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How UX Design Fits into Agile Methodologies

by Kaja Toczyska

How UX Design Fits into Agile Methodologies

The UX design process is more similar to the Waterfall methodology than it is to Agile methodologies. That’s because it is usually composed of structured phases, with each one carried out individually, with a strong emphasis put on the research phase.

This begs the question: is it even possible to fit UX design into Agile methodologies and be innovative, while at the same time ensuring that your designs fit real user needs? Let's find out!

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What is Agile development?

The Agile methodology was created in contrast to the Waterfall methodology, as a much more lightweight set of methods in software development.

The Waterfall model consists of linear and sequential phases, where one phase follows the other, and each new phase cannot begin until the previous one is finished. It is pretty rigid and based on careful planning, while the Agile method is more flexible and adaptable to change, allowing you to move forward in a much faster manner.

The Agile methods were developed fairly recently – in the ’70s and ’80s – when the Waterfall model started receiving criticism as being too regulated and micro-managed, or in a word: heavyweight. But it took a long time for Agile development to fully bloom – the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was only just conceived in 2001.

Key concepts behind the Agile methodology

In the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the authors concluded that some factors should be valued more than others:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Responding to changes over following a plan

However, they also pointed out that they were not completely giving up on the things mentioned on the right side of this list. Nevertheless, they concluded to put more emphasis on the aspects that would allow them to act more flexibly and deliver faster.

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Working with the Agile methodology

Long story short, Agile methodologies (e.g., Scrum, Lean, Kanban, or DSDM) share three main characteristics:

  1. Workflows are broken down into time-boxed iterations: 1-4 week-long sprints with incremental work.

  2. Everyday follow-up conversations: daily stand-up meetings that take between 5 and 15 minutes.

  3. Focus on quality and efficiency: prototyping, testing, and adapting to changes.

That’s more or less it when it comes to the basics. Having covered those points, we can move forward to the UX design process.

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Key steps in the UX design process

Based on the Double Diamond visualization, the 4 steps in the UX design process come together to create a roadmap for creative people:

  1. Discover problem insights: this is when you gather data, identify variables, and proceed with user research.

  2. Define the area of focus: now that the research is done, it’s time to filter the information, uncover any opportunities, identify bottlenecks, and select a working framework for the project.

  3. Develop potential solutions: this is the time to brainstorm, visualize, prototype, test your ideas, get feedback, and start designing.

  4. Deliver solutions that work: where we can proceed with the final testing and then launch the product.

It is also worth noting that this is not an entirely linear process, and designers sometimes jump between these stages, whenever needed.

However, we should also point out here that the design process itself is still mostly based on the Waterfall method. Let's explore why.

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Why the design process is mostly Waterfall 

First and foremost, the design process has a clear and structured workflow – it consists of well-organized stages, like:

  • research,

  • research conclusions,

  • brainstorming sessions,

  • prototyping,

  • usability testing,

  • designing,

  • then handing the project over to the developers.

Once one stage is complete, designers can proceed to the next one or move back a step to – for example – make some changes in the prototype.

It sounds like a well-thought-out and fixed procedure, doesn’t it? And it is, but it’s only natural to want to take something good and make it better.

In this case, it means making every method more efficient and flexible while staying in line with the methods that are currently popular in software development as well. This is where the Lean UX technique comes into play.

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Lean UX – how it was created and why

Lean UX is a technique developed by Toyota manufacturers. Originally, its goal was to reduce waste, and therefore – costs of production. It was a way to maximize company profits and provide value to customers by implementing quick fixes and delivering products faster and more efficiently.

Translating this approach into the language of design, the goal of Lean UX is to reduce the amount of research and documentation to a minimum (this is our “waste”), form quick assumptions and hypotheses, and move forward faster.

It’s all about cutting down on the number of steps in the design process, creating quick solutions, measuring and validating them, getting feedback (e.g., through A/B or usability testing), seeing what works, and then applying the best options. This way, the design can be delivered as fast as possible.

Thanks to the swiftness of the Lean UX technique, users get exactly what they want when they want. The benefits of implementing quick fixes can be visible straight away in, for example, a significantly higher number of purchases.

How Lean UX fits into Agile development

Lean UX goes hand in hand with Agile methodologies, especially in these two areas:

  • Workflow. The solution-based approach of the Lean UX technique is derived from traditional UX methods, but its iteration workflow is a special feature of Agile development.

  • Principles. Both Lean UX and Agile development share the same values and principles of work: collaboration, iterations, continuous testing, rapid-fire feedback, quick decisions, etc. They all form a repetitive loop, which can be summed up in three words: think, design, and validate.

Does it actually work?

While the design process can be Lean/Agile, it's worth to note some important conclusions and insights that would have been otherwise drawn from the research may be overlooked.

Plus, it can only work if a project manager schedules the process in a way so that the designers' sprints are always one or two sprints ahead of those of the developers. This is the only way they will have time to design mockups and prepare the necessary specifications before the developers take over.

The problem with Agile methodologies is that no one usually takes into consideration how much time and resources designers need to deliver high-quality, user-oriented products.

The scope of their work is reduced to a necessary minimum, with an emphasis on making the workflow as efficient as possible. Instead of doing thorough research at the beginning – which results in solid documentation with fancy diagrams and flowcharts that can help you avoid a lot of mistakes – there is a validation phase in the end. Creative people get feedback from real users, and this is how the initial assumptions based on some simple buyer personas are verified.

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So, how does UX design fit into Agile methodologies, exactly? Can the Lean technique be introduced to the process without hesitation or doubts? Or maybe classic design thinking and Waterfall methodologies still have the trump card here?

I have some thoughts on this.

UX design can be done in alignment with the Lean/Agile methodologies only when:

  • there’s a shared understanding between designers, developers, and management,

  • the company as a whole supports UX processes entirely,

  • the needs of UX designers are incorporated into the software development workflows,

  • UX designers are equal to developers – a vital part of the team.

However, it may be better to be flexible and combine some aspects from both the Waterfall and Agile methods:

  • Waterfall for research: this includes digging for real and deep insights and then sharing these insights with the team, which takes time so it should be done at the beginning of product development;

  • Agile for design: this incorporates collaboration, prototyping, testing, feedback, and continuous improvement into the process.

The bottom line is that we should keep our eyes open and constantly educate ourselves to make the best of every method that we utilize, old or new. This way, we can come up with a solution that works best for us and the specific nature of our projects.

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