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Your Agile Process Is Missing a Crucial Ingredient

Deep into the Agile revolution, we’ve still got a rather big problem. Products continue to routinely ship with significant user experience flaws. Why?

Most of us employ Agile processes to define and validate products in digestible chunks. This should help us find usability flaws early and often, right? This should help us make more user-friendly sites, apps, and software?

Not really, no.

Agile is a development approach created to solve development problems. It addresses issues like chronically overbudget projects, delay culture, poor communication, feature bloat, wasted effort, testing chaos, you name it. The Agile Manifesto proclaims that more efficient, collaborative, accountable teams will make and ship better products. Fix the process and you fix the product.

But something fundamental is missing. User experience is conspicuously left out of the Agile equation.

The Missing Ingredient

This is why Agile teams often fail to embrace UX principles, activities, deliverables, and team members. This is also why we remain awash in hard-to-use apps, sites, and software.

Boosting UX in Agile

Include UX professionals on your Agile team.

This approach is fundamentally flawed. Despite claims to the contrary, most “user” input comes primarily from customer representatives and stakeholders. We shouldn’t be shocked by this. Agile teams are simply acting as development teams always have. They identify what the customer wants/needs then build it. This is an old-fashioned model shoehorned into a new, Agile process.

Members or leaders of Agile teams, including folks advocating for the business, are almost never conversant with the principles of user behavior. Nor are they experienced with user research or user testing, the monumental pillars of user-centered design and development.

The fix is simple. If you don’t have a UX pro on your Agile team, get one. Now.

Get your UX resources involved in early planning.

A UX lead will identify essential UX touch points that inevitably pepper the design and development process, driving the creation of more user-friendly products. They will ensure crucial and commonly omitted activities like user research and testing are accounted for. Without this user-centered input, development teams will be left to their own devices, with predictable results.

Project planning is a broad subject, encompassing more than plugging in UX leadership. The following essential points must be planned from the beginning as well.

Allow for definition sprints.

Here you’ll define UX goals (and how they’ll be measured), prepare user personas, and brainstorm high-level UX requirements. You may even do broad-based user research. In some cases, early design of global interface elements occurs in this stage.

Next, get a jumpstart on development. Critical UX deliverables like wireframes or prototypes must get out in front of development by at least one sprint. Then, as the traditional sprint process kicks in, UX definition moves to the next feature and remains ahead of the game throughout. This process allows for better collaborative definition (it’s still a team effort) and provides time for user validation.

Keep UX resources involved in key meetings.

Imagine a bit of functionality. During sprint planning, the development team rates the implementation effort at two points. But the UX lead speaks up, clarifying an easily missed interaction requirement. This key tidbit raises the developers’ bid to five points, which in turn affects prioritization. This user experience give and take happens all the time — unless of course you have no access to UX resources, in which case it never happens.

Requirements are forged and evolved in the various sprint meetings. The strength of your user experience rises and falls on these requirements’ details and strategy. UX professionals also define UX requirements, a vital part of the product equation rarely discussed by development teams. No one on traditional Agile teams owns such requirements. They are the province of the UX practitioner.

UX resources must have a voice. Without their input, development will continue apace without a true usability perspective. This is a major reason why most digital products end up being frustrating and hard to use.

Allow flexibility to revisit UX decisions.

What if a critical form component is revised in a late-project sprint? Imagine this component touches many screens and has several variants. The project is complex, including wireframes (still active), visual design (completed for this component), and established front-end code. A change to this component affects everything done before. What is the single source of truth? What do we develop against? How do we even account for evolution?

You can’t let this go. Any adjustments that affect UX-specific deliverables like wireframes (until obsolete), visual design, microcopy, or UX requirements must be retouched as a part of your standard iteration process. Revisiting and revising earlier work ensures product consistency, and honestly, source-of-truth sanity. This is particularly important with UX, since Agile teams are largely unpracticed in working with UX deliverables.

Perhaps most important, you must carve out time to conduct a thorough review of all UX artifacts before testing your product. Testing is done in part based on documented requirements and standards. And some requirements are decidedly UX-specific. They may be encased in, say, wireframes. If those wireframes are casualties of rapid sprinting and have not been kept up to date, expect testing chaos.

And you guessed it, truing up UX deliverables is best led by UX resources.

Rely on UX guidance through launch.

UX guidance helps teams handle inevitable issues that arise during development. Features evolve, new interactions are introduced, and usability problems emerge. UX professionals keep products on track by handling everything on the spot.

This valuable input extends through testing. Expert UX practitioners are trained to look for highly specific issues related to usability and interaction. They will find inconsistencies with UX requirements that would otherwise easily be missed.

We call the retention of UX guidance the “UX Hold-Back.” User experience pros remain connected to the project to provide UX oversight. This is something of a secret weapon in the fight to make user-friendly products. Continuing to draw upon your UX resources all the way through release radically increases your chances of launching a user-friendly product.

Add the missing ingredient.

But UX is not optional if you want to make better digital products. Agile teams must embrace the very concept of user experience. They must take immediate steps to integrate UX resources and principles deeply into their processes.

No organization can be instantaneously transformed into a UX-savvy powerhouse. But change is possible. Every organization can begin.

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About truematter

And better often starts with process.

Author: @ExperienceDean
Graphic: @djosephmachado

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