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Agile, Lean and UX today

Toni Steimle UX Director • Head of Site Zürich & Basel

01/02/2019 • 8 minutes reading time

It is becoming more common for software to be created in cross-functional teams that combine concept, design and development. These teams use their knowledge of a range of areas and combine this with agile and lean working methods to lead their project towards success.

The following article analyzes exactly how agile and lean approaches impact user experience design.

Agile Product Development: The Approach

Agile development is based on two fundamental concepts:

  • Software is developed iteratively.

    Each iteration becomes a kind of mini project that delivers a complete product increment. The increment is planned, designed, implemented, integrated and tested “in one” and the code for each increment complies with the final desired quality. Depending on the team, an iteration takes two to four weeks.

  • Software is developed collaboratively.

    All team members - regardless of their roles - work together to design, implement and test the increment. The individual team members have less specialization than in classic project approaches: so Developers also actively test and work on the product’s specifications, for example.

To plan product increments, agile teams split up product functionality into “user stories” that can be used to create a product backlog. Each iteration is therefore the implementation of a user story from the product backlog.

Agile Development: Challenges for UX Designers

This agile concept was developed without any focus on user experience design. It is therefore usually difficult for UX Designers to integrate into agile teams. The following are the two most important reasons:

  • Different methods of working.

    User Experience Designers usually design the user interface using user scenarios. These describe an application case from the user’s perspective and contain a different level of detail than user stories. In contrast, user stories don’t contain any application cases from the user’s perspective, rather describe a range of individual functions down to the smallest detail. Good user experience design cannot, however, be developed from separate user stories that don’t interact.

  • Different scheduling.

    As iterations take around two to four weeks, the team is unable to effectively plan and carry out user research activities for the selected function. This alone could take up the whole timeframe for the iteration - if not considerably more - and so impact the planning and implementation period intended for the next increment.

Agile Development and UX: Solutions

Cross-functional teams can, of course, still work together agilely, as there are practicable solutions for both challenges:

Example of a User Story Map
Example of a User Story Map
  • Different methods of working.

    In his book „User Story Mapping“ author Jeff Patton suggests the “user story map”. This map assigns user stories to user scenarios, creating an important link between agile and user-focused approaches, as product increments are planned under the consideration of related application cases. So UX Designers can more easily get involved in the development process.

  • Different scheduling.

    There are several solutions for the second problem.

    • Front-loaded sprints. One approach involves the user experience design of a product increment being defined in a sprint before any further work. However, this approach unleashes new challenges. It can lead to teams being split up into Designers and Developers, completely losing any collaborative spirit. (As a result, the application is not developed collaboratively.) Also, the duration of a sprint can still be far too short to develop the user experience design.

    • Iteration Zero. “Iteration zero” - also called the “product discovery” - is an iteration before the normal project where the product backlog and the foundations of user experience design are developed. As analyses and solution designs come long before actual implementation, this suggestion looks strikingly similar to a waterfall-like approach.

    • Dual-Track-Agile. A “dual-track agile” approach may propose a new solution (see in this article). In the first track, the “product discovery track”, a concept for a certain topic is developed and validated. The material covered may contain a number of user scenarios, but not the whole product. In the second track - the “delivery track” - solution concepts are designed in detail and implemented. Both tracks run parallel and are carried out by the team collaboratively.

We were able to prove that these methods are suitable for even large projects in the Aviatar project with Lufthansa Technik, as we were able to use lean methods and work together with the customer in accordance with lean principles.