Use Case Management is a Tough Balancing Act

balancing act

Learning how to write use cases can be tough, but it is simple compared to the balancing act of determining which use cases to write and how to manage the expectations of all the stakeholders that are involved. It can be a difficult balancing act to prioritize use cases to assure that you meet the goals of the business while satisfying the needs of the users.

Goal Driven Use Cases

In the world of structured requirements, we apply an approach of top-down decomposition to determine what we need to build.

structured requirements

In an article stressing the importance of non-functional requirements, we summarized the relationships from the above diagram as follows:

  • Goals are achieved by enabling use cases.
  • Goals drive non-functional requirements.
  • Use cases are enabled by implementing functional requirements.
  • Use cases influence non-functional requirements.
  • Non-Functional Requirements define the characteristics of functional requirements.
  • Functional requirements drive design decisions
  • Design choices are restricted by constraints
  • Design choices guide implementation
  • Implementation is product

Non-Functional Requirements Equal Rights Amendment

The key element, with respect to this article, is that goals are achieved by enabling use cases. In other words, without the use cases that people* perform, the goals of the business can not be achieved.

[*Sometimes the use case is performed by a system – not all actors are people]

Principal Stakeholders Own Business Goals

We learned a lot from Outside-In Software Development, by Carl Kessler and John Sweitzer. One of the important things we learned is how to understand the goals of principal stakeholders. Principal stakeholders are the “owners” of the ROI that we are attempting to achieve with our product or solution. The business has the goals, but the business is an abstract entity. If the goal of the business is to increase sales by 10%, we can’t call up the business and ask “did we meet your goal?” We have to call up the vice president of sales. The business is organized so that there are people who are responsible for the initiatives and goals of the business – they are responsible for growth, profitability, costs, strategy. The insight we got from Kessler and Sweitzer is an appreciation that this ownership lies with one or more individuals.

When a goal has an owner, we can validate that we have met the goal. We can validate that we have satisfied the owner of the goal. You can’t do that validation with an abstract entity, a “business”, but you can with a person. Certainly, we can do the math ourselves, but if we want someone to pay the bills – and more importantly – invite us back to do more projects, we have to satisfy an individual. And that individual is our principal stakeholder.

Principals Own Use Cases

Our principal stakeholder owns the business goal – and therefore owns the use cases that enable that goal to be achieved. Our stakeholder will validate the completeness of our use cases by answering the question, “If we enable all of these use cases, will we completely meet your goal?”

End Users Own Use Cases

User-centered design is also one of our core principles, and an acknowledged best-practice. For many companies, it is more than mandatory – it is a way of life. The entire software development process is sometimes built around a focus on the end users. This approach puts the user in the center.

You can identify end user goals with the following approach:

  1. Identify the actors that interact with the software.
  2. Identify the personas that represent those actors – thus avoiding the elastic user syndrome.
  3. Develop an understanding of the personal goals of the personas – and by extension, the actors through ethnographic research.

Stakeholder Goals: Principal vs. End User

This creates what appears to be a conflict – do principals own the use cases, or do end users own the use cases?

Mixing Interaction Design With Structured Requirements

One approach to resolving this conflict is to eliminate it by mixing interaction design with structured requirements. In this approach, the interaction design component applies end user ownership as an input to the design, but not the content of the use cases, as the following diagram shows:

interaction design and structured requirements

In the diagram above, the changes (relative to the Wiegers process) are marked in blue.

The interaction design process starts with two parallel activities. On the left is the identification of corporate goals, which is analogous to the creation of an MRD. An MRD can be a reasonable mechanism for documenting the corporate goals. It provides more detail than “Increase profits” with statements like “Increase profits with improved pricing.” On the right side is the creation of personas to represent the most important users.

Interaction Design and Structured Requirements

This approach side-steps the issue by relegating the end users to “design input” and not allowing them to contribute to prioritization and management. For many applications, this is a great way to approach things. Specifically, it works very well when the user’s goals are tightly coupled or highly aligned with the principal stakeholder’s goals.

When Goals Conflict

User goals are not always aligned with stakeholder goals. In our earlier article on identifying these conflicts, we proposed a simple grid view for identifying these conflicts.
grid of goals in conflict

In that article, we looked at situations where the goals of the actor were primarily aligned with those of the principal stakeholder, and therefore the business. We discussed using the grid to inspire solutions that removed the conflicts. Two birds with one stone would be the easiest way to summarize.

What about when goals are implicitly in conflict – or even diametrically opposed? We’ve worked on systems where that is exactly the case. Consider a two-tier sales model, and products / websites designed for the people in the second tier.

Two-Tier Sales Models

Here are some common business models where the users have goals that are directly in opposition to the goals of the principal stakeholders.

  • Automotive Manufacturer and Dealer. A website, designed by a car manufacturer, to allow dealers to improve their ability to sell cars. The automotive manufacturer makes money by selling cars to the end customer, and the dealer makes money by causing the sale to happen. The manufacturer is compensated by profits on the sale, whereas the dealer is compensated simply by making the sale. In other words, the dealer is motivated to lower the price because a sale at any price generates the same profit for the dealer. The manufacturer is motivated to raise the price because fewer sales at a higher margin generate the same profit, but higher ROA (return on assets) than more sales at a lower margin. This is an implicit conflict.
  • Book Publisher and Book Retailer. A book publisher sets a price for sale to the retailer, and a suggested (list) price to the end customer. The retailer will typically pay a negotiated discount, in the form of a percentage off list, for the book. Any books not sold by the retailer are returned to the publisher or (usually) destroyed. The retailer does not have to pay for books that are not sold. The retailer has limited shelf-space, and makes money based upon a combination of the size of the discount and the number of books that are sold, regardless of publisher. The retailer is therefore incented to increase the discount, and thus increase profits for a particular title – and the publisher is incented to reduce the discount, and thus increase the profits for a particular title. Since the list prices are fixed, the retailer negotiates the discount, and as leverage over the publisher, gets to influence the placement of the book within the store. Each publisher is forced to compete with other publishers. These goals are also in conflict.
  • High-Tech Equipment Manufacturer and Value-Added Reseller. A value-added reseller (VAR) provides solutions to end customers. They do this by combining products from manufacturers, and adding value – in the form of planning, custom engineering, installation services, etc. The VAR will negotiate a price with the end customer for a solution. The typical VAR sells products from multiple high-tech companies. The VAR will negotiate with the manufacturers to get the lowest possible prices from the manufacturers. The manufacturer wants the end-customer price (when it includes their equipment) to be as low as possible – to increase the number of sales that are made. The manufacturer gets the same profit (based on the price to the VAR) regardless of the end-customer price. Every dollar that the end-customer saves, the VAR loses in profit. The VAR makes profit on the difference between price-to-the-VAR and the final selling price. The VAR will also want to drive down the price it pays to the manufacturer. Reducing the price-to-the-VAR transfers profits directly from the manufacturer to the VAR. These goals are diametrically opposed.

When goals are in conflict like this, we can’t just relegate the “end user” goals to design inputs – we have to incorporate them into the prioritization process. In these examples, the “end users” are the VAR, the book retailer, and the automotive dealer.

Imagine that the high-tech equipment manufacturer sells networking hardware. The manufacturer has an internal (direct) sales force, as well as the VAR channel (indirect) sales force. The manufacturer identifies tools that help sales reps to close deals. Large purchases are commonly made at as much as 80% off list price. The list prices are irrelevant – they are not even guidelines in many cases. So the manufacturer develops tools to help sales reps know what prices to set for end customers.

Internal sales reps have generally well-aligned goals with principal stakeholders. The sales rep will be compensated based on a combination of revenue (sales) and margin (profits). This compensation model creates implicit alignment between the user goals (get a bonus) and the company goals (make profitable sales).

One approach to helping the sales rep close profitable deals is to share an indication of the profitability of the deal with the rep. The rep can (will!) set a price that is designed to maximize the sales rep’s bonus. If the compensation system is well designed – this is also optimal for the business, and therefore the principal stakeholder. The sales rep will get increased compensation for raising the price (and still closing the deal) by getting a percentage of the increase in margin. The sales rep is motivated to increase the manufacturer’s profits.

The VAR, however, should not know the profitability of a particular transaction. The VAR is motivated to lower the price (the price to the VAR) as much as possible – even at the expense of losing a “profitability bonus.” If the VAR is given a percentage of the increased margin (to the manufacturer) it comes at the cost of losing 100% of the change in price to the VAR. Remember, the VAR makes money on the difference between the price from the manufacturer, and the price to the customer.

Depending on the manufacturer’s business model, this could lower the priority of a margin-inspection capability, or dramatically raise the priority of features that restrict margin-viewing to only internal sales reps.

Also remember that the manufacturer and the VAR also have aligned goals – like closing the deal. And the VAR can close the deal with the manufacturer, or with products from a competitor. So the manufacturer is incented to provide valuable functionality to the VAR. The manufacturer cannot ignore the VAR’s needs, or the VAR will work with a competitor and the manufacturer will lose all the business.

You have to determine the value to the principal stakeholder of the value of the feature to the end user. In other words – even if a feature “hurts” the manufacturer, is the pain “worth it” because of the value of the relationship and expected future business that the company will do with the VAR?

Once the value of all of the functionality is identified, you can prioritize it. An enlightening way to visualize this value is with a value-delivery matrix. Thanks again to Roger Burlton for inspiring our approach to prioritizing based upon a combination of pain and gain.

4 thoughts on “Use Case Management is a Tough Balancing Act

  1. hello,

    good to hear from you, i will make it more clear; I meant how do we make use cases as what factors highlight that these will be use cases


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