Agile, Spiral, Lean, DevOps, and User Experience

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A column by Janet M. Six
May 17, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses whether UX designers still receive frequent requests for agile, or whether they’re now receiving more requests for spiral, Lean, or DevOps. Our panelists also explore whether the rise of these other methodologies has affected the UX designs they create.

Our experts first discuss what agile means and confront the reality that different organizations often implement agile in different ways. The panel then considers the impact of whether an organization implements agile across the entire company or only on individual teams. The root motivation for requesting agile, spiral, Lean, or DevOps is also important: why is the organization asking for a particular methodology? Is it really the methodology that the company wants or certain attributes of the resulting designs. Or maybe they request the methodology with the expectation that it would reduce the time or financial investment that would be necessary.

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Each month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our 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:

  • Leo Frishberg—Director of User Experience at athenahealth and Principal at Phase II
  • Jordan Julien—Founder and Design Strategist at Hostile Sheep
  • Yilmaz Kulahoglu—UX Lead at Saggezza
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Principal Product Designer at Citrix

Q: Is agile still a frequent request for UX designers or have other requests—such as spiral, Lean, or DevOps—replaced those for agile? How have changes in these requests affected the designs you create?—from a UXmatters reader

“The challenge of answering this question is agreeing on what the inquirer means by agile, request, and, I suppose, even frequent—not to mention affected the designs,” replies Leo. “I’ll break down my answer accordingly, as follows:

  1. Agile—The challenge with this term is that we don’t agree on what it means. There are aspects of agile that we might identify as generally accepted: short, two-week, three-week, or four-week iterations, or sprints, during which development teams are on the hook to complete some quantized bit of work; collections of these sprints for a release—and similarly, collections of these bits into epics. But development teams have consumed untold pints in arguing not only this broad-brush sketch of agile, but the details within it. In the almost 30 years I’ve been developing software, there has been a general drift toward the agile approach. The irony is that, from my perspective as a designer, not much has really changed. I still expect to do my design work in rapid, iterative explorations that improve my confidence in the approach I’m taking—whether identifying the problem space accurately or honing a solution that makes sense to the business, the development team, and our users. Does it matter to me what flavor of iteration the organization chooses to use when developing and releasing a design solution? Not so much. All of the alternatives the inquirer has mentioned are variants of delivery methods. I suggest that you review Alan Cooper’s keynote address to the Agile Summit in 2008 for his excellent summary of the problem and his suggestion that agile is an umbrella approach for all aspects of product discovery, definition, design, and delivery.
  2. Request—This is an interesting word. I’m wondering what it actually means in our reader’s context. I’m going to assume that it means, ‘as part of a job posting, the candidate has experience in and knowledge of [the agile, DevOps, or Lean] development process.’ Assuming this is true—and, based on my decomposition of agile, there is little cause for concern—UX design is orthogonal to the mode of delivery. We still need to do discovery and definition and that often takes far longer than a two-week sprint. In the context of Kanban, for example, it doesn’t matter how long an iteration takes and dependent tasks can’t proceed until you’ve completed the necessary preliminaries. Agile expects Product—and User Experience—to craft a Northstar and epics before work can begin, but remains silent on how that should happen. DevOps is all about continuous release, not about continuous discovery and definition.

“So, with these clarifications in place, I hope it becomes clear that, no matter what the organization defines as their release process, its relationship to User Experience remains relatively unchanged.”

SDLC Methodologies Vary by Organization

“You’re referring to several different Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) methodologies. Agile has been a popular methodology for a few decades,” answers Jordan. “With the popularization of experience design, product teams have asked experience designers to fit into various agile methods. Some agile methods include an experience-design sprint that occurs before any software-development sprints. Other agile methods include experience design in each sprint, allocating several days of experience design to plan out what the development team would complete over the remainder of the sprint.

“While other SDLC methodologies have increased in popularity, I’ve found that most organizations have accepted that SDLC methods vary from organization to organization. Even if an organization finds an experience designer who is familiar with agile or Lean, it’s unlikely they’ll be 100% familiar with the method the organization uses. So it’s generally better to focus on the specific skillsets and industry expertise that UX designers should have over their familiarity with any specific SDLC methodology.

“It’s important to note that the intent of SDLC methodologies is to improve the design and development process. If a software-development process is inhibiting your UX design process, you should talk with your product team about changing the process. Some UX designers have no problem designing a product component by component; others need to design a high-level concept for the entire product before breaking it down into detailed components. The process should be flexible enough to adapt to the way UX designers work. It should not be so rigid that UX designers must comply with a process—even if it negatively impacts their designs.”

Consistency Matters

“A software-development process won’t work effectively unless the entire product team follows it,” replies Andrew. “Design teams get frustrated because UX design and research are often an afterthought.

“As UX designers, we know that collaboration is vital. To collaborate effectively, Product Management, Engineering, and Design need to agree on what to build and when. In my experience, the UX team has been able to pivot and work with any software-development process. The specific process doesn’t seem to affect the quality of the design work directly, but it changes the planning. For example, milestones may be more granular or take more calendar time to complete.”

“Most projects that I’m involved in represent some form of agile process,” says Cory. “Sometimes a more flexible adaptation of agile, sometimes a bit less flexible approach, and sometimes such a super-rigid approach to agile methodology that it doesn’t make sense.”

What Was the Origin of the Request?

“Why are there different requests?” asks Yilmaz. “Putting spiral aside, the other three methodologies started as principles and mindsets. They all aim to give greater efficiency and speed to the software-development lifecycle, as opposed to the hierarchical, inflexible characteristics of waterfall. However, not all of these methodologies were put forth for producing software. Lean came from manufacturing, and agile uses a lot of Lean principles.

“Despite all of the similarities between these SDLCs—such as their emphasis on iterations—if an organization is dealing with a long and ever-growing project plan, it could be beneficial to consider a situation in which the spiral model replaces an agile method such as Scrum. Nevertheless, it is still safe to say that Lean, agile, and DevOps can coexist.

“Will agile always be around? Agile emerged as a manifesto and gave rise to many different methods. The problem with these methods is that they carry the risks of creating cookie-cutter applications and reductionism. Software systems, especially at the enterprise level, comprise interconnected parts. The reason agile works better at the team level and for small projects is the difficulty of maintaining a consistent vision when complexity keeps increasing because of the need to integrate all of the parts that create a holistic system. This explains why methodologies such as SAFe receive heavy criticism for having characteristics of a top-down waterfall approach. Scale issues are here to stay as our industry depends more and more on complex disciplines such as data science and artificial intelligence (AI). This dependency will probably force the evolution of agile into something else. As Jurgen Aleppo has said: ‘To survive, a system must have an internal model that reflects the variety it encounters in the world outside.’

“How do these changes affect design deliverables?” continues Yilmaz. “It is important to realize that in all of these mindsets and methodologies, there is an emphasis on eliminating silos through effective communication. Design deliverables should serve the needs of their audience and clearly communicate the intention of what a product is trying to be.

“One notable difference between the spiral model and agile is that, because the spiral model is a risk-driven model, it requires thorough documentation that refers to a previous point in the spiral. In contrast, agile prioritizes working software over comprehensive documentation. In this respect, following Lean UX principles would be very beneficial in an agile environment through what Jeff Gothelf describes as transient documents, which move the conversation to the next step rather than delivering the whole UX design up front.

“In the spiral model, the UX deliverable should clearly outline the assumptions, research findings, recommendations, and implementation decisions. The progression through and gaps between these four pillars can help reduce risk.

“No matter which software-development lifecycle methodology a team uses, UX maturity affects our design deliverables more than anything. If User Experience remains at the tactical level in an organization, typically there are no formalized, regular UX deliverables.” 

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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