July 05, 2005

Last year, SunTrust Banks Inc. set a goal of converting 82% of the customers of its latest acquisition, National Commerce Financial Corp., to its new online banking system within 90 days of the system's launch. In April of this year, it launched its new online banking portal on schedule and reached its conversion goal after only 14 days. It went on to convert 95% of NCF customers within the 90-day period.

That's mainly because it did early mock-ups of the online applications using iRise Inc.'s iRise simulation tool, with both banking experts and customers contributing to the mock-up's design. Software modelers and developers used the simulations as patterns for the end-user experience they were writing into the application code. The result was applications that did what customers expected the first time around.

"If we hadn't been able to deploy applications that worked as expected on schedule, our ability to retain those customers would have been severely impacted," says David Nix, VP of online banking at SunTrust in Atlanta.

The effort involved three teams of 20 architects and developers each, mapping data flows and system integrations through 130 Web pages. "It all had to come together on schedule," or risk losing National Commerce Financial customers, Nix says. Every NCF consumer banking application was mapped to the new SunTrust portal. "There would have been significant gaps in converting NCF customers" if they hadn't, he says.

He has not done a quantitative assessment of the reworking time that was saved by using iRise. At $40,000 for a starter kit and $250,000 to $1 million for an enterprise system, iRise isn't cheap. But, "Based on what we delivered in our initial project, we have more than recovered what we paid for it," Nix says.

Other tools help capture user requirements and relate those requirements to the downstream stages of development--modeling, coding, and testing, he acknowledges. But "they don't help visualize the business requirements up front and allow traceability between the simulation prototype and requirements" passed on to developers, Nix says.

The iRise 5 system, released June 27, provides a development environment oriented toward business analysts rather than programmers. It puts application simulation in front of the requirements definition and system modeling steps and captures the requirements out of the simulation.

By filling out forms, assigning user interface components, and establishing workflow and screen sequence, the business user establishes a mock-up of an application complete with sample data in the iRise environment. The iRise system can then deploy the mock-up to any number of business users to try out using the iDocs reader, a desktop runtime environment something like the Adobe Reader.

A simulation of what should happen in a process when a button is pushed can be checked. In addition, the iDocs simulation also becomes a document of what end users say they want. If the software produced matches the simulation, but users say they want something different, it's clear that the requirements have changed, says Maurice Martin, iRise president.

Business requirements today are typically assembled in text in a three-ring binder that is turned over to a development team. Software programmers often have to interpret what they think the business users are saying, rather than having a visual representation of what they want. "Communication breakdown between business and IT during requirements definition is an endemic problem," says Gartner analyst Matt Light.

Because the means of communication often fall short, applications frequently require reworking after being presented to business users. That reworking is even budgeted for, in many instances, adding "25% to 40% to the average project cost," Martin says.

By simulating applications before building them, business users participate in rapid iterative prototyping, Nix says.

Nine-year-old iRise has had its simulation system on the market for three years and lists among its customers 53 of the 1,000 largest U.S. companies, says Mitch Bishop, chief marketing officer. It raised $28 million in private funding before securing $15.8 million in venture-capital funding lead by Morgan Stanley Venture Partners.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek, having joined the publication in 2003. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld