UPS bolsters Web app development with simulation tool

Shipper cuts friction between end users and IT by simulating the UI before apps are built

It's a scenario that's become all-too familiar in many companies. After months or even years of work, the IT shop proudly presents a new application that the designers and architects believe exactly meets the business requirements provided them. Then end users tell them: "This isn't what we asked for."

One of the most common causes of such costly quandaries is a disconnect that takes root in the requirements process when user needs are not accurately relayed to the designers and developers. The quest to bridge this gap spawned an entire industry of vendors building tools that can better interpret requirements and ensure that they are infused into various cycles of the development process.

Some companies are opting for another alternative. United Parcel Service (UPS) of America, for example, has overhauled its process of designing user interfaces for all new and upgraded Web applications.

As part of the effort, UPS replaced its Microsoft Visio diagramming tool set with application simulation and authoring software from iRise about a year ago and now gets user approval on new UIs very early in the requirements gathering process. That, said Guy Hamblen, project manager in UPS' corporate repository and architecture business unit, allows UPS's 7,500-person IT unit to deliver better applications faster.

The iRise Studio definition and authoring tool is designed to create fully interactive replicas of Web application UIs that support user interaction and feedback before development work starts. Other companies including CNA Financial and Wachovia also use iRise technology to simulate UI designs.

Visio, Hamblen noted, did not simulate how the user would interact with an application.

"The biggest challenge that an application development team has is eliciting the correct requirements at the beginning of the development effort," he said. "In the traditional software development lifecycle, oftentimes the user doesn't see the developed effort until the user acceptance test, [which is] late in the development lifecycle and only months away from deployment. If the user says 'That's not what I wanted' at that late stage, you lose a significant amount of time correcting the problem."

By modeling the UI in the requirements phase, the design team can be sure that it knows exactly what the user wants because they have used a simulated version, he noted. The simulation can then be an artifact for the designers and developers.

"That ripples throughout the whole development lifecycle," Hamblen added. "That allowed us to improve our time to market with application development releases. That is the fundamental business driver that iRise enabled for us."

In addition, UPS uses the iRise tool to support its offshore development projects. It "becomes a very valuable artifact where communications barriers are broken down and an offshore development team can see exactly what it is they need to deliver," Hamblen said.

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