Unifying Designers and Developers Through Agile UX
In the past several years, Agile has risen to the top of favorite methodologies of designers and front-end developers around the world. As a method rooted in engineering and development, an effort to build products quickly and efficiently among teams, Agile has found a home in the creative space of user experience (UX) designers.
Let’s break down what Agile UX and how an Agile approach can facilitate collaboration between designers and developers.
What is Agile UX?
Agile methodologies allow for highly collaborative, multifunctional teams. Agile focuses on breaking deliverables into smaller, manageable chunks called sprints. Sprints can be any length of time, but are typically one or two weeks, allowing the team plenty of time to plan, pivot, and iterate as needed.
Agile UX design is the intersection of Agile development and UX design processes. Agile UX integrates UX practitioners at the onset of the product-development process. It’s a cyclical approach to implementing, measuring, and iterating products to deliver the best user experience.
Agile follows what’s known as the “Agile manifesto,” which 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.
For UX designers, this might mean more customer touchpoints, effective collaborative tools and software, and cross-team meetings with other Agile team members of designers, engineers, content strategists, and writers. The user experience is the responsibility of the whole team, not just the designer, creating accountability for all team members.
When it comes to sprint planning, a UX team member might focus on stakeholder input, design discovery, or brand alignment — all of which could stretch across multiple sprints in the project window.
At the end of each sprint Agile teams hold a retrospective meeting or “retro” to capture the wins, losses, achievements, and obstacles encountered. Often, this reveals opportunities and approaches that can be used in an upcoming sprint or project.
Software Development Process with Agile UX
Aside from UX designers, who are often tasked with building the user interface (UI) of an application or product, are also software engineers. While less tasked with building the public-facing final product, software development is integral to making it work behind the scenes.
When Agile UX isn’t included in the software development process, it often results in products built in silos. Lack of communication leads to wasted time and cost. Customers may be consulted at the beginning of the project, but most of the building, testing, and launching happen within the software development team itself; Valuable feedback or needed changes aren’t provided until after launch.
When Agile UX is used from the onset, customers are not only consulted, but collaborated with until launch. UX designers work with the software requirements to build a usable product through which the user can test and deliver feedback throughout the design process. This loop of communication allows UX teams and software developers to iterate on the product, making any changes and improvements before the official launch.
Agile vs. Lean UX
Before Agile became the most popular work methodology, Lean had its foothold in the product development world, beginning with the manufacturing industry in the mid-20th century.
Both Lean and Agile are based on sets of principles, Agile on the “Twelve Agile Software Development Principles” and Lean on the “Seven Lean Software Development Principles“. Similar to Agile, Lean focuses on people, process, and products, with a goal to minimize. The aim is to eliminate any excess of people, technology, systems, and space in an effort to deliver a better product with less expense.
Where Agile UX focuses on iterating and feedback in the production process, Lean UX focuses on planning and proper execution to eliminate work in progress (WIP). Despite their differences, Agile and Lean can borrow from one another. The Agile process can borrow from Lean in sprint planning, lowering WIP, and overlapping roles. Lean can build in feedback and iteration loops to execute a better end-product.
Agile UX Team Structure
Within Agile UX are cross-functional teams with multiple roles and responsibilities that help to move the product and process forward. While Lean UX might dictate the number of people who should be involved, Agile UX sets clear identities for team members regardless of the size of the project.
Scrum teams are, by and large, cross-collaborative. The focus is on self-management and continuous improvement throughout the sprints, keeping the Agile team dedicated to the project’s success.
Within an Agile team, are roles such as:
- Scrum Master or Agile Coach. This role relies on the Agile manifesto to hold the team members accountable for completing their work. This includes removing obstacles, aiding conversations, and opening lines of communication for team members to help each other as needed.
- Product Owner. The role of product owner focuses on moving the product forward by aligning and realigning priorities in the sprint. This role is also responsible for backlog monitoring the quality of the production process, and measuring the success of the product after the project is complete.
- Team Member. Team members are held accountable for their commitments, responsible for the release, and may have one or more roles on a project. Often, Agile teams are cross-functional, which gives more transparency to the work and progress via a Scrum board.
What is a Scrum board?
Scrum boards exist both physically and digitally. They’re important tools for the Agile UX team because they make work visible and shareable. This helps those involved identify potential obstacles where a product owner or Scrum master can assist. Scrum boards borrow from Kanban, a methodology, which uses cards to make work and processes visible.
Scrum boards often have several columns including:
- Sprint +1 – Serves as the backlog for planning the future sprints.
- Defined – Identifies work currently claimed to be done in the sprint.
- In progress – Shows what work is being done currently.
- Waiting – Highlights tasks or needs relying on outside teams or the customer.
- Done- identifies work that has been completed.
- Icebox – Displays low priority work that hasn’t yet been planned but still needs to be completed.
Software developers might include other columns, like Test and Deploy, to ensure additional steps after the WIP is complete.
User Research and Agile UX
Because Agile UX is so focused on the iteration and feedback process of the product, user research plays a big role in the outcome. To properly integrate feedback from customers and UX testing throughout the project, a few key things are needed:
- Set feedback points. Use the Scrum board and team planning to set expected feedback and user testing touchpoints for the sprints. Ensure that the team has an idea of how much time is needed to recruit users and perform testing, whether online or in-person.
- Plan an intended user story. Go into template development with an idea of what the team is hoping to see users do, based on audience research. The goal of the product is to solve a problem; but setting a user journey, or user map, of how people will use the product is important to its success among users.
- Create the prototype. Decide on the level of wireframe or prototype that will be tested. Does it require something close to a full-fledged design for a more accurate research process, or can a flat wireframe get it started?
- Recruit participants. With the previous feedback points planned in the sprint, it should be easy to move the research task into action. Know in advance the target audience and end users that should be tested for the most meaningful results and feedback.
- Complete research and report. Wrapping up what has been learned is not only important for the end user, but also for the team. Here’s where UX researcher, Sarah Christopher, recommends aiming Lean:
It comes down to knowing your audience, and catering your insights reporting to suit that audience. An especially long research report is redundant for busy stakeholders, and not everyone will understand what you mean by ‘convenience sampling’. Providing a ‘one-look’ guide helps to convey your findings in a way that suits everybody.”
Lastly, iterate changes based on what has been learned. Based on the report, build a set of recommendations to adjust anything that’s needed, whether it’s the functionality, the design, or the microcopy. Re-plan the next round of research with the same cards and conversations.
Common Problems with Agile UX
Like all team projects, Agile UX can fall off the proverbial tracks and put the team and product in a rut. The Agile manifesto can get left behind in the nitty-gritty of a complicated project, or the backlog can get unruly with more obstacles that need to be tackled.
Common problems that might crop up in an Agile UX project include:
- Team friction. Planning and retros are best done as a full group, but when team members don’t work towards the same goal, or move at separate speeds or interests, team friction can quickly crop up, creating obstacles for the project. Agile UX relies heavily on teams working together through every phase of the sprints; If that is lost, then so is the project’s progress.
Solution: Set a team goal statement and project purpose at the beginning. Check-in on it throughout the retros to ensure all team members are on the same page.
- Missing skills or knowledge. Teams should identify missing resources or skills, and work to fill those gaps. Missing skills on the project or UX team can cause a deficit in sprint planning and a delay in the final deliverables. Some team members may be compelled to fill those gaps themselves. This can result in the timeline being overextended and cause interruptions in finishing the WIP during the sprint.
Solution: Identify the skills needed at the start of the project and work within the team or, if needed, outside of it. It may be that other teams, consultants, freelancers, etc. can help fill the gaps.
- Stakeholder interference. Opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has one, including the stakeholders. Their involvement in a project can derail progress quickly, from a disagreement on functionality and design to insisting they approve every piece of content that is developed.
Solution: Involve stakeholders early by getting their feedback and buy-in on the direction of the project. Set touch points with stakeholders and identify the depth of feedback you need to control what you receive.
- Lack of ownership or prioritization. A product owner (PO) out for a day is fine, but a missing product owner could be a problem. POs, product managers, and Scrum masters play important roles within the UX team; Without them “directing traffic” on the board and with outside obstacles, the Agile manifesto can quickly be lost and the subject matter experts may fail to stay 100% focused on the project.
Solution: Ensure all team members are invested in the project and, if possible, solely focused on it to avoid loss of skills or prioritization. If a product manager or Scrum master can’t be present during a sprint planning or retro, identify someone else on the team who can help groom the backlog.
- Missing team feedback loops. Agile UX is heavily reliant on feedback between team members and the customer. If those touchpoints are missing or overlooked, the project risks increased backlogs or pitfalls before launch.
Solution: Work with the customer, if possible, to establish appropriate touchpoints and expectations throughout the project and sprints. If internal feedback is needed, set up meetings at the start of the project so that internal touchpoints are transparent and understood.
How to Measure Success with Agile UX
Agile UX is meant to set any development or product design team up for success. From the wireframes to the deliverable or launch, your team no doubt wants to ensure the project’s success.
The first indication of success will be your customer’s feedback. Their satisfaction with the project and process can help identify what can be carried forward to the next project, or opportunities for improvement. While customer satisfaction isn’t necessarily an easy-to-identify key performance indicator (KPI), it’s still important for learning and improving.
You’ll want to consider how your customer wants to establish success measurements, too. KPIs are more precise, measurable statistics that might include:
- Page visit duration.
- User flow or journey.
- Conversion and abandonment.
Measuring your customer’s customer interaction is also important. Focus groups and surveys are a great way to learn about how the final product works for the people using it.
By implementing Agile UX into product development, collaboration between designers, developers, and other team members is enhanced. An environment is created where product development is done through consistent product tests, eliminating the silos and resulting in products designed for the best user experience.
Erin Schroeder is a senior content strategist and writer at Geonetric, where she helps healthcare brands organize user-first websites, content marketing, and brand messaging. As a former journalist, she never lost her love to write. You'll also see her articles on content strategy and user experience around the web, including UX Collective, UX Booth, and Prototypr.