Thursday, June 23, 2011

#AgileUX Agile Safari to

AgileUX Agile Safari to MindCandy

Yesterday MindCandy were kind enough to host the Agile UX Meetup group for an Agile Safari where they showed us round their offices and discussed how they have combined User Experience Design with Agile development as part of their current success story.

MindCandy’s original hit product was PerplexCity, but they are now best known for MoshiMonsters, a games, virtual pets and social site for children aged 7-12 which has been described by some as the Facebook of kids, especially now that it has 50 million users worldwide. The product is directly funded by subscriptions, which not only provides a solid business model but gives immediate feedback on the success of new features.

What MindCandy gets from Agile

The story goes that before MoshiMonsters, MindCandy raised $10m, burned down $9m of this on waterfall-style development for PerplexCity, then, 2 months into their final 6 month plan, decided something had to change and introduced agile to make MoshiMonsters. From their perspective, the rest is history, and agile is seen as a core component of the company’s culture, from the top down.
MindCandy's Christmas Party, 2010, with the Big Board in the background

As MindCandy's main product is aimed at kids, and already has high penetration in many markets, they need to keep it fresh by adding features in order to [a] avoid letting their users get bored, and [b] avoid leaving a window of opportunity for their competitors.

How Agile works at MindCandy

A product board meets regularly and signs off projects, basically at a one-line level of abstraction eg “Add MiniGame Fun Park”.

Each project gets a team, some of whose members will be “ring-fenced” for that project (presumably others are shared as needed). The team works with a full-time scrum master (so developers can get on with development), and have their own four-column (Not Started / In Progress / In Test / Completed) section of the big board. There are some kanban-like features too, each team member can only put his name on two tasks. Teams deliver user stories in two-week cycles, the product manager (Dharmesh, in agile terms, the product owner) will focus on delivering something for each user story. Features are may be delivered as several user stories over several sprints.

MindCandy staff see themselves as being triumphantly team-focused in working practices and reporting structures. Co-location is seen as important and all UK staff currently sit together on one floor of Tea House in Shoreditch - they hope to keep the vibe as they expand to another floor.

They don’t do the “we will commit to two the following two weeks worth of work” thing, preferring to simply prioritise whatever’s still on the Not Started list. Likewise they don’t see themselves as deadline driven, though external deadlines such as school holidays are naturally part of the landscape and will help focus as decision time nears - “to ship is to choose”.

How UX works at MindCandy

Yael is the User Experience designer and works with Axel, the visual designer. They sit side-by-side in the middle of the development area. UX work is done within 2-week sprints as part of user stories. User stories are often implemented in two passes, the first (the first week of the sprint) concentrating raw functionality, the second (the second week) allowing for the UI to be optimised.

MindCandy don’t go in for big up-front research, nor do they currently use personas. They do have a good understanding of their target market from long  exposure to it, and from community managers.

Challenges overcome

MindCandy also work with an off-shore team who are fully agile and work on non-game focussed projects to allow the internal teams to work on the core games. MindCandy do company-wide sprint reviews (with team-level kick-off, stand-up and retrospectives), and the off-shore team takes part in these.

Off-shore teams are not part of the big-board but they use Acunote as a light-weight Scrum tool which allows them to do Scrum their way.

They do a lot of Skype - messaging even more than calling - and most desks (apart from marketing) just don’t have phones.

Looking forward

Their current agile and UX processes have clearly served them well so far. As their market gets more mature, MindCandy feel the need to get even more agile, both developing faster and learning faster.

They plan to introduce UX personas in order to target variations in their age 6-14 user base better, and hope to fit more regular user testing into the time and space available.

They now have a full-time business intelligence analyst to identify areas of concern which might otherwise be masked by their overall success, and are extending their use of analytics.

On the productivity front they have a full-time tools and environment expert who describes himself a the “force multiplier”, and who looks for areas of friction which he can automate and / or accelerate.


I’d really like to thanks Martyn, Raph, Axel, Yael and Dharmesh of MindCandy for a fascinating and exciting Agile Safari, and of course Johanna Kollman and Agile UX for organising it.