The Method Behind the Madness: Agile Development — Ning Blog

Note: I wrote this piece for Patrick Mee, a Ning engineering director, to explain to customers a recent change of direction in product 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.