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When to apply UX effort in agile

When should you apply UX effort on an agile project to get the most out of it? Well, UX design skills are most valuable to agile processes at three key points: during modeling, during evaluation, and for facilitating day-to-day design activities.

Over the past two years, I've been the user experience designer on a number of projects with teams that are adopting agile as their chosen methodology (it usually comes in scrum flavour). Some teams were more experienced with the methodology and its practices; other teams were less experienced. I was learning with them.

My experience has been that UX design skills are most valuable to agile processes at three key points:

  1. during modeling,
  2. during evaluation, and
  3. for facilitating day-to-day design activities.

"When to Apply UX in Agile"

1. Modeling

The first way that UX designers benefit an agile project is by modeling the system. The term modeling is borrowed from the world of architecture, but I've drafted a simplified version of this definition that works for application development projects:

"A model is a representation of a system including its processes, interaction channels, and its users created to study aspects of the design or to communicate design ideas to clients, committees, and team members."

Or put another way: modeling is the synthesis of details into something tangible that people can talk about.

Scenarios, experience maps, task flows, personas, and other storytelling tools are used to improve team members' understanding of the business processes, the channels and modes of interaction, and the users' behaviours and attitudes. These living documents also serve as focal points for design discussions and are pivotal in Visual Business Analysis.

Modeling should happen at the start of an agile project during iteration 0 or inception. It's important to note, too, that modeling is not about gathering or defining "requirements"; it's about creating hooks on which to hang questions so you can explore them properly later. It's like saying: "This is how we understand it right now. Let's use this to ask and answer our questions."

The benefits of creating models like this are threefold:

  1. models put everyone on the same page
  2. models provide a solid foundation for design and development thinking
  3. models simplify decision-making later because you've outlined the big picture better

Austin Govella sums it up nicely (source):

"these kinds of models frame how the team thinks about how to solve its various problems."

2. Evaluation

Evaluation is the second place where UX designers bring value to an agile project. As a UX designer, I am thrilled (and you should be, too!) that agile has evaluation built into each iteration.

Agile evaluation is slightly different from traditional usability testing. In addition to investigating issues of labeling, interaction, and navigation, agile evaluation aims to test hypotheses and validate design decisions. At a high-level, you're, at least, trying to answer these questions:

  • Are we headed in the right direction with these designs?
  • What can we improve upon within this release cycle?
  • Does the system model align with the user's mental model?

Each evaluation and planning phase is a critical point for a UX designer and/or researcher to contribute to the process. They have experience planning and facilitating usability tests to maximize the return for their time and effort. Because agile cycles move quickly, it's important to be efficient with evaluations. Not asking good questions and not knowing what to evaluate means you miss opportunities to improve the product. Asking good questions helps validate and clarify requirements, and helps identify details that improve the models.

Additionally, evaluation findings enable the agile team to validate the current project trajectory or to correct course by using the findings to inform planning for the next iteration.

Using a UX designer's skills to conduct efficient evaluations at regular intervals lets the team test and validate ideas while there is still time to make adjustments. This inevitably leads to a better product than if you wait until Release 1 to do evaluation.

3. Facilitation (Daily)

The third area, and a bonus opportunity, where UX designers can provide added value is in day-to-day activities.

Daily UX involvement in agile should focus on facilitation. Agile methodologies champion collaboration and encourage design contributions from all team members. That doesn't just happen magically. You know this. I'm sure everyone's seen a brainstorming session, or similar exercise, spiral out of control because no one was steering.

A UX designer can help everyone understand one another using pictures, diagrams, role-playing, whatever. Project teams include developers, designers, product owners, stakeholders, and many other voices; and they all think differently than one another. Each of these perspectives brings something valuable to the table, but they need someone to help them lay it all out and make sense of it, and they need that help daily.

By leading regular group design activities, like Design Studios, a UX designer can:

  • help team members foster a sense of ownership for their ideas and for project outcomes;
  • create sketches, wireframes, prototypes, and other design artifacts that become the project's Rosetta Stone—the common reference point that helps the different stakeholders communicate and understand each other;
  • they can be available to answer developer's questions that invariably come up when implementing an idea; and,
  • they can continuously improve and adapt the models as new information arrives from research and evaluation.

At any point in the project, a UX designer can be called upon to lead a focused conversation about the design and how to prioritize the next steps.


In summary, when a UX designer is integrated into an agile team and helps model the business processes, interaction channels, and user behaviours at the start of a project, it gives everyone a clear, common vision of what they're working with, and it provides a foundation to build upon going forward. When a UX designer asks the right questions during evaluation, the models evolve, the requirements become clearer, and "bad ideas" are caught before it's too late. And, when a UX designer facilitates group thinking and collaboration on a daily basis, design decisions get made faster and team members have a stronger sense of ownership of the final product.

Original article

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