Case Study: Collaborative Engineering with Lean UX

September 10, 2018

The adoption of iterative product development has required teams to make time-boxed decisions, iterate quickly, and pivot as necessary. At Rockwell Automation, where I work, we transitioned some of our product-development projects to SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) agile development about three years ago, and we’re continually trying to improve the efficiency and quality of design and engineering across teams. Within the context of our adoption of agile, we’ve piloted a collaborative approach to UX design.

Lean UX

Rockwell’s next-generation products leverage common user-interface (UI) components across products. However, some level of design revision is necessary for each feature that ships. So User Experience supports product teams from an early, evaluation stage.

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Traditionally, the focus of our UX designers’ efforts has been on providing a highly detailed set of deliverables that includes workflow diagrams, wireframes, and detailed UI specification documents. These deliverables, although still necessary, often leave gaps in our team’s collective problem-solving power.

Driven by a desire to expedite decision-making and encourage knowledge transfer within and across teams, we have adopted an iterative, collaborative UX design approach for our next-generation products at Rockwell.

Lean UX requires team-wide acceptance of collaborative engineering deliverables that drive knowledge transfer, facilitate estimation, and support validation—both with internal stakeholders and users—during the product-development lifecycle. Our Lean UX approach decouples the design process from traditional design deliverables by involving other engineering team members in the problem-solving process.

A designer creates low-fidelity designs, spending a minimal amount of time creating design concepts. We limit our time investment in these documents because their real purpose is to create a dialogue—both within the product team and with business owners and users. The low fidelity of these deliverables also encourages nondesigners and key stakeholders to join in on the decision-making.

Reviewing and Testing Design Prototypes

Low-fidelity designs can range from whiteboard sketches to paper prototypes to photoshopped screenshots. Since our designs take less time to create, we can easily change them as necessary. As the designer collects feedback from team members and stakeholders, he or she iterates on the design—turning around the next versions of the design in hours, not days. With this level of design, we can execute each build-measure-learn cycle with agile teams much more quickly.

Figure 1 shows an example of a whiteboard sketch of a proposed user interface for a new feature. The conversation we had around this sketch gave the entire product team the opportunity to voice any concerns and provided enough insight for us to set a new direction for the design and make decisions about whether to begin estimating and prototyping.

Figure 1—A whiteboard sketch of a proposed user interface
A whiteboard sketch of a proposed user interface

An initial challenge that we encountered was the need to increase the ease of working with low-fidelity designs. In the past, we had created detailed, pixel-perfect designs and design documentation up front. But for these simple prototype designs, we instead convey the missing details through conversations and make our decisions collaboratively. One way in which we achieve this level of understanding is by assembling a cross-functional team—comprising a product manager, software engineer, test engineer, UX designer, and technical Scrum lead—then solving each design problem together during a design sprint, as in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Product-team members collaborating during a design sprint
Product-team members collaborating during a design sprint

As a result of our team-wide involvement, we successfully transferred product knowledge and captured the technical direction in the annotations we made to our design assets. We debated and agreed to workflows during a team conversation focusing on technical feasibility and scope.

Of course, we want the business to take advantage of the benefits that we’ve gleaned from prototypes of customers’ end-state experiences. To facilitate their adoption, we conduct usability tests on feature prototypes. During usability-test sessions, we validate our designs with real users and incorporate the insights that we gain into the product design prior to production. By defining metrics and setting goals for our UX research, we can track our progress between releases and make stop/go decisions before launch. In a continuous-integration environment, our prototypes become the focus of design reviews.

The Freedom to Take Risks

Critical to the success of Lean UX is having the freedom to raise concerns whenever necessary—not just during design reviews. Practitioners of Lean UX are responsible for solving the issue of communication between the business and engineering. Given that our problem statement is to figure out how to get these two disciplines to communicate more effectively and align on objectives, the team iterates through design solutions. We quickly prototype and test our design solutions, measure and analyze the results of our changes, and apply our learnings to the next iteration.

In cases where conflicts or collisions with other teams occur, the Scrum tech leader stands behind the product team, reminding the organization that, if our learnings reveal new risk or complexity, anything we implement is a short three weeks away from the next iteration.

Having proven itself over many iterations, the build-measure-learn cycle self-regulates. If an estimate proves to be wrong or an iteration falls short of its original number of user-story cards, we can correct course quickly.

The Bottom Line

The benefits of Lean UX are not limited to next-generation product teams. The drive to reduce both technical and design debt, transfer knowledge across teams, improve performance, and ship user-centered products has become a shared value across our organization. By broadening the application of Lean principles to disciplines that in the past might have been seen as bottlenecks—such as UX design—our team-wide collaborative approach has helped drive Lean outcomes.

If your product team has had a successful experience with Lean UX or collaborative design, please share your story in the comments. 

User Experience Engineer at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland / Akron, Ohio, USA

Rachel Wilkins PatelRachel is a User Experience Engineer at Rockwell Automation, the world’s largest creator of industrial-automation and information products, whose flagship brands Allen-Bradley and Rockwell Software have been recognized for their innovation and excellence. She leads interaction, performance design, and UX strategy initiatives for engineering and product teams. Rachel has spent the past decade creating, cultivating, and working in agile communities globally. She promotes collaborative engineering as a vehicle for increasing quality and productivity within teams.  Read More

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