The Four Flow items as explained by my car

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We have a long drive ahead, 12 hours in fact, and it will only take us a short way along the Eastern coastline of Australia. Having just arrived back from Tasktop HQ in Vancouver, BC where we have been discussing the Flow Framework™, I’m excited to tell my passengers (my wife and family) about the framework (a captive audience).

I started with the notion of the four Flow items then I stopped. While they know a little bit about software development, the specifics of defects, features, risks, and debt are quite alien to them.  So I look around for some real examples and find them right in front of us in the car.

1. Feature: Cruise Control

A simple way to think about a feature is that it adds functionality to the customer’s experience with a product. To a business, the right feature could mean something that boosts the bottom line.

Cruise control isn’t necessarily a new thing, however the active cruise control in this car is new. It adds direct value to the customer (me) — especially on a long trip where I want to ensure that a maximum ‘safe’ speed is maintained. If you’re not familiar with active cruise control, it performs three basic functions:

  • The car continuously accelerates until the set speed is met
  • When the car exceeds the maximum set speed (which can happen going down-hill), it gently applies the breaks to slow the car
  • A constant safe minimum distance from the car in front of you is maintained

Active cruise control is a new functionality that has enhanced my own driving experience — a great feature/Flow item in my opinion.

2. Defect: iPhone and Media Player

Like features, defects are something that anyone who develops software is quite familiar with — although sometimes defects may be referred to using different terminology such as “a problem” or simply “broken”.

A simplified definition of a defect might be a feature that is not functioning properly. From the business point of view, a defect is a negative and will cost time to repair and could possibly have a negative effect on the reputation of the product or company. In other words, a defect leads to a bad customer experience.  

Thankfully, most car defects are sorted out before they get to the end of the production line. However, with the increasing complexity of software in cars, some may linger. The particular defect in this car’s media player manifests as follows:

  • I connect my cell phone (with the included USB cable) to the car and it allows me to use maps and play music through the car’s screen and speakers
  • But when I remove my phone and connect my wife’s phone instead, the Media Center stalls and reboots itself. Only then does her phone work
  • When I switch back to my phone, or a new phone, the same thing occurs — stalling and rebooting.

At the time of this writing, a small software update has already fixed this particular issue, but it does serve to highlight a defect related to a feature.

3. Risk: Seatbelts

A risk work item might be related to the product adhering to compliance; regulations set out by the government, industry or parent company. To the business, risk signifies the need for a sense of security that the product conforms to set standards.

Seatbelts are the result of research into the number of driving-related fatalities in the 1970s. They were added to vehicles specifically to address this concern, and are now required by law in many countries. While a lot of work has been done to ensure their comfort, seatbelts do reduce some of the positive experience of riding in a car. They:

  • Add nothing positive to the general experience of being in a car while used under normal circumstances
  • May cause pain due to the constant pressure on body parts (especially on long drives)
  • Reduce the ability to freely move inside the cabin
  • Are not aesthetically pleasing (designed for functionally first and foremost)
  • Have only a single use, hence the availability of adaptable additions such as child & pet seating
  • Require certification and extra cost to implement

Of course when the unexpected occurs, and the seatbelt does what it is designed to do, it protects users from harm – a typical purpose for the risk Flow item.

4. Debt: Cigarette lighter Socket

While the other three Flow items are often experienced first hand by a customer, technical debt is often internal to the product. Customers experience the removal of debt when the product is able to be adapted more quickly to meet new market requirements or address regulatory requirements. Debt is often inherited when shortcuts are taken during design/production to order to go-to-market faster. To the business, working on technical debt removes outdated legacy components to remove future impediments to acceleration.

The cigarette lighter feature was added to cars many decades ago. It allowed a small piece of metal to be heated by the car’s electrical system. The customer could then light up a smoke.  It is rarely used for its original purpose these days, so debt is incurred with the design. Many car manufacturers now re-label the cigarette lighter housing ‘12v socket’. The reason the cigarette lighter socket is a great example of a debt artifact is that while its original design was quite purposeful, its current usage is far from adequate. That is owed to the following:

  • The size of the socket is far larger than what is required for is general application. For example, the USB-C power connecter on many new phones and laptops is able to provide more power options at a much smaller size, with the added benefit of data transfer
  • Placement of the socket is never quite perfect, as there are either dongles or cables leading out of it that need to be tucked away
  • Power-wise, the voltage delivered is anywhere from 11v – 14v, depending on the state of the car’s operation and battery. Most of the devices it powers either requires a dedicated 12v or 5v, leading to more complicated circuitry in devices and adapters at a higher cost
  • Electric vehicles have their own complexity, such as different base voltages and the potential for attached devices to remove stored power required for engine operation
  • There has been a cultural shift away from the use of cigarettes (the car I’m in has the socket, but the lighter itself is an expensive, optional extra)

Debt can be hard to find and is often hidden from the customer. I have elaborated on it because this Flow item is often missed during the development of a product. Because of the hidden nature, it’s the most important item to understand (at least in my view) because it can hide a significant amount of the cost of developing software.

So that is my armchair, or rather driver’s seat, view of the four Flow items as components in my automobile. Did I succeed in helping my passengers understand the Flow Framework? I think I did.

Maybe you’d like to create your own Flow Framework example? Pick an ordinary product, something you interact with every day. Think about which parts of that product align with the four Flow items — feature, defect, risk, and debt. Is this geeky? Yes, of course. Isn’t that why we love software?

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