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Forget the walking skeleton – put it on crutches

A more polished version of this article is in my book Fifty Quick Ideas To Improve Your User Stories

TL;DR version: Modern technology and delivery approaches, in particular the push towards continuous delivery, enable us take the walking skeleton technique much further. By building up the UI first and delivering the back-end using continuous delivery, without interrupting or surprising users, we can cut the time to initial value delivery and validation by an order of magnitude!

The Walking Skeleton has long been my favourite approach to start a major effort or a legacy transition. Alistair Cockburn provides a canonical definition of this approach in Crystal Clear:

A Walking Skeleton is a tiny implementation of the system that performs a small end-to-end function. It need not use the final architecture, but it should link together the main architectural components. The architecture and the functionality can then evolve in parallel.

Building on that, Dan North formulated the Dancing Skeleton Pattern. In addition to performing a small function on the target architecture, this pattern involves an interface for developers to interact with the environment and experiment. When the users need to perform a more complex function, developers can make the skeleton implementation “dance”.

The walking skeleton sets up the main architectural components, and the dancing skeleton allows experimentation on the target architecture. Both approaches allow teams to ship something quickly, and build on that iteratively. Modern technology and delivery approaches, in particular the push towards continuous delivery, enable us take those approaches even further.

Instead of validating the architecture with a thin slice, we can aim to deliver value with an even thinner slice and build the architecture through iterative delivery later. We can start with a piece that users can interact with, avoid linking together the architectural components, but instead use a simpler and easier back-end. We can then iteratively connect the user interface to the target platform. In the skeleton lingo, don’t worry about making the skeleton walk, put it on crutches and ship out. While users are working with it, build up the muscles and then take away the crutches.

The core idea of the skeleton on crutches is to ship out the user interface early, and plan for iterative build-up of everything below the user interface. The user interaction may change very little, or not at all, while the team improves the back-end through continuous delivery. With a good deployment pipeline, back-ends can be updated and reconfigured without even interrupting user flow. For example, with MindMup we fully multi-version scripts and APIs, so we can deploy a new version of back-end functionality without interrupting any active sessions. Users with open sessions will continue to use the old functionality until they refresh the page, and they can benefit from updated features on their next visit.

Here are some recent examples of skeletons on crutches on the projects I’ve been involved in:

  • A customer report built with Google Analytics events instead of hooking into a complex backend database. It wasn’t as comprehensive or accurate as the final thing, but the first version was done in two hours, and the final version took several weeks to implement because of third party dependencies.
  • A document uploader which saved directly from users’ browsers to Amazon S3 file storage, instead of uploading to the customer database. The skeleton was not as secure or flexible as the final solution, and did not allow fast searching, but was done in a hour.
  • A registration system executed using JotForm, an online forms and workflow system which can take payments. This allowed us to start registering users and charging for access without even having a database.

All these solutions were not nearly as good as the final versions, but they were in production very quickly and allowed users to start getting some value early. Some remained in action for a long time - for example we kept registration through JotForm in production for three months, because it was good enough and there were more important things to do.

Key Benefits

A major benefit of skeletons on crutches is early value delivery. A user segment starts getting some value almost instantly. None of the examples I mentioned earlier were particularly difficult to build, but users got value in hours instead of weeks.

Early validation is an important consequence of early value delivery. Instead of showing something to users and asking them to imagine how the final thing would be fantastic, a skeleton on crutches allows them to actually use something in real work. This allows product managers to get invaluable feedback on features and product ideas early and build that learning into the plans for later versions.

For example, the JotForm registration skeleton allowed us to start charging for access months before the overall solution was ready, and the fact that users paid provided huge validation and encouragement that we’re going in the right direction. We were also able to discover some surprising things people would pay for, and change the focus of our business plans.

How to make this work

Aim to deliver the user interfacing part first, on a simplistic architecture. Try to skip all back-end components that would slow down delivery, even if for half a day. Deliver the user interfacing part as close to the final thing as possible, to avoid future surprises. Iterate over that until you start delivering value. Then replace the back-end with as few changes to the user interfacing part as possible to avoid surprises. If you must change the UI, think about multi-versioning to support uninterrupted usage. Build up capacity, performance, and extend functionality by replacing invisible parts with your target architecture iteratively.

There are many good crutches available for developers online. My favourite ones are:

  • Amazon AWS cloud file stores, database systems and queues enable teams to store user documents and information easily, coordinate simple asynchronous flows and authenticate access to information using pre-signed URLs.
  • JotForm and similar forms processors allow teams to design forms and embed them in web sites. Jotform automatically keeps a record of submissions, it can send e-mail confirmations to users and developers. It also supports simple workflows for things such as payments, adding to a mailing list or sending to a landing page.
  • Stripe is a developer-friendly payment processor, that is easy to integrate and has an option of sending e-mail invoices to customers.
  • Google analytics are well known for web statistics, but they can also collect front-end and back-end events and create relatively complex reports on vast amounts of data. Think of this as a powerful reporting front-end for your data on which you can experiment with reporting structures and requirements.
  • Heroku application servers can run simple tasks, connecting to other crutches, and you can start and shut them down easily on demand. Heroku has lots of third party applications that you can connect easily. They may not do exactly what you need, and they can be quite pricey for large user bases, but Heroku is often a good quick and cheap start for something small.

If you can’t put a skeleton on remote crutches because of security or corporate policy, then consider using simple components onsite. One interesting example of this is a team at a bank I recently worked with. Their corporate procedures required weeks of bureaucracy to deploy an application with access to a production database. The team set up a web reporting application which executed reports on plain text files using Unix command line tools behind the scenes. This allowed them to deploy quickly, but only worked for quite a limited data set. While the users were happily using the reports in the first few weeks, the team obtained access to the production database and replaced the backend, without anyone noticing anything.

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