Agile and UX

Agile UX

Agile and UX seem like natural bedfellows but many organisations who’ve successfully got their development teams to adopt Agile methodologies are struggling to integrate UX design into the process.

The principles of Agile were set out by software developers for software developers. The authors of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development came out of a shared understanding of the problems that developers faced and the obstacles that prevented development teams from delivering maximum value to their customers.

It’s almost a happy accident that Agile methodologies are able to transfer neatly over to many other kinds of work – anything in fact where a traditional waterfall approach leads to inflexibility or where problems are often encountered after an extended up-front period of design/requirements gathering.

UX design is one of the disciplines in which Agile ways of working have become much more popular over recent years. But because Agile was conceived as a set of principles to guide software development there’s a fair bit of controversy over how to apply them to user experience design.

What are the problems?

Inclusion of UX roles in the Agile team

Aviva Robinson surveyed twenty of her UX professional colleagues about their experiences of supporting Agile software development. Some of the problems they reported were:

  • Conflicting expectations of quality fit and finish
  • Lack of holistic planning and prioritisation of user experience
  • Unclear expectations about the role of UX members of the team
  • Perception of UX as less valuable than development
  • Perception that technical staff are disinterested in users’ needs
  • Being disconnected from the regular activities of the scrum team

There is clearly a tension between UX professionals and scrum teams over the quality of the user experience being delivered. UX designers want to be involved earlier in the product ideation process and see themselves as fighting for the needs of the user. Product Owners and technical team members sometimes see the UX designers as essentially ‘skinning’ the product they’ve developed and fight instead to deliver value to the business.

But there’s a contradiction here in that value provided to the user is, ultimately, also often value provided to the business. So it makes sense that the skills and expertise of UX professionals is more fully utilised by Agile teams.

Aviva’s recommendations on how to do this include, at the business level, providing greater clarification about what is expected of UX designers and how teams work with them; at Product Owner level, greater use of personas, more inclusion of UX at early stages and perhaps the addition of UX criteria to the definition of done; and, at ScrumMaster level, the better definition of roles within the team and inclusion of UX goals in the sprint retrospective.

Not building in time for user research and testing

In another post, Hoa Loranger, alongside lack of executive support and resources, identifies the absence of user research and usability testing as a major challenge for UX professionals who are trying to work with Agile teams.

This is an important consideration: untested designs are a risky proposition as they inevitably rest on a set of assumptions made by the team which may or may not hold water. Working in an Agile way can mean very little time is made available for user testing of releasable increments. But that doesn’t mean that user research and usability testing has to be abandoned – it just means it has to be done slightly differently.

Loranger advocates the UX work taking place at least one step ahead of the sprint so that UX professionals get involved in all aspects of the team’s work (backlog grooming, planning etc) so they know what’s coming up. They can then conduct research and usability testing and produce wireframes and designs ahead of sprints.

The problem I see with this is that the approach can be taken too far: if the UX designers are always working one sprint ahead of the developers how is it possible to come up with a single sprint goal for the team? And how are the UX designers contributing to that sprint goal (which should include, remember, producing a potentially releaseable piece of work)?

A workable approach to Agile UX design

The posts mentioned above both provide valuable contributions towards a workable approach to incorporating UX into an Agile development process.

I have a few additional thoughts which have sprung up from personal experience.

Keep as much UX work in sprint as possible

To make best use of UX professionals in the development process they should be working with the team in sprint as much as possible. We know that the benefits of collaborative working are increased efficiency and value so although UX designers need to work closely with Product Owners and keep an eye firmly fixed on what’s coming up in the backlog, they should be as available as possible for the current work of the sprint.

Clearly defined user personas, prototyping tools and guerrilla usability testing techniques can be utilised to help UX stay ahead of the development work and ensure the quality of the user experience.

The maintenance of a pattern library, UX framework and visual reference framework by the UX team can also go a long way towards reducing the burden on individual designers working in Agile teams. An up-to-date repository of tested patterns and design elements that are known to work alleviates the need for designers to reinvent the wheel.

A separate ideation process can run ahead of sprint

A separate process of strategy and ideation which runs ahead of sprint, where user research and usability testing occur, and which feeds work into the Agile team(s), not only gets the user research happening up front but also gives UX designers a strong, evidenced-based platform from which to advocate their design approaches and helps with the incorporation of UX considerations into acceptance criteria.

There needs to be a good discovery process for planning releases or major increments

Again, it’s a question of UX involvement at the earliest stages so that vital user-centric considerations can drive the strategy. UX shouldn’t be a bolt-on or just a box that needs to be ticked – the later user experience design professionals are brought on board the less value  they can offer.

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