Visualize First, Build Later: Advantage of Simulation Tools

When Jan Scheetz was asked for a wish list of what she wanted in an electronic physician-order system for patient rehab regimens, she wasn't shy about her requirements. According to Scheetz, the ideal system would generate a valid electronic signature from a physician, which is necessary to process insurance and Medicare claims but is often a challenge to obtain.

When Jan Scheetz was asked for a wish list of what she wanted in an electronic physician-order system for patient rehab regimens, she wasn't shy about her requirements. According to Scheetz, the ideal system would generate a valid electronic signature from a physician, which is necessary to process insurance and Medicare claims but is often a challenge to obtain.

"This is something we were dreaming of for a long time," says Scheetz, the outpatient supervisor at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Right now "we have consults online that [do not result in] signed orders" and therefore require substantial manual work to complete. But a new process will allow hospital staffers to treat an online consultation as a valid signed order generated by a physician.

Perhaps best of all, Scheetz and her colleagues got to see what the system would look like even before it was developed.

The hospital used a software tool called iRise, which allows enterprises to simulate and create images of what software applications will look like before actual development occurs. They are not working prototypes; instead, they're "acting" applications with a finished look and feel, but with no coding behind them.

Scheetz and others in her department worked with business analysts at MD Anderson. They all used iRise to hash out what they wanted in the physician order system and then, several months later, Scheetz and her colleagues took a look at the first version.

Requirements matter

The challenge that business stakeholders face in trying to communicate their requirements to software developers isn't a new problem, notes Melinda-Carol Ballou, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. But dealing with that challenge has become more critical in the wake of the economic downturn.

"With increasingly scarce resources, there isn't any margin for error. So if there's a disconnect between what you create and what the business actually needed, the costs of failure are [more pronounced] in this economy," says Ballou, adding that this is the reason products are now evolving to specifically address that issue.

"When you're visualizing requirements and looking at a screen, it gives users something tangible" so they can see what "something means in physical terms," she adds.

There is a significant need for better communication between stakeholders and developers. Boston-based IT research firm The Standish Group reports that there was a decrease in project success rates from 2006 to 2008. (Standish conducts its research studies every two years, and 2008 is the most recent year for which data is available; the results of a new study are due early next year.) In 2008, 32% of all projects succeeded, meaning they were delivered on time and on budget, with required features and functions, according to Standish. In comparison, the firm's 2006 study showed that 35% of projects succeeded.

On the other hand, in 2008, about 44% of projects were late, over budget and/or came in without all of the required features and functions, and 24% failed and were canceled prior to completion or delivered and never used, according to Standish. In 2006, the failure rate was at 19%.

The development environment has become so challenging recently because the economy has forced people to reassess the projects they were doing, says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group. For example, some projects were started but then canceled because they were deemed not in alignment with corporate goals. Additionally, "I think people have gone overboard on implementing governance and compliance around their projects [which] have gotten so sophisticated, they can't deliver on them," says Johnson. "We're out of balance in that area."

Traditionally, developing a software application for beta testing can take months, even with newer Agile development methods. But application visualization can be done within a matter of hours to give users some insight into what that system will look like and how it will work. It also allows for early discovery of whether a developer has missed the mark in terms of creating what the user wants.

IT departments are acutely aware that software development is something they need to get a better handle on, says Tom Grant, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "There's an increasing awareness that this is a problem worth investing in because people will waste a lot of time in cycles of redesign," says Grant. The tools to remedy the situation, however, are not widespread yet, he adds. They're not available, and the few that are on the market are just not being used.

Both Ballou and Grant say that visualization tools are just part of a broader market of requirements tools. "The requirements tool market as whole has [seen] fairly late adoption," observes Grant. The biggest challenge these vendors have, he says, is the cultural issue of trying to get companies to move away from using applications like spreadsheets and PowerPoint to get users to articulate their requirements. Both analysts also say it's hard to pinpoint the size of the application visualization tools market, since it is in a state of change and there are many different problems that requirements tools are trying to solve.

The requirements definition and management software market had sales of $2.07 million in 2008, up 7% from $194.2 million in 2007. Ballou projects that in light of the financial climate, this market will grow to $290.6 million by 2013. "The increasing complexity and criticality of software applications and systems and the unremitting business pressures for software relevance, adaptability, compliance traceability and faster time to market will continue to drive demand for interactive requirements solutions," she wrote in a market analysis report.

The key challenge for El Segundo, Calif.-based iRise, says Ballou, is to get its software to manage and reuse all of the artifacts created in iterative joint application design sessions for comparable projects, although she says she expects upcoming versions of the application to address that issue.

Getting it right at the outset

Package carrier United Parcel Service Inc. has found that working with business users on systems requirements pays off, says Mark Hilbush, vice president of information systems. "The whole idea is to get as much right up front and try to work with business users in a way they can really understand what it is we're building together," he says. That approach has produced benefits that include allowing non-English speakers to see the software and make sure key requirements weren't missed, he says.

Hilbush's group is building a Web-based application that will replace a mainframe package-processing application and will be used in UPS operations all over the world. Using iRise's Studio tool, IT has been able to model different aspects of the user interface with dashboards, data entry, reporting and other capabilities, he says.

"We were able to put the visualization in front of users who are across the United States and Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and [iRise] allowed us to get many more people involved in the requirements process than would normally be involved," Hilbush explains.

Not only has IT been able to uncover requirements early on that may not have been articulated by management, but the tool allows Hilbush's group to get direct feedback from people who are going to use the system on a day-to-day basis to see how it fits their needs. "The last thing you want is to get to alpha or beta or user testing and find out you've missed the mark on a few key requirements," he says. "That's the power of visualization -- it lets you do that very early in the life cycle."

The iRise tool has been very helpful in terms of improving quality, since English is not the primary language for everyone giving input, notes Tony Baldassari, a senior project manager in UPS's Package Project Management (PPM) Group. If he had to request comments from international users in a requirements document, things would inevitably get lost in translation. But sending out a prototype lets people visualize what the new system will look like and therefore helps ensure that it's built right the first time, Baldassari says.

"There is some process improvement from the standpoint that we don't have to get a bunch of e-mails with comments and hold conference calls to review them," he explains. But the biggest improvement is "in the quality of the product that goes out for Version 1."

UPS's new application, an international operations processing system used to clear shipments from country to country, has been reviewed several times. People have been able to see all of the visual parts, including screens, links, how they would navigate through the pages and the actual look and feel, says Baldassari.

Once users input their comments into iRise, his group gathers the feedback, consolidates it and reworks the design before sending out another round of screenshots for viewing. "It allows us to iterate very quickly and get feedback and comments and, if needed, a Round 3. By the time we've done that, we're pretty confident we have very good buy-in from all the users," says Baldassari. "We finalize that with IT, and it saves time in the development cycle."

The system is going out in 12 phases, most of which have user interfaces. There will be two to three reviews per phase, Hilbush says. The project started early in 2010 and the first phase will go live in the third quarter of this year. The second phase will go live in the fourth quarter of this year.

The key message members of the project team gleaned was that in some cases, there were steps on the dashboards that would have challenged users "and made it difficult to fit into their business processes," says Hilbush. The goal of the dashboards is to give the business user a quick view into the performance of their operations, including trending graphs on the handling, sorting and movement/transporting of packages.

UPS uses iRise as part of the requirements-gathering process both for systems that will be used inside the company and for applications that UPS customers use via the Web. It works well on just about any type of system that has user interface, he says, and in 2009 it was used on 43 projects out of 47 that were identified as potential candidates for iRise. "Our philosophy is if you have a Web application or a Windows app -- or any app with a user interface -- you've got to have a pretty compelling reason why you wouldn't use visualization on that project," says Hilbush.

While he wouldn't give specifics on the cost of implementing iRise, Hilbush says UPS has seen a return on its investment in the software because it reduced the number of changes generated during the project life cycle and it reduced the number of defects later on in development.

A product like iRise doesn't replace the usual functional requirements-gathering and other traditional steps that happen during the development cycle, Hilbush adds.

Lessons learned: Use it or lose it

At the MD Anderson Cancer Center, officials had been using iRise to develop an electronic medical records (EMR) system called Clinic Station. And now the hospital has begun using the iRise tool within various departments to create better workflow on other processes and to allow staffers to spend more time working with patients.

As a hospital specializing in cancer care, MD Anderson found that out-of the box electronic medical records systems with predefined requirements did not meet its needs, because those packages are designed for acute care centers, says Sherry Preston, business analyst manager of MD Anderson's electronic medical record development and support team. The hospital spent about eight years trying to get three different EMR tools customized, but none worked. "The bugaboo is the workflow," she notes.

So hospital management decided to develop its own unique system and train clinicians like herself -- who understood the nuances of nursing, pharmacy, labs, X-ray and medical records -- to become business analysts and to work with end users on getting input on the different modules that they wanted to interact with Clinic Station. "It was important because we had to be able to document and elicit requirements and understand the workflow of each corner of the hospital," explains Preston, who as a nurse worked in the clinics at MD Anderson for 26 years.

As part of that broader EMR work, in late spring of this year Preston began working with Scheetz's department to understand its workflow processes and to learn exactly how the group prioritizes and handles physical therapy orders after the orders come in from physicians. Scheetz says that one of the challenges they face is that they often have to validate that there is an actual signed physician order, and that can be a "manual and laborious process." A new physician order system is being developed to automate that process, and visualizations in iRise indicate that it will successfully ensure that there is a signed order.

Officials are currently waiting for the physician order system to be integrated into Clinic Station, and Scheetz says that should happen sometime during the summer. About 15,000 employees have access to Clinic Station. Preston's team will next use iRise to add a medication order-entry system into Clinic Station.

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