Keeping Your Clients Happy When Doing Agile Development

August 12, 2019

If you use—or want to start using—an agile-development process, you probably already know its benefits, but you might not be as aware of one of its main drawbacks. Even though 46% of US organizations and 85% internationally report that they’ve used an agile approach within the past year, communicating your agile process to clients remains a challenge.

Specifically, the problem is bridging the gap between clients’ expectations of the process and the way agile really works. But overcoming this difficulty is well worth the effort if you wind up with a first-rate product and a fully satisfied client.

Of course, some clients are already quite familiar with how agile works. However, for those who aren’t—and whose previous experience was with waterfall product-development approaches—explaining the process and merits of agile can be tough. Sure, your clients might know some agile buzzwords, be familiar with some of the tools, or know the importance of meetings to the agile process. However, it’s unlikely that they understand how agile actually works in practice.

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Therefore, when you’re kicking off a new agile project, your first order of business should be to try to assess your client’s knowledge of agile. Your clients need to understand the approach that developers and UX designers on your team are taking and feel included in the process. They might also have a strict timeline in mind for building a product.

The Project Triangle: Scope, Time, and Money

There is a tight relationship between the speed of production, a project’s scope, and its cost. People often describe these factors as the project triangle—summarizing this with the classic saying “Good, fast, or cheap—pick any two.” If you change any of these three variables, the others also need to budge. For example, on many software projects, time and cost are fixed, which means you must limit the scope.

However, once UX designers ideate, then prototype and test their ideas with users, a client or product manager often thinks of some possible new features that would increase the scope of the project. So the team and the client need to consider extending the timeline, increasing the budget, or cutting another feature to reduce the project’s scope to its original size. But this is easier said than done. Having an unclear project scope is one of the biggest roadblocks to using agile development.

4 Best Practices for Embracing Agile and Making Your Clients Happy

Communicating such issues effectively to your client in the midst of a project is challenging, so it’s useful to have some best practices to fall back on when you encounter the inevitable bumps in the road. Here are a few agile best practices to keep in mind that can help you keep communications with your clients on track.

1. Maintain an up-to-date product roadmap.

A product roadmap is critical to determining the scope of a project and the specifics of the project triangle. Most development organizations know that getting the roadmap right from the outset is well worth the significant time and expenditure that planning takes. The planning process must include all stakeholders and should not be rushed.

But just as important to maintaining a happy client in an agile-development context is ensuring that the roadmap stays current. Keeping the roadmap up-to-date lets you check on the team’s current velocity and progress toward deadlines and determine whether any factor of the project triangle has ballooned. If you find that a few extra features have crept into your roadmap, make sure the project still on schedule.

At such junctures, the roadmap can help facilitate discussions using a more agile approach, while still keeping in mind the timeline and budget. Of course, roadmaps can change—or even be seriously overhauled or tossed out entirely in favor of a new one—but you must consider changes in a conscious, careful way and with full transparency to your client. No one wants to be surprised by changes to the development roadmap.

2. Collaboratively prune the backlog.

If you’re following an agile process, you’re already using a ticket-tracking system to plan your sprints, write your epics, track your backlog of user stories, and perform other tasks. Often, you wind up with a growing backlog of enhancements, small tweaks, ambiguous feature requests, and more.

When you’re working with a client who is participating in the process of pruning the backlog, it can be difficult to get on the same page about what the team can finish, by what time, and for how much money.

But managing the backlog carefully—which means pruning back unnecessary features—is actually a great way of aligning yourself with your clients. Doing this requires having fully transparent, collaborative meetings with your client—meetings whose laser-focus is on the goals of building a high-quality product and launching on time and on budget.

3. Stay in contact through vision-alignment meetings.

Yeti has developed a unique version of agile development called applied agile. One of its main components is our use of vision-alignment meetings. These are scheduled meetings for the product-development team and stakeholders, which occur after a predetermined number of sprints.

The focus of these meetings with a larger group of decision makers is on reassessing the current roadmap and assessing the features that have already been implemented, as well as what’s up next for the project. The team can also reconsider the scope, cost, and timeline.

Such opportunities to carefully review a team’s work can be beneficial for discovering possible new features and discussing priorities with executives and decision makers. Because vision-alignment meetings happen at a regular frequency—without too much time elapsing between them—they let clients consider issues such as whether to deprioritize some existing features or establish a new product roadmap. These meetings also provide an opportunity to expand the timeline or budget, if necessary.

4. Hold retrospective meetings, too.

Other important, agile-process meetings are recurring, retrospective meetings. The primary purpose of these retrospectives is to allow the product-development team to discuss what’s working, what’s not working, and how to improve things, but the client is always welcome to attend. The intent of a retrospective is to produce action items the team can implement to improve the product-development process. In many cases, these meetings also help the team hone the scope, timeline, and cost triangle by saving time or reducing scope.

Over the course of several retrospective meetings, a team adopts multiple improvements that can have a synergistic effect. Thus, the overall positive effect of such changes is greater than the sum of the individual changes. Such improvements can take many forms. For example, we implemented a requirement that at least one developer from the client’s development team and one developer from our team would approve pull requests before merging them. Since everyone on both teams need not review new code, we can make progress more quickly, while still getting input from both teams.

Your Clients Should Love Agile

Agile development offers too many benefits to let the agile process get derailed by client misunderstandings and unfulfilled expectations. Fortunately, you can keep your clients in the loop if you follow the best practices I’ve outlined in this article. The key principles behind these best practices are collaboration and transparency. Within reason, always strive to keep your clients informed about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and why you think it will ultimately benefit the project.

Your goals probably include the development of features, but they can also include devoting resources to documentation, returning to and possibly updating the project roadmap, or making other changes. Of course, clients retain the option to leave some of the details to your team, but the channels of communication should always remain open.

Therefore, when you’re using an agile-development approach, keep your roadmap current, vigilantly prune your inevitably overgrown backlog of issues or nonessential features, and employ both vision-alignment and retrospective meetings. By consistently doing these simple things, you can ensure that your clients feel engaged and empowered and know that they’re a crucial part of the equation. This ensures your work stays agile—and that your clients stay happy. 

EVP of Technology and Founding Partner at Yeti LLC

San Francisco, California, USA

Rudy MutterRudy leads technology development at Yeti, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. A veteran software engineer, Rudy led development of the “Chelsea Handler: Gotta Go!” app, which was featured on the hit Netflix show “Chelsea Does.”  Read More

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