If you’ve been even remotely around or in the website and software development industry in the last 20 years, you’ve heard of Agile. Agile principles focus on self-organized teams delivering products in an iterative, collaborative way. As an approach, it focuses on limited cycle time with the hope of narrowing work in progress (WIP), lending more flexibility and faster delivery from teams. It borrows much from Lean project management methodology, but with a few key differences.
Agile started as a software-based approach in the 1990s with the popular rise of personal computers, but in recent years, has found a home in leading tech companies around the world — especially on development teams and software teams — but has since extended into digital agencies, website production, management teams, and user experience (UX) design.
Within Agile lives two approaches that many teams follow to build a solid foundation of work and collaboration: Kanban and Scrum. Both focus on the prioritization of tasks and products, and help structure how the team works. So which should a UX design team use?
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What is Kanban?
Kanban is a method within Agile based on visualizing work, often on a physical or digital board where all projects and work items are transparently shared and seen by the team, often on task cards. People within UX teams using Kanban focus on limiting work in progress and finding efficient ways to get from start to finish. Kanban’s major focus is process and flow of work within the team.
How to Apply Kanban to UX Design
UX designers often have a series of steps in what they do and the customer-first experiences they create and deliver. The order in which designers “design” may change depending on the person, but the same deliverables and stages are often synonymous throughout the UX design industry.
The Kanban methodology is a process-focused approach that allows UX designers to build cards or tasks that can be visible to other members of the UX design or cross-disciplinary team, often on what’s called a Kanban board. To use Kanban, honest and transparent tasks are required to keep the flow of work moving in the right direction.
For example, a UX designer might build visual task cards for:
- Design discovery
- User research, such as heatmapping
- User journeys and audience mapping
- Stakeholder interviews
- Competitive review
- Accessibility audit
- Wireframe development
- Applying revisions to wireframe
- Concept development
- Applying revisions to concepts
- Building concepts (development)
- Testing iterations
- Quality assurance review
And even between these tasks might more detailed steps exist. Atlassian recommends task card attachments, which can make information about the task more visible to the team. Information like who’s assigned to the task, when it needs to be completed, and expected time to complete can make the visual representation even more valuable to everyone involved.
While some of these cards may fall directly on the UX designer(s) — like wireframe development — other team members may be involved, such as content strategists and information architects, UX researchers, content writers, and fellow developers.
Benefits of Kanban Cards in UX Design
Kanban’s visibility lends many benefits to UX teams and designers. Those who’ve made the switch to Kanban have found that it helps:
Identify obstacles and inefficiencies
Katia Dickinson found Kanban was a great choice for her, especially as the sole UX professional on an information technology team. Where to-do lists grew quickly and became difficult to commit to finishing, learning the Kanban method helped her create sticky notes and task cards that made her work more visible, limited too much work in progress, and made it easier for her to plan ahead.
Not only to visualize work and prioritize tasks properly but also to adopt a healthier way of working, I created my first personal Kanban board on the whiteboard in my cube.
Sometimes things are out of your control, like unplanned or unexpected requests or needs from the team, or stakeholders with conflicting priorities. By planning your cards for a project in advance, you can predict where obstacles might come up, giving you and your team time to set up proverbial guardrails that better define expectations and leaves time for additional collaboration or problem-solving if needed.
Create feedback loops
Because work is visual and the team is acknowledging work that’s complete or needs collaboration, Kanban also inspires feedback loops between teams. While UX designers are often experts as understanding user needs and requirements, they still may need help getting the right words in place, or thinking outside the box. That’s where Kanban cards can help.
With visualized tasks, feedback loops are built organically among the team, leaving opportunities not only for collaboration, but for honest sharing that builds trust and expertise among all members of the team.
Effectively plan and execute work
Kanban also helps teams effectively plan and execute work. With visual tasks, a UX designer can more easily prioritize needs and order of work to be done while understanding timeframes, making planning easier for the rest of the UX team.
This doesn’t only help teams tackle how they do work, but can help project managers and leaders effectively scope and price projects for clients, both internal and external. As the work is visualized, teams may also reveal processes that can trim time in the future, making the team more agile (or flexible) and reliable for standard deliverables in the future.
Most importantly, Kanban keeps work moving forward. The accessible and physical task cards let teams rally around work that needs to be done, eliminating adding additional work in progress until more high-priority tasks are done. It also allows teams to understand where collaboration is needed, such as between content writers and designers, or information architects and developers.
UX is seldom done in a vacuum, and shouldn’t be. The Kanban method nurtures the opportunity for UX designers and professionals to work together to build deliverables that meet the needs both inside and outside the team.
What is Scrum?
Scrum process dictates that cross-functional teams — or Scrum teams — focus together on the work, which is planned and iterated through short periods of time, also called sprints. The self-organizing team, a similar board to Kanban called a Scrum board, visualizes the work to build iterations, share feedback and focus on continuous improvement through the workflow. The Scrum board is home to the sprint planning and the sprint backlog, both of which help the Scrum teams to plan ahead for delivery.
And it’s a popular method: In 2017, the Project Management Institute found that 71% of organizations report using an Agile approach for projects in an effort to minimize waste and improve project deliveries.
Scrum teams also have specific roles tasked with helping the team stay agile — including product owners, who help set priorities of the product backlog, and Scrum masters who help the Scrum team identify roadblocks and WIP limits. Both roles monitor the progress of the team and help team members work in achievable sprints.
There is also a process for Scrum meetings. Sprint planning happens at the beginning of each sprint and is used to prioritize the backlog items. A daily Scrum standup lets the team share what’s moving, what’s stalled, and where a team member might need assistance. At the end of each sprint are review and retrospective meetings. The sprint review is for showcasing the work that was completed during the sprint and the sprint retrospective is used to reflect on the sprint, identify any issues that are slowing down the process, and devise a plan of action to resolve them.
More importantly, however, is that the team remains focused on the goal while respecting each other and delivering the best product possible.
How to Apply Scrum to UX Design
It’s important to understand that Scrum starts ahead of any design tasks that are completed. This includes researching the market, unveiling product needs or gaps, and identifying the MVP — or minimal viable product — that can be tested and iterated upon.
Where Kanban breaks tasks into cards, Scrum focuses on breaking product deliverables into manageable chunks which can, itself, reveal tasks and opportunities for team members to carry forward. The product owner helps plan the work along with the Scrum master, helping guide the format of project management that can be applied to the whole team, or Scrum team.
For example, Scrum planning “slices” or breakdowns for a UX designer might look like this:
- Market research
- Design concepts
Between each of these larger slices will live more specific tasks, which are planned into the identified sprint. For example:
- Sprint 1: Discovery
- UX research
- Analytics and testing
- Stakeholder input
- Brand color palettes
- Accessibility audit
Anything that’s not planned for the sprint is placed in the backlog. As team members move work to “done,” tasks from the backlog are brought into planning for the upcoming sprints. Sprints can be any length of time decided on by the team, but shorter sprints may give more “agility” to the team for pivoting if unforeseen needs or requests come up.
For example, if the previous Sprint 1: Discovery list is a two-week sprint, it’s possible that a few of those tasks won’t make it into one sprint, so maybe accessibility audit and brand color palettes move to the next sprint, or into the backlog.
UX teams in a Scrum environment may also establish communities of practice, or COPs, which open the floor for subject expertise sharing and problem-solving during the sprint.
At the end of a sprint, teams often hold “retrospectives,” or sprint reviews, that let the team meet in an honest, safe environment to share what went well, what needs improvement, and anticipate needs or obstacles in the coming sprint.
Benefits of Scrum in UX Design
Because Scrum is so focused on the product deliverable and end-result, the team rows in the same direction through the sprint and entire project. But there are other benefits of Scrum in UX design, too, because Scrum supports:
Quick pivoting and response
If you’re developing an app for a certain kind of smartphone, and that smartphone goes through a new model release in your sprint, you’ll have time to analyze the needed changes and make adjustments to your product deliverable and task planning without losing a significant amount of time.
Scrum is also ideal when working with other teams or clients. Unforeseen obstacles including cross-team collaboration, client requests, or stakeholder push-back can give you heartburn in any UX design project. But Scrum gives the freedom to pivot without throwing off the project’s timeline. It also gives guardrails to product Owners or Scrum masters to set (or reset) expectations to avoid future hiccups.
Team sharing and collaboration
Like Kanban, Scrum also builds opportunities for teams to be visible — and vulnerable — when challenges need to be met. Through sprint reviews and communities of practice, UX designers and professionals can share experiences, approaches, and tips to help meet the sprint commitments.
Daily stand-ups during the sprint can help the team understand when a work-in-progress obstacle is keeping work from moving through the sprint, and opens the door for team members to assist or provide feedback as needed.
Shared goal setting
Because Scrum focuses on the product first, there’s an opportunity for teams to set goals together, putting a shared understanding of the purpose and end-deliverable as the finish line. How the team gets there depends on the established commitments UX team members make throughout the sprints.
As challenges arise and threaten the sprint’s completion, team members can share responsibilities to help complete the work, keeping the goal — and its timeline — top of mind.
Build efficiencies in delivery
Like Kanban, the efficiencies created in Scrum planning can reveal patterns and processes that can make future like-projects easier to tackle. Even unexpected problems or requests can be tackled more easily — or at least predicted — in future projects, giving Scrum masters and product owners a chance to plan ahead.
Differences Between Kanban and Scrum
|Purpose||Visualizes work||Visualizes Product|
|Flow of work||Continuous flow, open to iterations||Fixed-length sprints, with no changes in-sprint|
|Roles||No predefined roles, though team is involved||Team roles, Scrum Master, Product Owner|
|Completing work||Work is pulled via individual cards||Work is pulled via batches for each sprint|
|Measurement||Cycle time, or completing a project from start to finish||Predictability and effectiveness of sprints|
Scrum & Kanban Tools
Not sure where to start with Kanban and Scrum for your team? Ready to get your agile project off on the right foot? Fortunately, there are many tools (for reasonable prices!) available to help any organization start from the ground up:
- Trello – An online, visual board that’s a great fit for both Kanban and Scrum boards, accessible by team members no matter where they’re located.
- Kanban Tool – Offers a full suite of Kanban methodology information and tools – including an online Kanban board, which is perfect for remote teams – to build.
- Blossom – Take your Kanban and Scrum planning to a different level with more detailed product and project tracking with a goal of limiting work-in-progress.
- ScrumDo – Offers fully customizable options making this Scrum tool easy to use out-of-the-box with easy tiered plans to help your team plan Scrum sprints, create MVPs and work together.
- Atlassian – Get a full suite of products under one roof, including product and project management tools, customer service, incident management, and more. One of their cornerstone products, Jira, has become a favorite in the industry, especially with remote teams. Bonus: Atlassian is also the parent company for Trello, one of the more popular online board tools.
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Is Kanban or Scrum Best for UX Designers?
In short, there’s no right answer. The beauty of both Kanban and Scrum is that they can coexist, and their aim is always for continuous improvement, decreased WIP and an even, visible flow of work. While Scrum is primarily focused on the product and reaching the finish line without waste or lost time, Kanban hones in on the process of getting there. The two can even be combined into a methodology known as Scrumban. Both exist within the agile framework and both aim to decrease lead time and inspire iterations and product delivery.
At the end of the day, Agile methodologies have been adopted by some of the biggest companies in the world, from Google to IBM to Spotify and beyond. Its use in product development cannot be overstated. It provides a powerful management tool in an ever-changing world that’s hungry for continuous delivery of digital goods.
Analyzing the skill sets and roles within your existing teams can help reveal opportunities to start Agile methodology in your organization, or within your team. Small slices of the process can be implemented fairly quickly, including daily or weekly touchpoints, card building, and project reviews. Consider an MVP approach to your own Agile adoption