun and you if BB is valid.

Best wishes,
adrianab posted on Wednesday, July 24, 2013 7:18 PM
Wow, for some reason I did not receive any notification of these messages, or I'd have replied and thanked everyone for your comments (I liked all of them).

To address the "UX specialist doing prototype": I tried to be as flexible as possible in my division of duties because in practice it goes in different directions. Even I, as the BA of a project, once created an HTML prototype, with Javascript to simulate some functionality. It worked well because if we were to wait until a developer was available, it would have delayed our project tremendously. My prototype served to explain to executives the concept of a "portal" (which they were having difficulty understanding -- this was a long time ago, and few portals existed back then).

I currently work with a very talented UX specialist who only does visual comps, that are then automatically translated into HTML and used by the developers to finalize the product. It works very well because the screen first become a clickable prototype that shows in high-fidelity how the application will look and "feel" like, and while we validate the UI, the developers are working on adding the back end features.

So, to summarize, I don't have a problem with prototyping being done by a BA, UX specialist, or developer. I've seen all these scenarios work very well in practice -- it all depends on the purpose of the prototype, and the skill set of the person creating it.

@jcvaughan: No offense taken on the "BA with design talent". I'm an engineer and prefer to take care of the functional side of things, so I'd happily partner with someone with your skills :-).

@putchavn: I'd say some BAs would be more successful doing technical design and coding, and others doing UX work, depending on the skills they have. To me, the most important message is "do not try to hire a one-man-band". Let your BA excel on BA skills, and find the right resources to perform the other aspects of the work.
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