Thursday, July 8, 2010

Draw a Real Picture

In a previous article I mentioned five tips for Domain Modeling. In this post I'm going to drill down further on one of those:

1. Draw a "Real Picture".

I've used Real Pictures as a technique for a number of years; not only in Domain Modeling, but in Architecture, Design, Development and Planning. It's a pretty simple exercise, but yields a lot of interesting information. In this description I talk in the context of running a project, because that's the most common case -- but that is not universal.

A Real Picture is foremost a conversation piece. It lets the stakeholders involved discuss and explore the domain and it's context. Besides just capturing raw information, a Real Picture also serves as a gentle introduction for participants that might not be familiar with formal diagramming approaches. Often a good first step.

To start, get the participants together. You don't need to mass-invite everyone, but make sure all the key representatives and stakeholders are covered. So if it's a software project, you should have sponsors, end-users, designers, developers, testers and so forth. If you need to economise on people, focus on those that have most affected or impacted by the end result of the exercise, rather than on pure expertise.

There isn't much to developing the picture itself -- Simply draw the major concepts and how they inter-relate. In my experience, this is enough to start the conversation flowing; just draw and re-draw the diagram as the "oh, and then there is" comments evolve.

As a rule of thumb, I keep Real Pictures to one page - A3 or a White Board usually. If it gets really messy, redraw the picture. If necessary, drop in prompters to keep the dialogue flowing. Pick a concept and drill down - focus on quantities, qualities, time, costs, constraints:

- How many of these items are there? e.g. How many employees are at that location?
- Does it vary over the day, are there seasonal variations? e.g. Do you have a rush at Christmas, End of Financial Year?
- Will this change or move soon? e.g. Are you changing network providers? When did you last open a new outlet?
- What would invalidate this element or relationship? e.g. What security issues would make a location unviable?
- What do competitors or other equivalents do for this function or outcome? e.g. Does your competitor do this differently? better?
- Are there constraints on the way things should be? e.g. Does the government enforce strict reporting on certain items?

It's important that you don't constrain the actual process and format too much. The objective of this exercise is to get all the stakeholders together and to articulate a landscape that everyone understands. The end result should also be something that all stakeholders reasonably grasps and agree to.

At this stage, try not to abstract too much - early abstraction can lead to some necessary detail or important corner-case being lost. If a specific location, or server, or piece of software is mentioned, it may have special significance.

In one particular instance I found a number of stakeholders would refer repeatedly to a specific printer - i.e. the actual device itself and where it was located. Most of the project team didn't see any significance of this, myself included. The model and design assumed it was a standard office printer, the same any printer we used in our day to day. When we eventually dug deeper, it turns out this specific instance was special - it enabled secure printing. The way the device functions is such that a human operator never gets to see the contents. If you've ever received a bank PIN in an special envelope, then it's probably from a pretty similar device.

Not only was the fact that this device was special important - but also many of the project participants hasn't realised the significance of the information being send by this device. The communications that ended up at this printer required an extra level of security; it has a very special significance. Up until that point most of the team hasn't considered that special, but clearly it was. Similarly, the end-users thought that information was obvious. Suffice to say, staying concrete at this stage usually is the best default - Abstractions will flow later.

A Real Picture sounds trivial, in fact you might be over-the-top to call it a technique. Either way, it's a low impact exercise with a lot of benefits. At the end of the exercise you have:

  • A starter for the vocabulary that is in use. Perhaps more importantly, you've got a vocabulary that a variety participants are at least familiar with.

  • An outline of scope. With the Real Picture you should be able to draw a line around what's "in" and what's "out". If something's ambiguous, explore that some more. If scope has been defined as part of a project, this can be a useful validation point.

  • A fallback. If you hit a road-block or misunderstanding later, you might be down in some detail and a representation that some might not understand. If you have this, you can ask "but didn't we say these relate in that other diagram?". It's not the absolute source-of-truth, but it's a useful pivot.

  • An understanding of the various perspectives of the stakeholders. Usually the Real Picture will help illustrate the natural focus and bias of the stakeholders.

  • If the participants can't understand or arrive at a picture, then the composition or overall scope needs addressing. Every participant in the project or domain should at least be able to understand the A3 view of what you're trying to realise.



BazDimitriou said...

With peripheral stakeholders [students at school] of a reality-scenario - what entities are understood to be in/out may well need to be enacted in role-play before stakeholders can reach consensus.

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