Simulations Bridge the Gap Between Developers and Business on Requirements

When Sentara Healthcare decided to add a manager self-service application for human resources to its Web portal last year, senior business analyst Judy McConnell began gathering requirements for the project.

"We were gathering requirements and doing an OK job of it," McConnell says, "but not a great job. We would always find that the requirements weren’t complete or validated. I was using PowerPoint to show a visual of what the pages in the Web application would look like. It was pretty lame."

Sentara is a not-for-profit healthcare company operating in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The company employs some 15,000 people in hospitals, nursing homes, physician groups, home-care organizations and even insurance groups throughout the region.

Sentara prides itself on being a tech-savvy organization. So when McConnell read in a trade publication about a company applying simulations in software development, she didn't hesitate to tell her boss she had found a way to get the requirements definition piece of the software development lifecycle right.

The company in the story was iRise, and the tool was the iRise application simulation platform.

The iRise application simulation platform is a suite of simulation technologies designed to help business analysts express project requirements visually. Unlike text-based requirements, simulations are unambiguous and enforceable specifications that everyone involved in the project—coders and stakeholders alike—can understand, says Maurice Martin, iRise's president, COO and co-founder.

The chief problem solved by a visual approach to requirements, Martin explains, is one of the biggest challenges facing software development organizations: rework.

Statistics on rework can be confusing, Martin says. His company recently completed a survey (co-sponsored with research group Decipher) of 200 IT execs. Eighty percent of the respondents reported their software development projects were completed on budget. But here's the rub: about three-quarters of the execs said they always budgeted for rework.

“Companies are spending a lot of money—billions every year—redoing applications over and over again," Martin says. “A typical rework budget for a project is anywhere from 25 to 40 percent. This is a very expensive problem that is choking the budgets of large IT organizations, and it’s keeping them from innovating. And it’s endemic in the industry.”

Applications have gotten so complex that it’s no longer possible for human beings to visualize all of the interactions and interdependencies, says Mitch Bishop, iRise's chief marketing officer.

“With a text-based approach, there’s no way to validate the user experience until after the app is built," Bishop says. "You have business people and IT people and even customers sitting around flipping through these documents, trying to envision what it’s going to be like to use this thing. What usually happens is that those documents aren’t actually read, people don’t show up for the meetings, and IT basically takes a swipe at it on their own. Then, once the first version is out there, that’s when the conversation starts."

iRise simulations have helped Sentara's Web group get everybody on the same page, says McConnell. "For us, it's really turned out to be a communication tool between the business people and IT," McConnell says. "I fill that gap as a person, but iRise bridges that gap as a tool."

The latest version of the product, iRise 5, is expected in the third quarter of this year.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].