How agile software development is changing the social housing sector
Agile software development is an innovative way of working that is benefitting landlords and local authorities all over the UK. Find out how.
For those who have been in the workplace for more than 20 years and been involved in the procurement, or development of large software systems, you will remember how different the landscape once was. Organisations deciding to implement large systems were met with long consultation periods, a year’s absence while the system was created, delivery and implementation often not matching up to expectations, resulting in inflexibility, further development and hidden costs based on onerous contracts and fees. Called Waterfall Development, this model still exists today. Whilst this works well where the outcome is known up front, it has been challenged by the more flexible Agile Development approach because requirements emerge when the software is put in front of real users.
As with all industries, the software sector has faced its own disruptive forces over recent years that have opened up the market, reducing barriers and costs, heralding the arrival of Software as a Service (SaaS) and new ways of working. We have even seen the arrival of pay-as-you-go server space and core services from the likes of Amazon. This has led to the rise of agile software development and the benefits of quicker results, greater customer interaction and empowerment in terms of co-creation and producing credible products and services.
In the social housing sector specifically, these forces have allowed companies like Housing Partners to create products and services that are making a material difference in areas like sustainable tenancies and efficient working, while opening up new areas of knowledge and understanding for frontline housing and income teams.
What is Agile?
We spoke with a member of our Product team at Housing Partners to learn more about agile development and what it entails, and how it really is making a difference in the day-to-day workings of housing teams all over the UK at both housing association and local authority level.
Oliver Florence is a Product Development specialist currently working on the launch of a new product called AIMLogic, a case management system for housing associations. Having worked at Housing Partners for over two years, he has a background in software development, cyber security and has also spent time in sales. This means he’s uniquely positioned with a combination of specialist IT and communication skills, giving him a strong understanding of how customers think and operate; all of which is ideally suited to an agile development approach, as he explains:
“Agile software development is the collaboration of software expertise with practitioner expertise. Developed iteratively, we work out sensibly what we think the next most valuable thing is for the customer and therefore to help someone do their job. We have a conversation to determine what are the most valuable things to a customer, prioritise in that order and when it comes to actual development, we build out in short development cycles. Rather than it being say, six months for a whole project, it becomes smaller iterations in every two to four weeks. The output is that you get something that really does the job for you well and does it quickly.”
A key objective of agile development is to prioritise what’s most important for the customer so that real value can be delivered each time something is released. Ollie explains:
“Prioritisation is part of the nature of working as a group. For example, we might collect ten ideas from our customers, so the first thing to do is ask why they are important and why they are needed. This helps inform any design decisions. You then play back the list to the customer, so they fully understand what’s important. It’s effectively democratising product development because the reality is that you can only develop a few things at a time.”
Communication with the customer is key in this role to ensure the right ideas are coming through and are matching customer expectations in terms of delivery and usability.
“The simplest way to describe it is that we make sure all stakeholders are involved in the process and know what’s going on and why it’s going on. Both of those things have to happen and not in any order of importance. If everyone knows what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, then it empowers people to ask the right questions and aid the correct development.
“I can cite an example of this that we had recently, during the development of AIMLogic. In an early version, we were asked to create a list of people’s account balances of what was owed to a landlord. We’d created a list that showed the lowest balance first but customers wanted the highest first so they could prioritise potential tenant issues. By listening to the frontline customer and using this agile approach, we were able to make the changes within a matter of hours to give something housing officers derived greater value from.”
So how is this helping housing associations specifically? Material customer value is a core part of the Housing Partners ethos, which permeates every part of the business and decision-making and development process.
“You always have to come back to delivering customer value,” Ollie explains. “It’s the most important thing in my role to ensure we are delivering real value at the end of each ‘development sprint’, as we call it. If you’re not doing that then it doesn’t matter if you’re doing the other stuff well. So, we must answer that question every time. If we don’t think we’re putting in effort in the right way and the right place, then at some point people will stop using and then paying for the software.
“Part of your job is to make sure that you understand what everyone wants to achieve. This is because it’s dangerous to just deliver a product based on a description of what one person might want. You also have to look at serving the widest number of needs and looking at whether there are different ways of achieving the same thing. Sometimes it involves a negotiation and trade off, so this is where we democratise the process and test it against whether we are delivering value each time.”
As Housing Partners develops software across multiple areas of the UK social housing sector, Ollie also works on other products. For example, Housing Jigsaw, which was launched in 2018 in line with the Homelessness Reduction Act. Housing Jigsaw is a software platform built in partnership with the National Practitioner Support Service (NPSS) and was created specifically for local authorities, focusing on homelessness prevention, Duty to Refer and housing register management.
“Working with NPSS is really positive because they are extremely knowledgeable. We work with them at different stages, from idea creation through to development and testing to ensure there is meaningful input before the release to the end user. As practitioners, they will test each development in a non-technical way to see if it falls over and if so, then how.”
In conclusion, an agile approach has led to Housing Partners being able to deliver tangible value to hundreds of housing associations and local authorities across the UK as well as hundreds of thousands of tenants who use the HomeSwapper service. If you’d like to know more about Housing Partners and our products, please get in contact at email@example.com