The method behind the madness: Agile development

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Over the past month, we’ve released dozens of new features and improvements, everything from new RSS feeds, to exportable event lists, to Network Creator exclusive gifts to better ways to manage email notifications.

It’s been exciting for us, and hopefully exciting for you, too. Instead of taking months to work on and release a new feature (as longtime Ning Network Creators may remember us doing), we’ve been focusing on small, frequent releases instead. The method behind the madness is called agile development, and I wanted to provide some background here to the software development philosophy that’s guiding us today.

Our philosophy is that when it comes to web development, small and frequent changes are better than big, bundled releases. The logic behind this is that you, Network Creators and members, receive immediate value. You don’t need to wait for every aspect of a new product to be perfect. Instead, you can see it live on your Ning Network, and provide feedback through Ning Creators, the Ning Help Center or here on the Ning Blog. We can use that feedback to make quick course corrections.

Previously, we’d release a huge set of new features. These features would take months to scope out and program. We’d then release them across all Ning Networks, and when we were finished, we’d move on to the next set of features we wanted to add. This process left little time for improvements because, by the time a feature was released, we needed to move on to the next big release. With agile development, we don’t need to wait until the next big release; we can get quick fixes and enhancements out the door quickly and efficiently.

For example, we released Ning Virtual Gifts in late October, and began immediately looking through the comments that Ning Network Creators were leaving on the Ning Blog (there were almost 100!). Based on the feedback we heard, we started releasing small, but significant improvements, like bulk credits and Network Creator exclusive gifts, and the ability to set your own price point for custom gifts and rename Gift categories.

Or, think about the improvements we’ve been making over the past month on the Broadcast Message feature. We first increased the character limit for messages. Then, we put the broadcast message field into a full page and added support for HTML. After that, we added a WYSIWYG toolbar. We hope to add a preview or test feature soon (suggested by Network Creators), but the important point is that we’re rolling out the features as soon as they are available, instead of waiting to make sure every aspect of each feature is built-in at launch.

We view Network Creators as a vital part of this process. A great example has been the development of the redesigned Members page. A month ago, we posted to gather thoughts on whether Network Creators preferred the old grid view or the new list view. Most of the feedback we heard was a preference for the grid view, but some Network Creators liked aspects of the newer list view. Over the next few weeks, we worked with the dozens of Network Creators who replied to build a single, updated view that incorporated the top requests we heard, such as featuring a profile question of your choice on the Members page, instead of only allowing gender and location to be shown.

This kind of constant feedback loop and the ability, on our side, to easily shift priorities or to quickly include your requests in a new feature already under development would have been much harder to do with the way we used to release new releases.

We look forward to adding more new features and improving on the ones we already have going forward. As always, we’re taking in your feedback, and using that to chart the course ahead.

Patrick Mee is a Director of  Engineering, and is responsible for all user-facing development at Ning.

About the Author:

Patrick Mee – who has written posts on Ning's Official Blog on Social Networking Sites.


  • Russell

    a sure am a big fan of this Agile development !

  • eCoronado

    I love it. I especially can’t wait for the ‘repeating events’ feature (hint hint). Keep it up Ning!

  • Luke

    sounds like some good agile processing! keep it up!

  • nwaekempi

    thanks

  • infinity O …

    The .ning interface is a masterpiece.
    .
    considering a global audience and multi-cultural users , the .ning users interface is
    unparalleled , anywhere in the world .
    .
    i have only one suggestion for improving the interface :
    .
    please consider including an option to see all members (of any .ning site) who are ‘on-line’ presently (the here,and,now) . i know that ‘on-line’ status shows for particular members , however some .ning sites have a thousand or more members . too may pages to scroll through to find people who are synchronous with your time’s on line .
    .
    so an option to ‘see ALL (together on a few pages) presently on-line would assist greatly in furthering the perfection of the .ning masterpiece interface .

    thank you ,
    happy holidays .
    .

  • Healthcare Value Leaders Network

    Glad to hear you are using Agile methods!

  • Darren Richardson

    Do you recommend any agile web tools or is Ning just using Post-it Notes & Whiteboards?

  • Evan

    Hey Darren!

    Great question. We use Jira to capture and manage our sprint workflows. It works pretty well — though we’d likely use whiteboarding and stickies save for remote employees.

  • http://blog-o.ning.com Patrick Mee

    Hi Darren,

    If your team is all co-located, I fully recommend Cork-boards, Post-Its and a spreadsheet for burn-downs.

    We have remote team members so we use Jira/Greenhopper. It seems fine, but since we are new to them, I’m sure we will learn how to use them better.

    -Patrick

  • Atman

    Be the rabbit and the hare (the middle path)

    Thanks for the update — always good to here strategy talk, its the equivalent of hand holding us NC’s… ! Thanks!

    :)

  • Peter Matthews

    I like this approach too. I am still waiting for a comprehensive discussion of what the ideal suite of search features might be for Ning networks.

    I have been working around the problem by putting notes in the menu with the results for different search terms shown, and linked to the Ning search page so that a current result can be easily obtained.

    Personally, I think we need a fully-featured central search panel that can be tailored to the needs of each network, as well as the page-specific search panels already built into the system. Searching for other members in a large network is the biggest blockage point for effective networking behaviour among members.

    Peter (ccoperative.ning.com)