Are Rapid Prototyping, Lean UX, and Agile Development Good for User Experience?

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A column by Janet M. Six
March 18, 2013

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss whether techniques such as rapid prototyping, Lean UX, and agile development are making user experience better or worse.

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers in this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Jessica Enders—Principal at Formulate Information Design
  • Leo Frishberg—Product Design Manager at Intel Corporation
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; UX Strategy and Design Consultant; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Gerry Gaffney—Founder and Lead Consultant at Information & Design
  • Michael Griffith—User Experience Director at Hewlett-Packard
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Traci Lepore—User Experience Professional at Bridgeline Digital; UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos, Inc.; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director of Human Factors Design at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist

Q: Are techniques such as rapid prototyping, Lean UX, and agile development making user experience better or worse? Why?—from a UXmatters reader

“There is both good and evil in each of these approaches,” answers Michael. “We really need to stop thinking that there is a single cure—philosophy, approach, process, or methodology. It’s not that simple. Every client, project, and development team is different. Problems start when we become dogmatic in what we do. It is human nature to apply what worked last time and avoid what didn’t work. There is some value in that, but when we lean on our prior experiences as a crutch, we can easily become dogmatic in our approach. Within each project and situation, there is an opportunity to analyze the needs and do the right thing, at the right time.”

“As with any process or tool, appropriate use yields superior results,” responds Robert. “What provides the greatest benefits to the user experience are product development teams that are able to successfully integrate design and development processes and methods rather than being at cross purposes to each other. Program management that really understands how design and development fit together is critical to creating good a user experience.”

“These techniques are making user experience better,” replies Leo. “None of them is new to the design domain. Agile was a response to software development practices, but was never meant to address design practices. Design has inherently been iterative, using rapid prototyping—or sketching. Please see my upcoming UXmatters article ‘Fast, Loose and Oh So Very Wrong: How I’ve Come to Love Agile UX Design’ for further discussion of this topic.”

“I think these techniques can make user experience better or worse, depending on how you go about it,” asserts Traci. “If you’ve ever read any of my columns, you know that I’m all about following an iterative process, because it breeds innovation by allowing you try ideas quickly and either fail or succeed before you move on. The problems with these Lean, rapid, agile—or whatever other synonym you choose—techniques happen when you don’t keep sight of the big picture along the way—or even worse, don’t start with a rough big picture to begin with. You fall into the trap of getting caught in the weeds of details or designing a non-cohesive whole.

“In the theater, the reason the iterative pattern for the rehearsal process works is because you work on small pieces, then iteratively begin to put them together. You work on parts of a scene, then begin to run through the whole scene. You repeat the process for the next scene, then once the next scene is well rehearsed, you walk through the two scenes together—and so on, until you have whole acts and an entire show. Also, you wait to add tech, costumes, and a full set until there is a stable framework for the whole production. Think about this in your UX process. Sure, follow an agile process and test sprint-sized bits. But remember to test bunches of sprints together at various points as well to make sure the whole picture works together. And never, ever start without a clear vision of what you’re aiming toward.”

Rapid Prototyping

“I think, without question, that rapid prototyping, when properly employed, can make user experiences better,” answers Robert. “Getting prototypes in front of colleagues, stakeholders, and target or existing users is a great way to get quick feedback addressing your design direction, business needs, customer needs, and usability. While this feedback can’t completely replace more in-depth, in-context usability testing—like you might get through an alpha or beta program—or the nuances that extended testing with working prototypes can uncover, it can certainly identify gross interaction, navigation, and presentation issues with a design, as well as areas to watch more closely in follow-on testing.”

“Rapid prototyping is a very effective approach that integrates well with our practice of iterative design and testing,” replies Pabini. “It encourages closer collaboration between UX design and front-end development and lets us test functional designs with users and iterate our designs quickly. With the trend toward responsive Web design, it’s becoming more important to prototype our designs for the Web in HTML/CSS to ensure that we deliver optimal solutions for all target browsers—whether on the desktop, tablet, or mobile phone. The time has come to forsake wireframing and go straight from sketching to prototyping.”

“Rapid prototyping provides the ability to test, then iterate rapidly and offers the opportunity to enhance the user experience,” says Gerry. “However, a potential risk with rapid prototyping is that there may not be sufficient time to consider the design implications of a finding between one iteration and the next, so you may lose the opportunity to explore alternative solutions.”

Lean UX

“The philosophical underpinnings of the Lean process can be very beneficial,” states Gerry. “For example, most UX professionals find the exhortation to ‘get out of the building’ to be a core requirement for doing useful user research.”

“As someone who’s done a fair amount of UX design work for startups, where the focus on is getting a great user experience to market quickly, not on producing elegant design deliverables to garner stakeholder support for a project, I appreciate the benefits of Lean UX,” says Pabini. “For information about Lean UX from the originator of Lean UX, check out my review of Jeff Gothelf’s presentation at IA Summit 2011, ‘Lean IA: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business.’”

Agile Development

“The primary risk if you don’t successfully integrate UX design into agile development is failing to create a holistic design solution,” warns Pabini. “It is essential to take the time—well before development sprints begin—to set your overall design vision. An effective agile approach to communicating your vision for how a product should serve the needs of users is creating user stories. Engage your entire agile team in creating user stories and doing conceptual modeling to ensure that everyone understands the problem space that your design will address. Then devise an interaction model that supports your conceptual model. As long as you do this work up front, agile UX can be very successful.”

“Agile brings the product owner into the development process,” adds Gerry, “and this certainly helps a development team to focus on meeting business objectives, which is essential in any successful project. By using stories that typically have a discernible user, agile can also help a team to focus on users, and encourage the team to undertake or commission the appropriate user research.”

“When properly employed, agile development can also lead to better end results for the user,” responds Robert. “Developers can, in theory, be more responsive to necessary design changes that you may identify over the course of development. But the agile process itself needs to be harmonized with the design process, not considered as a replacement for it.

“A solid interaction framework and information architecture should be in place before development sprints start, and there need to be usability testing milestones baked into the sprint schedule that help prioritize which backlog items to tackle when in the overall schedule. While you can produce visual design assets during sprints, you should ideally be at least a sprint ahead of development. This is also true of making any necessary structural changes that you identify during testing.”

Implementation Matters

“Bad implementations of these approaches make user experience worse, and good implementations make user experience better,” responds Baruch. “User experience has a place in all of these areas and stands independent from them, too. We need to stop trying to fuse these things together. The old adage ‘a poor craftsman blames his tools’ is very appropriate in this instance. User experience cannot be made worse or better by these things.”

“You can use any technique effectively or poorly, and rapid prototyping, Lean UX, and agile are no exception. When it comes to these particular techniques, here are two things I think you really need to avoid,” recommends Jessica. “First, don’t use one of these techniques as a matter of fashion. Instead, like any technique, they should be employed only once you have determined that they are genuinely appropriate approaches for the project at hand. Second, with all of these techniques, there is a real risk of neglecting to truly understand the problem—including user needs—before launching into design and development. Yet no project can be successful if you don’t set aside enough time to really understand the context.”

“At their best,” answers Adrian, “rapid prototyping, Lean UX, and agile development help with many problems that I encounter when trying to build successful products, including the following:

  • UX is involved throughout the whole development process—so we can quickly spot issues that arise and fix them before they become expensive mistakes.
  • We get more feedback on our design decisions through the opportunities we have for testing incremental releases of the product.
  • We have a development model that works well for the ongoing development of products rather than just the design of new products. This is especially relevant in the new era of continually delivered Web applications.
  • Since we spend a lot of time facilitating and teaching UX techniques to the rest of the team, it’s much easier to foster a culture that values design and user input.
  • Creating polyskilled teams, on which more people have general UX skills, frees up UX specialists from some of the slog work, allowing them to focus on the really hard problems.

“I could go on! There are contexts where these methods work less effectively, of course. For example, it’s much harder for outies and agencies to do agile and Lean UX because these approaches rely on tight involvement with the rest of the product team throughout the whole development process.”

“Having worked as an independent consultant for many years, I respectfully disagree with Adrian’s statement about ‘outies,’” demurs Pabini. “Though I think he’s right in regard to agencies. My approach to consulting has always been to work in close collaboration with product teams—collaborating just as closely as when I’ve worked on staff. In fact, that’s been the key to the success of the projects on which I’ve worked.”


“There are some risks associated with these processes,” cautions Gerry. “For example, it may not be possible to conduct adequate research to meet the requirements of agile sprints. Good development teams can accommodate longer research cycles when they are necessary. Good UX professionals working in agile environments can ensure that some of their effort goes into meeting immediate or short-term requirements.

“Another risk with all of these methods is that the desire to minimize documentation can mean that you lose the rationale for certain decisions. Consequently, such design decisions may get reversed or overturned without due regard to their logic.

“However, you can mitigate these and other risks once you recognize them. Personally, I would much rather work in an agile, Lean, or rapid development context, because there’s less tendency for a project to get bogged down, there’s a lot of team interaction, and User Experience has a respected place at the table.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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