Agile UX Design

Almost two years ago, I wrote a short article (published here) about combining Agile and Usability practices. I described one way of implementing this combination, a way that today seems a bit too complicated. I have been practising Scrum in combination with Extreme Programming the last few years, which is what is popular at the moment. This article is the first of three (the other two are linked below) which explains how to implement user experience design in Scrum.

The Agile Manifesto values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The problem areas have traditionally been the same in design as in software development. A focus on processes, documentation, etc. has prolonged (and sometimes ruined) the project. In many kinds of projects, adapting to agile methods (which means implementing the above-mentioned principles) has proved successful. But how do you apply them to user experience design?

In a waterfall-like project, you have room for a lot of analysis, a lot of design and hopefully also a lot of testing. The simple approach is to scale down everything you're used to doing. This can be enough for the product you are designing, but there might be a constant struggle to explain designs, keep up with the developers, and actually be able to test anything before release. To solve this, you'll have to adapt the methods to agile principles and the time-frames of agile projects. If you ordinarily do deep interviewing and Visio-style interface specifications, you will probably need to change the method to something less time-consuming, like time-boxed group interviews, cross-functional collaborative design sessions, as well as swiftly created mockups (on paper or with Balsamiq) actually constituting the specification. Also, instead of using a complicated setup for usability testing with many users, do a small-scale test (while recording with Silverback) using Guerilla HCI methods.

Apart from lowering the fidelity of your design and adapting your methods, you need to position yourself in the project to achieve a productive agile UX environment.

You need to have mandate in deciding what is built as well as the overall business strategy, the effects of the product. Create a map that visualises how a design can support the envisioned effects, supported by user stories and prototypes. This map can then also be used to roughly estimate the size of the project, as well as helping developers to estimate tasks. A suggested approach for the agile method of Scrum is described in the second article.

At the same time, make sure that you synchronise your design work with development, i.e. integrate your usability methods in the development method and be a part of the team. It is possible for the UX practitioner to act as customer to the agile team (or be part of the Product Owner team in Scrum), but communication and design would benefit more from a closer integration. You would then have a better involvement in the final result and the chance to learn from the developer's knowledge. A collaborative design approach can help you being and staying agile; having continuous discussions about the design instead of detailed specifications will support the core principles of agile methods. In the third article is a suggestion of how this might be achieved in Scrum.

To summarise, start thinking and start acting agile. It will be productive and fun.

Written by Martin | Wednesday 29 July 2009 | 42 | Top

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