Marrying UX and Agile - Is it Worth It?

Rick Evans is our expert User Experience Designer at RoleModel. In this article, he discusses what he's learned from his transition over the past year from big-design-upfront development methodologies to agile development.

Since I started working for RoleModel, my UX friends ask me what it is like working in an extremely Agile development environment. You see, my friends and I come from a Waterfall background in which nearly all design is produced up front and then handed off to the development team. I have to tell my friends that overall the trade-offs switching to agile have been positive. I really don't miss creating lengthy UI design specs that constantly need updating. I don't miss the long turn around time between when I design something and when I have to test to make sure it was implemented correctly. I don't miss the long, difficult process involved in changing a design spec based on new discoveries.

Waterfall - Design is handed off to Developers. Responding to change is difficult.

But to be honest, I have missed a few things in my transition into agile. One of agile's strengths is its ability to move quickly, but as a user experience designer it is important to make sure the process does not move too quickly. It has been a tough balance to strike. I have missed taking the time to perform thorough user research — observing and talking to the people who actually will use the new product. I've missed having time to write up all my research findings and building personas and scenarios that guide the development process. I've missed planning and running usability tests with clearly defined tasks and writing up the findings as proof of what needs to be fixed.

The lesson I've learned is you can't really force design to happen in parallel with development all the time. At strategic points in the project, development needs to slow or pause letting the design team briefly break off to research and tackle user experience. The most important time in a project to do this is in the first couple of weeks. During that time, I have to quickly grasp the domain that has been thrown upon me. My attention to details and observation skills have to be at their top of their game. I have to quickly assess the personality type of the product owner, entrepreneur, or business owner because every person I work with is different. At the same time, I have to be willing to make mistakes instead of thinking I can have it all figured out up front.

Agile - Designers and Developers working together with strategic pauses for UX research

The trade-off, then, when transitioning from waterfall to agile is giving up one long, thorough design phase in favor of designer-developer collaboration interspersed with several focussed UX sprints. The clear advantages of this approach are being able to respond to new information immediately, to ensure nothing is lost in translation between design and development, and to test concepts more quickly.

But new difficulties come with these advantages. It is not always clear when or how long to pause and focus on UX. It is not always easy to convince a client excited by the face-paced results of agile to press pause on development and perform user research. When you are used to having weeks in waterfall to work on a spec, it can feel overwhelming to have to condense specs to smaller scopes and complete them in a shorter time-frames.

For a UX Designer, Agile does not make things easier. In many ways it challenges the designer to perform at a higher level than any other process. But when you step up to the challenge and give it your all, learning from your mistakes and striving to improve, you realize how exciting and rewarding the journey can be.

What are you willing to give up in order to get something better?

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