I recently attended the UX Immersion conference 2012 on Agile/Mobile (April 23-25, 2012 ~ Portland USA), hosted by Jared Spool’s User Interface Engineering. I’m responsible for design processes within Informaat, so the topics seemed especially relevant. Here’s what I learned.

There is a buzz going on for some time now on Agile/Lean methodologies and how to integrate them with user experience design. To learn more about this integration, we started to develop our documented design processes (our “Formulas”) through Scrum several months ago.

At the same time, we also noticed an increase of publications in our field (the book “Agile Experience Design” and the article “Agile Challenges and Opportunities” especially). Then our product team started combining Agile with our formulas. And most recently, one third of our designers underwent training as a Scrum Master.

I like reading articles on UIE.com, so when Jared Spool announced a conference with an Agile track, I definitely wanted to attend. So, I went to Portland and followed the UX Immersion Conference with a workshop on Agile and Lean by Jeff Gothelf.

How to combine UX and Agile?

Within our company, a lot of questions have been raised about the combination of UX and Agile (on our intranet and during inhouse sessions on Scrum).

Challenges for UX designers appear to be:

  • How to define the overall concept and how to maintain it?
  • How to guarantee quality?
  • How to accelerate our design activities?
  • Do we work in parallel or sequential?

Hugh Beyer summarizes these (seeming) contradictions and explains them through both the histories of the Agile and UX communities and their beliefs.

He explains: “Agile only works when it can be validated by sending it to user testing on time. Therefore, UX is automatically integrated.”

In his workshop “Lean UX: A seasoned approach to designing in Agile”, Jeff Gothelf phrased it as:

“Inspired by Lean Startup and Agile development theories, it’s the practice of bringing the true nature of design work to light faster, with less emphasis on deliverables and greater focus on the actual experience being designed.”

Jeff invests in:

  • Collaborative problem solving instead of implementing other people’s solutions (with an multidiscipliary team and “pairs”)
  • Sketching
  • Validating assumptions as soon as possible (via “critique” and user testing)
  • Styleguides

But despite all of this, not all questions have been answered. And this didn’t happen at the conference either. People even disagreed: Jeff is against “Sprint Zero” and “Staggered Sprint” (in which design is ahead of development), whereas Hugh is a great proponent of them.

It’s not about following the rules blindly, but finding a way with your team which works in your situation. After some time, the process solidifies (“What the Karate Kid can teach us about Agile & UX“). Just as some of the above-mentioned points, it’s a requirement you have the necessary time together available.

I think that by adopting the Agile and Lean ways of thinking, a project can be a lot more enjoyable for designers. Results are achieved rapidly and there is a lot of contact with users.

What did I get out of it?

Feedback and short iterations are useful:

  • To validate assumptions as soon as possible (through ‘critique’ and user testing)
  • To do user testing at fixed moments , with what’s then available (sketches, code, etc.)
  • To test specifically if users want to use it anyway (‘value’), instead of just testing its usability. In this way, you prevent the biggest waste: making things people don’t want.
  • And when it’s live, frequent evaluation, like analytics, support requests in reference to your benchmark.

Example of a Scrum implementation at TheLadders.com

The role of the designer

Designers must communicate the problem and solution in as low-fi a manner as possible. Pick the proper tool, at the right moment, with the proper level of detail. Jeff summarizes this nicely as “Lead with conversation, trail with documentation.”

Various presenters, like Andrei Herasimchuk of Twitter, stated that designers cannot hide anymore behind their specs, but instead it’s their responsibility to deliver the required experience.

A team of generalists

Jared Spool delivered a great presentation at the conference (“It’s a great time to be a UX designer”) in which he pleaded for generalists in the team. The one which is the best in a certain activity should not carry it out themselves, but coach a co-worker. The co-worker learns and through coaching you also improve yourself. This completely fits with the Agile approach.

Conclusion

I have been a strong proponent of combining Agile and UX, based on our own experiences. I did not need a conference for that. It was interesting to notice how many organizations are occupied with it (even museums), to listen to best practices and to exchange lessons learned in between the sessions.

The conference lived up to its name. The UX was outstanding and inspiring.

About the author

Patricia Govaert has fourteen years experience as an interaction designer and consultant, now working as a design methodology expert at Informaat. She has a background in industrial design from Delft University of Technology.