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Experience Design in an Agile World

Square pegs, round holes: Experience Design and the Agile Software Team

An industry shift is happening amongst companies who build web and mobile applications. Development-focused  software teams are evolving to include experience designers, and these designers can no longer work in isolation at the beginning of a project (during their phase of the project). Instead, they are required to be an integrated part of the team, working alongside developers and project managers to impact every phase, from beginning to execution.

A team’s ability to deliver business success through software is dependent on their ability to move through a project from conception to completion fluidly, keeping a firm eye on the goals of the client. At TWG we borrow heavily from Agile methodologies to achieve this – dividing projects into short, demonstrable periods of work, collecting frequent feedback and staying focussed on the highest priority requirements.

Agile is great because it sets clients up for a quicker return on investment for development effort, because software can be released earlier. It’s a more cost effective, transparent way of working that keeps budgets and timelines exactly where you expect them to be. But Agile was not conceived with design in mind, so how can designers work alongside developers and project managers in a way that keeps everything flowing smoothly?

Embracing the Inevitable: Experience Design in an Agile World

I was recently invited to speak at FITC Toronto about some of the challenges facing digital teams who are expanding to include experience designers and shared some possible strategies for effective integration. This isn’t a definitive set of solutions, but we wanted to share some thoughts based on our own experimentation around our processes.

Many designers are already comfortable with taking an Agile approach to their work. The core principles of collaboration and communication are something that fits well with the designer mindset. But often, asking designers to apply these principles in a multi-disciplinary environment can take them out of their comfort zone, especially if they have an agency background where presented finished or nearly-finished concepts is the norm.

Graphic: The isolated design process explained

Here’s how experience designers have a tendency to position themselves within Agile teams. The designer here is treating the process like a relay race – they have a distinct ‘design phase’ that needs to be completed and handed over, then they can relax. They’re not an integrated part of the Agile team, and this can cause issues. There is a huge potential for a bottleneck to occur where developers are waiting for designs to be completed in order to move forward with the project. This puts pressure on timelines and budgets. Additionally, the potential for a disconnect between the PSDs presented by the designer to the client and the final look of the product is high. In both scenarios, an isolated design process can lead to unnecessary friction.

So here’s what an integrated design process might look like. In this model we’re no longer talking about the “design phase” – instead, the designer is expected to be involved in every stage of the project. There are still distinct tasks that the experience designer performs – sketches, style guides etc – but the design process is iterative and evolves hand-in-hand with development.

Graphic: Explaining the integrated design process

The designer here is no longer treating the project like a relay race. Instead, the team operates like a rugby team – passing information and ideas back and forth to move the project forward towards the try line. By including your experience designer in early conversations about scope and using their research skills to help guide the project, you can increase their comfort levels as well as ensuring that developers are making choices that are efficient from a design perspective. Working this way, the prototype is continually refined, meaning there is no gap between the presentation of design and the final product. At TWG, instead of creating visual designs for an array of mockups, we started using “style tiles”, developed by Twitter’s own Samantha Warren, in order to develop a design system rather than designing fixed-width pages.

Tips for Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Jeff Gothelf

“There are different dialects and new rituals. Furthermore, design is treated very differently than they are used to…. It is incumbent on the designer to open up the design process for collaboration and critique from other members of the team.” Jeff Gothelf, How To Build an Agile UX Team 

(Jeff has an amazing series over on Smashing Magazine on How To Build an Agile UX Team which was incredibly helpful when researching this presentation. Anyone hoping to learn more about the subject should definitely check it out.)

The shift from experience design as a stand-alone discipline to an integrated part of any project requires more than just a change in methodology. Designers don’t just need to change the way that they work, they need to change the way they THINK to embrace this inevitable industry shift. Here are a few tips for designers who are joining an Agile team for the first time.

1. Embrace Agile Rituals

Maybe your team strictly adheres to Agile, or maybe they borrow from some of the rituals as part of their internally-created process. Irrespective, embrace the way your team works and use every opportunity to get to know your teammates better and start contributing to conversations as often as you can. If you’re used to working in a silo, the concept of critiquing other disciplines can feel alien – embracing Agile rituals will help you to get to know your team and feel comfortable both giving and receiving feedback.

2. Try InVision App/UX Pin

InVision is a favourite tool at TWG for designing in an Agile way. It’s a prototyping and collaboration tool for design teams that has been fundamental in our integration of experience design into our process, used for getting early feedback and seeing a clickable prototype of the experience, before even a single line of code has been written. Not only is it great for communicating with the rest of your team & receiving feedback from multiple perspectives, it’s handy for giving clients insight into how the project is progressing and gathering feedback from all sides. We’re also experimenting with UXPin, as it allows us to quickly wireframe in the cloud, get feedback and iterate.

3. Be A Scout 

Experience design in an agile world means adding some new tools to your arsenal. InVision was developed specifically for designers but don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and see what tools are available to you from other disciplines.

4. Pair up with a Developer

Working alongside a developer will help you to understand their process, and vice-versa. This will give you the insight that you need to understand and appreciate the technical constraints they are working with and make small design changes as needed as well as allowing you to design within realistic technical boundaries.

5. Teach, Communicate Bond

Take an active role in illuminating the design process to your teammates working in other disciplines. Agile at its core is about communication and collaboration, and the more open you are about your work, your tools and the challenges you face the better equipped your team will be to understand the choices that you make. One of the biggest changes in moving from a “design up front” model to an agile one is that you will constantly be giving and receiving feedback. By teaching your teammates about design you not only learn more and become a better designer in the process, you empower those around you to all make educated design decisions.


Reading List
Are you an experience designer working as part of an Agile team? We’re on a journey to figure out this process – leave a comment below and tell us about your experiences!

Thank you to Shiera Aryev, TWG’s very own experience designer, for her contribution to this presentation and post!

TWG is an Internet software company based in Toronto. We design, build and maintain web and mobile applications for a growing list of happy clients. We also incubate startup companies and host events for our community. Our mission is to be the best software company in the world to learn, work, and grow at.

One Response to Square pegs, round holes: Experience Design and the Agile Software Team

  1. Awesome post & slideshow, entertaining & comprehensive – thanks for this. Incorporating design into an agile environment is so key for solid mobile, web, & interactive work … I mean, ‘interactive’ says it all; creating an interactive product should be an interactive process.

    Checking out InVision & UX Pin now!

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