Tuesday, March 5, 2019

What should practitioners know about user involvement in software development?

By: Didar ZowghiMuneera Bano (@DidarZowghi @DrMuneeraBano
Associate Editor: Muneera Bano (@DrMuneeraBano)

In the neo-humanist approach, software is designed to support and improve the working environment of its intended users. In practice, this means involving them in the development process and not to treat them as mere consumers of the software

But is it really important to involve users in software development? To what extent, and at what stages of software development, should they participate? How much power should the users be given in software development decision making?  These questions have been asked by researchers and practitioners for decades and together with many related subjects, they have been the topic of a great deal of research.  

Users’ involvement (UI) during software development has been claimed to link to users’ satisfaction with the resulting system, that in turn leads to the assertion of system success. However, much of the empirical evidence to date shows that this connection between UI and system success is not ubiquitous. Although much of research in this area has revealed that involving users in software development contributes positively to system success, it is also been observed that UI is indeed a double-edged sword and can equally create problems rather than benefits.

In theory, Users’ involvement in software development and system success’ is a complex combination of four different concepts that have been studied and analyzed separately and in combination. Over five decades of this investigation enormous amount of debate and disagreement has been published both in software engineering and information systems research literature. 

Like others, we have been curious about so much interest and conflicting results on the topic of users’ involvement in software development. In the last 6 years, we have conducted empirical longitudinal studies to explore: what has been reported in research literature? what are the problems and challenges of UI? how does users’ satisfaction with their involvement evolve? and what useful theories could be developed about the link between UI and system success?. Furthermore, we have been wondering about what impact has Agile software development had on addressing the problems and challenges of UI. So, we also explored the alignment of stakeholder Expectations about UI in agile development. Finally, being convinced that UI is clearly a multi-faceted and communication rich phenomenon, we conducted a case study of organizational power and politics in the context of UI in software development.

The overall findings from our longitudinal study have resulted in several key observations and the development of a theory.  First, we observed that system success is achievable even when there are problems and challenges in involving users. User satisfaction significantly contributes to the system success even when schedule and budget goals are not met. Second, there are additional factors that contribute to the evolution of user satisfaction throughout the project. Users’ satisfaction with their involvement and the resulting system are mutually constituted while the level of user satisfaction evolves throughout the stages of the development process. Third, organizational and project politics are significant factors often used to exert power and influence in decision-making processes. Communication channels are frequently exploited for political purposes. These contribute to the users’ dissatisfaction with their involvement thus impacting on the project outcome. Fourth, varying degrees of expectation misalignments exist between the development team and users in Agile software development projects.

Our findings enabled us to provide useful hints for practitioners. Understanding the nature of the problems related to UI helps the project managers to develop appropriate strategies for increasing the effectiveness of user involvement. These management strategies and appropriate level and extent of user representation are essential elements of maintaining an acceptable level of user satisfaction throughout the software development process. When there are multiple teams of stakeholders with different levels of power in decision-making, politics is inevitable and inescapable. Without careful attention, the political aspect of user involvement in software development can contribute to an unsuccessful project.

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