Considering that it represents some 94,000 teachers throughout eastern Washington State and western Idaho, it's no surprise that the Spokane Teachers Credit Union is more than familiar with whiteboards and markers. STCU's software developers, however, have moved past such old-school tactics — and saved both time and money — by introducing visualization software to improve the development process.
"It has the look and feel of the real thing, including the workflow," said Danny Jones, software development manager at STCU. "Sometimes users get confused and think it's the actual [app] because it's so realistic."
In an era when the lines of competition between mega-banks and smaller credit unions have blurred, the only thing that really matters to consumers is service. New accounts — and loyalty from long-time patrons — go to the agile and innovative, and more often than ever before, it is the unique, automated and technology-driven services that make the difference.
In such an environment, the question is not whether to introduce powerful member service apps, but how. Buy? Outsource? Develop in-house? Each has their advantages. Generally speaking, however, the only good reasons not to develop applications in-house revolve around cost, speed and quality. Visualization software helps solve all these issues.
Two Functions At Odds
For years, the enterprise software development journey was hamstrung by interactions between those who create business applications and those who use them. Business people understandably have a hard time comprehending text specifications, static screen shots, detailed use cases and complex business process flow diagrams-the very tools IT has depended on to plan their apps.
The resulting give-and-take between line-of-business and IT staff is often vague and superficial. Management may resort to an "I'll know it when I see it" approach, which virtually guarantees an outcome, after months of work, characterized by "That's not what I wanted at all."
Visualization software, by contrast, brings management and IT together early in the definition cycle to quickly iterate on a working model so they can get to the right answer faster, and with confidence. By creating a working model of the desired application early in the requirements phase of a project, users can "test drive" dropdown menus, member features, user interfaces and workflows, just as they would with the final product. As many enterprises have found, visualization software can cut the total development process in half while extracting as much as 30% of the overall project cost.
In the case of Spokane Teachers, Jones and his team have found that they can visualize a Web form with as little as four hours of prototype work and two team meetings.
Catherine Bolvie has had similar experience with visualization. "We are always looking for ways to further improve our customer interaction," said Bolvie, CEO of Inventure Solutions, the IT subsidiary of Vancity Credit Union. "Our business analysts can now quickly preview different versions of applications with stakeholders and perform usability testing directly with member-servicing staff earlier in the process."
When weighing the decision to outsource or purchase an application versus creating an in-house solution, credit unions often look only at time and cost. Moreover, they typically treat the decision purely as an expense-without seeing the strategic opportunity to produce revenue and improve competitive position by offering superior member experience.
In reality, getting an innovative, usable service to market faster than the competition often outweighs, by order of magnitude, any cost savings that might be realized. By dramatically reducing time-to-market and ensuring functionality and ease-of-use, financial institutions gain first-mover advantage, improve the customer experience, create competitive differentiation, and establish a reputation for quality.
Of course, visualization loses some of its value if best practices are not followed in the planning, iteration and validation phases. For example, it's helpful to use common templates, tools, processes and standards from project to project, so the learning curve to communication and agreement is shorter. Functional requirements that are based on behaviors, rather than rules, will ensure that the end product tracks closer to what users need; similarly, specifications that are written to match to the skill set of the development team will help reduce ambiguity and speed validation.
Ditch The Whiteboards
By embracing software visualization and supporting it with requirements best practices, even smaller CUs can create services that compete effectively with larger competitors. They can also reduce their risk of overruns and change orders-hurdles that megabanks can easily absorb but credit unions can rarely afford.
Visualization gives project teams the means to finally take guesswork out of the application development process-and put whiteboards and markers back on the sidelines where they belong.