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Can opposites attract? Here's how to create an Agile UX team

Although seemingly at odds with each other, Agile and UX are moving inexorably closer. Expert Yvette Francino shows us they can come together.

Although Agile methodologies are primarily used by software developers, in order to truly maximize all the benefits of Agile, specialty roles, such as user experience (UX) professionals need to understand and collaborate closely with Agile teams. In fact, in some organizations, a UX professional would be a full-fledged member of a Scrum team. In others, the UX professional may not be dedicated to the team, but would still act as a subject matter expert to Agile teams. In this article, I'll look at some of the challenges, as well as some solutions, involved in creating a workable Agile UX team.

Agile development promotes developing code in thin vertical slices, creating end-to-end functionality for a single small function, or user story. This is in opposition to designing everything up front and developing horizontal layers, such as the user interface (UI) or front-end, middle-tier, and back-end database. Additionally, Agile encourages allowing requirements and design to emerge as more becomes known about the application.

Combining UX and Agile practices

However, UX designers like to understand the big picture up front before making recommendations about user interface. Agile teaches developers to produce the minimal viable product (MVP) and continue to refine the details later, which can frustrate the UX designer who can feel that the code will then drive the design of the UI rather than the UI being driven by what's most usable for the customer.

The UX designer works toward following the Agile principles of providing value to the customer by getting early and frequent feedback, while the development team may be coding without worrying about the details of the UI, feeling that can be adjusted later. However, if UI isn't being considered up front, it can be difficult to change it later to fit what a customer might prefer.

These differing perspectives, while both representing Agile values, can cause conflict between the UX designers and the development team, each thinking the other does not understand what it means to be truly Agile. UX designers feel that their work is not valued by the development team who, in their rush to develop the MVP, code in a manner that is easiest for them rather than considering what the UX designer, representing the customer, recommends. The developer may feel that details about the user interface are not important. For them, quality is typically measured by functionality not usability, but for the UX designer, quality is all about providing the user interface which best meets the customer's needs.

Involve UX designers as part of the Agile team

An additional challenge is that UX team members often are not considered part of the Agile team. UX designers may be part of a specialty team that provides input across several teams, but is not a regular member of a cross-functional Agile team. Without regular participation at the meetings where requirements are vetted for stories requiring UI design, a UX designer may not be brought into the loop until after coding has started. Developers often don't understand the role of the UX designer and may view their work as a way to put the finishing touches on the screens, rather than to be involved in designing the screens.

Although these can be tough challenges found in organizations new to Agile, more mature Agile teams have been finding success by having UX more involved in the Agile team.

UX designers who have found success from working in Agile environments attribute it to the improved communication and collaboration that is encouraged with Agile methods. Whether the UX designer is a dedicated team member or assigned to multiple teams, he is invited to any meetings and involved early in vetting out the requirements for user stories. In fact, the UX designer is working closely with the product owner to be sure they are in sync with upcoming stories requiring UX design well before any coding begins.

Effective UX pros become part of Agile process

"Effective UX professionals incorporate themselves in the Agile process by actively contributing ideas -- from backlog grooming and print planning to wireframing and user research," said Hoa Loranger, in her report Doing UX in an Agile World: Case Study Findings. "UX designers must plan activities before the sprint occurs, which means being proactive and testing assumptions and tackling designs ahead of the rest of the team. They conduct show-and-tell activities ahead of sprints to introduce concepts to users and team members so that, when development is ready to begin, the team has the designs that they need."

Other recommendations include the importance of conducting user research and validating designs. Lean UX techniques such as sketching, wireframing and paper prototyping can be used to demonstrate ideas and reduce documentation.

In the article "Setting standards for in-house app development and delivery," Bryan Barringer recommends the following for mobility applications:

"Organizations should assemble a mobility team to create a corporate style guide and set standards for user experience analysis. It can choose from application development methodologies such as Agile, Scrum or Lean UX, but it's important that every developer in the company is working off the same playbook."

UX team and developers need to agree on standards

The same would apply beyond mobility applications to any applications with a UI that will be viewed by a customer. The UX team needs to ensure that the development teams are aware and educated on agreed-upon standards to ensure the team ends up with an application with screens that have a common look and feel.

Mature Agile teams have found that when the UX team understands roles and responsibilities of all team members, has early involvement of UX, and works from an agreed-upon style guide, they can work together to provide a stronger product and provide both a positive user experience as well as the functionality that will add the most value to their customers.

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