5 ways to make Agile + design = <3

Getting design and Agile to work together can be a challenge. We've picked up a trick or two (or 5!) in the last year on how to do it and we're ready to spill the beans.

Picture of Michelle Claessens

By Michelle Claessens, Art Director

January 19, 2016

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ecentricarts made the switch to Agile just over a year ago. Since Agile was created for software development, we were able to adjust our development processes successfully; however, as seems to be true for much of the industry, adjusting our UX and design processes has proven to be an ongoing challenge.

So, how do we get Agile and UX/design to work together? Here’s some of what our team has learned over the past year:

1. More team collaboration

The first two points of the Agile Manifesto are “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and “working software over comprehensive documentation.” While reducing and simplifying processes and documentation allows us to be more efficient, it means all team members need to be involved throughout the entire project to ensure everyone remains on the same page.

In the design process, designers should act as facilitators, opening it up and involving the entire team. Including the team in Design Studios and user research can only lead to a better end product — more heads are better than one!

At ecentricarts, we tackled the challenge of keeping the team involved by rearranging the office into small cross-disciplinary teams that sit together. We have daily scrums where team members share what they’re working on and any challenges they’ve encountered. All team members also attend brainstorming and planning meetings, which helps to ensure everyone is equally invested in what we’re creating.

A moving picture of a team huddle

Go team!

2. Improve client collaboration

Agile's focus on the project team — which necessarily includes client stakeholders — requires looping clients into the process earlier and more frequently. We found showing clients sketches and iterations on concepts early on, and bringing them in for collaborative brainstorming and planning sessions gave them insight into the process, which makes working together go more smoothly. And, because clients are the experts on their business, their perspective is essential, especially in initial brainstorming and planning sessions.

3. Shift the focus to business objectives

The waterfall model is very focused on tasks and deliverables. Agile is focused on satisfying the user, which means we needed to shift our former focus on deliverables to business objectives that satisfy users’ needs. To do this successfully, the team needs to take ownership of outcomes rather than tasks.

At ecentricarts, collaborative story mapping sessions with the entire team — and often with the client — helped us make this shift. These sessions focus on outlining key business objectives, and the activities and tasks associated with each one. We've found storymapping helps the team get a big picture of what we’re building. As the project progresses, this map also helps keep the focus on end goals.

4. Make design iterative

In the waterfall model, we created shiny, polished mockups and showed them to the client in Don Draper-style big reveals.

Don Draper smoking and presenting something great

Thank you.

In Agile, our design artifacts (wireframes, moodboards, mockups) became temporary, as quick as possible, and only as refined as needed to communicate the idea to the team.

This means that, as designers, we can't be overly attached to any one concept. Designers are problem solvers, designing quickly and testing with real users. We iterate based on user feedback and changing requirements to make more usable, engaging products. Teams had to commit to this iterative approach.

Furthermore, the design process never "ends." We continue to revisit and rework user interfaces, so improvements should be captured the same way as technical ones are: with user stories worked into the backlog.

Note: this approach hasn’t compromised design quality. When you get to the visual design stage, it’s still important to fuss over the details. It just doesn’t make sense to fuss over these details when we should be focused on the bigger picture!

5. Get an upfront content strategy

Just as form follows function, design follows content — especially when we’re talking about information-based websites (as opposed to task-based apps). We found we needed to bring in a content strategist at the beginning of the project to help both the client and team figure out the type and extent of site content, while ensuring it fits business objectives and users' needs. This content structure is then used to create initial concepts and prototypes.

A work in progress

As an agency, we’ve come a long way since our switch to an Agile, team-based structure, but we still have many things to figure out. If you have insight on how your team is tackling this challenge, I’d love to hear about it! Contact me on Twitter @mjclaessens.