Is Focusing on Agile or Lean Damaging the Practice of UX? Part 1

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A column by Janet M. Six
January 20, 2020

This month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses how development teams’ prioritizing the use of agile or Lean methodologies affects the practice of User Experience. Our panelists lament how the goal of speeding up development devalues UX research and design, leads to design inconsistencies, and encourages product-team members to take shortcuts. Agile and Lean’s focus on speed can also make it more difficult for product teams to keep the big picture in mind.

Some companies have even decided that their use of agile or Lean methodologies means they can reduce the number of UX designers and researchers working within their organization—or that they can even bypass UX research and design altogether. This is a big problem!

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range 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].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—Director at Edgerton Riley; UXmatters columnist
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Lead Designer at Citrix

Q: Do you find that the focus on agile or Lean UX is damaging the practice of UX design as a whole?—from a UXmatters reader

“Absolutely!” replies Steven. “Even more problematic, I rarely find a real quest for agile or Lean UX—or very much desire for agile or Lean product development. Instead, what I typically see is a push by business to chase productivity gains—being cheap and quick at the expense of all else, even though it means risking the future of their company.

“A lot of these issues arise because agile is not a process. It is a software-development methodology. How can you integrate User Experience into agile? As soon as you can tell me how to integrate Finance or Marketing or Legal into agile, I’ll talk to you about how to do agile User Experience. I have never seen a convincing agile UX process that involved doing any more than we already do!”

“There are no magic-bullet methodologies,” says Peter. “Those who lionize agile are as misguided as those who dismiss it. Like any approach to creating software, build on the good and work around the weaknesses—not only those of agile, but taking into account the organization and how it creates software.”

The Devaluation of UX Design

“Companies rarely do agile in ways that encompass the needs both of UX design and development,” answers Peter. “In principle, agile allows user feedback between sprints, enabling the UX designers to refine their design, but I have never seen this done effectively. In practice, product teams typically do development using older codebases, and it takes so long to implement designs that, as soon as implementation is complete, the product team needs to get to work on the next set of business requirements. In a worst-case scenario, UX design gets pushed out of the process altogether. The approach I’ve often taken is to work toward having the design cycle run a few weeks ahead of the build cycle, allowing time for research, prototyping, and testing, while liaising with developers throughout to ensure buildability.

“I think pursuing the art of design means following an appropriate UX design process that includes discovery and research activities,” says Andrew. “Agile tends to add pressure on UX professionals to abandon these steps in their process. You should not let this happen!”

“As far as User Experience goes, design typically gets devalued in clear, measurable ways long before product teams try to impose any methodology on the development process,” replies Steven. “I see this over and over again, with the vast majority of clients. Things such as not allowing sufficient time for design. Projects not go from a gleam in your eye to sprint planning in six hours. There are weeks or months of organizing, scoping, and fundraising. In that period, many things happen. Why can’t User Experience do some needs research, then build information architectures and draw entire user-interface specifications during that time? These activities might help prove—or disprove—the value of a product team’s ideas before development gets too far. At least, they would provide a design as the basis for the rest of their planning. I do this whenever possible—and even when it’s not allowed, I usually do this secretly anyway. But officially, this work all too often gets banned. But, even then, everyone still complains that UX research and design take too much time.

“One thing that really gets me about this is the assumption that, without close control, forcing UX professionals to follow a Lean or agile development process, we’ll all run off and spend a year or three designing, then throw our designs over the wall. I have never done that. Ever. Almost no one I know would ever advocate doing that.

“Because UX design is evidence driven, we must gather information first. The intrinsic nature of UX professionals is that we talk to product-team members working in other disciplines to gather information, get feedback, confirm our findings, and make sure everyone understands what the team is building and why. We talk a lot more than most engineers do and share our information all the time, so the reason for our bearing the brunt of gripes that we need to work better with others eludes me entirely.”

More Design Inconsistencies

“Yes!” exclaims Ritch. “Agile methods do have some key benefits such as breaking down problems into manageable chunks—within sprints—and setting up a competitive, efficient coding environment. However, at my company Ax-Stream, we recognize that the going-on-a-journey nature of agile, writing real code as you go, often leads to inconsistencies—or at least inefficiencies—in the UX design, as well as in the technical design. Significant design and development pivots are often necessary as a project progresses, as I recognized in my UXmatters article ‘Agile Problems, UX Solutions, Part 1: The Big Picture and Prototyping.’ >

“Likewise, Lean methods offer the key benefits of using design-thinking methods and hypothesis testing, as well as focusing on customer value. However, Lean often leads to taking shortcuts during the design process—in particular, a lack of rigor in usability testing. There is a tendency to move from concept to code too quickly, and even if the concept is sound, this undervalues the detailed design stage, when it is all too easy to introduce big design errors. My approach is to use a hybrid method that combines the best elements of Lean, agile, waterfall, and user-centered design (UCD).”

A Lack of Resources

“Most organizations I know have just one UX designer—sometimes, for the whole company,” remarks Steven. “Hardly ever does more than one UX designer get assigned to a project. Meanwhile, there might be as many as 500 developers hard at work on the same project. Not kidding. I routinely see 100:1 developer to designer ratios. This is a consequence of business leaders being cheapskates. The fraction of the budget they allocate for User Experience is minuscule, but everyone still nitpicks and wonders why we spend so much time on our work and bill so much. Then, they refuse to let us do research or buy better software tools, making everyone’s work worse.”

Sometimes There Is No Room for UX Design

“But back to the question about whether agile and Lean are ruining design?” continues Steven. “Yes. 1,000%. The quest for speed and cheapness means many product teams include no UX professionals at all—even those teams that previously included UX designers. While a company might hire UX professionals to create a design for the first version of a product, site, or app, the product team then keeps adding features with each new release, with no consideration for the design concepts.

“Engineering all too often ignores the designs we create, in small ways and large, and just build whatever they want. Companies that offer code frameworks frequently tout them as turnkey, out-of-the-box, off-the-shelf, no-design-required product-development solutions. So everything is buy instead of design and build. Product teams believe this, so we’re all getting a world of commoditized experiences. We’re losing the entire concept of designing products for the organization, for the users, for the brand.”

Steven recommends reading the following articles for more thoughts on agile:

A Sad State of Affairs

“What our experts are saying in this column is that, in many organizations—or perhaps even most organizations—the role of User Experience is actually devolving rather than improving or fulfilling its great potential,” acknowledges Pabini. “A failure to optimize user experiences represents a huge opportunity cost for the software-development companies that should be delivering great user experiences to their customers. This also explains why so many of the products we use are getting worse rather than better, as companies overload them with unnecessary features and break such basic functionality as tapping and text selection in the process. Unfortunately, this devolution is true even at what used to be some of the best companies for user experience, including Apple and Google. This is, indeed, a sad state of affairs, and there is no rational excuse for it. It’s just a matter of greed and destructive politics, which seem to be endemic these days.” 

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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