10 Tips for UX Success from Agile Practitioners

Earlier this year, the Nielsen Norman Group asked Agile practitioners at a UX conference to share tips that have contributed to the success of their Agile projects. They received 125 responses from professionals that worked in various-size companies and held different job responsibilities, ranging from UX designers and developers to product owners and project managers. Here are the most popular techniques reported by Agile professionals:

  1. Spending time at the start of projects to properly plan for releases is worth the investment. Successful Agile practitioners shared that they “Place more effort in planning, design, and specification.” and being “involved at the earliest stage.”Collaborating with stakeholders from the beginning allows teams to develop a shared understanding and a common vision for their projects. Some teams employ story mapping during release planning to help stakeholders collaborate with other team members in creating the product backlog. This activity often uncovers new opportunities and helps teams group and prioritize user stories.UX involvement in release planning keeps the focus on the broader context, identifies knowledge gaps that require future research, and gathers information (e.g., by running appropriate user studies) to inform team decisions before the project begins. When teams allocate time for discovery work and research at the beginning, they reduce wasted effort later on.
  1. Conduct UX activities ahead of the sprint. You cannot develop and test a feature while you are conducting research, designing and testing it. The UX research and design must be completed before the development and testing begins. Experts shared to “give yourself time to do thorough user research and test your designs.” “Make sure to design as much upfront so you can prototype and test concepts before development needs to start.” And they found that having “mockups ready for sprint planning” was a big advantage.Working ahead of the development stream gives organizations time to think through and test assumptions with real users. Staying ahead allows the entire team to review mockups and identify potential issues before the design of that feature is ready for the sprint.The size and complexity of the project affects how far ahead of development UX designers should work.
  1. Cultivate a collaborative culture. Soft skills can hold the keys to success in Agile projects. The respondents identified healthy collaboration as a main factor in success. This finding is not surprising; after all, in the Agile Manifesto, individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools. Good communication is essential in any software-development organization, whatever its process methodology. However, collaboration is even more important in Agile settings, where delivery times are short and time-boxed. Some organizations chose design-thinking techniques such as ideation and brainstorming to encourage discussion and tear down silos that often block effective communication and teamwork.
  1. Think iteration, not perfection. Start with low-fidelity prototypes (sketches, wireframes) and iterate based on user and customer feedback. In other words, fail fast, fail often. “Work in low fidelity as long as possible to keep aesthetics out of it.” “Don’t try to be perfect.” “Iterate and test often.”Wireframing is a natural fit for Agile processes because it allows team members to test their design ideas quickly, before investing too much effort and time. Design flaws caught early on are much easier to correct than those discovered after the feature has been coded.
  2. Participate in scrum meetings. Scrum meetings are typically held at the same time each day and time-boxed for 15 minutes. The main intent of scrum meetings is to keep everyone on the team updated on progress and recognize impediments that need to be removed. A “Daily quick status meetings to keep everyone on task.”People sometimes object to daily scrum meetings, because, together with all the other meetings for grooming and planning, demos, and retrospectives, they eat up precious work time. However, the results from this survey reveal that this ritual is useful in keeping the team updated and synchronized so it can respond to change, as necessary.
  3. Turn user research into team-driven events. Practitioners reported usability testing as a positive factor in team-building and influencing decisions. Even with compressed schedules, Agile teams are able to incorporate user research into their process. This finding dispels the myth that user testing is too time consuming or expensive. Teams are making it work: weekly user testing like “Testing Tuesdays” are one possible approach.The expert shared that to “Be sure that all stakeholders are present at research sessions.” And “Presenting hard [user] data has swayed decisions.” Also, “Have developers and product owners participate or observe usability sessions.” Making design decisions together based on user data, rather than opinion or untested assumptions, propels teams forward more quickly.
  4. Secure strong stakeholder engagement. Practitioners emphasized the importance of stakeholder involvement at critical points. This notion is consistent with Agile principles: Value customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Contracts are important and useful, but when they get in the way of effective collaboration, they impede progress.Organizations applied different strategies for collaborating with stakeholders. The techniques used range from assembling a core leadership team early and partnering key UX members with clients, to inviting clients to user-testing sessions and to giving high-level presentations frequently. Practitioners shared to “Have continuous conversations with stakeholders and engineers.” And “Engage leadership in every major step of the project with big-scenario presentations (5-10 minutes).”
  5. Set explicit roles and responsibilities. For Agile to work effectively, members need to know what is expected and what falls within their realm of influence. Practitioners suggest to “Run sharing sessions with the product owner, client, and users about Agile processes and what is expected from them.” And “Have a separate scrum master and product owner.” And “Be aware of how your development team works.”In traditional Agile methods, team composition and roles are fairly defined, except for user-experience practitioners. In fact, traditional Scrum teams don’t include UX. Since UX roles and processes might be new or feel unfamiliar to other team members, it is especially important to set expectations and help people think about user experience in the context of Agile.
  6. Host training and onboarding sessions. Agile team members emphasized the importance of educating clients, new team members, and outside teams on the adopted Agile UX processes like “Hold ‘Lunch and Learn’ to helps others understand the process.” “Have cross-functional training sessions.” and “Offer small chunks of guidelines or best practices, and explain WHY they are so.”Training offers an opportunity to educate staff on the accepted UX and Agile practices. Agile provides a framework for delivering products, but how UX is integrated in this framework will vary across organizations or teams.
  7. Modify your method until it works. As Agile teams mature, they experiment more with different Agile and UX techniques and tailor them to match their environment. Practitioners shared “We continuously review each aspect of Agile and modify it if it’s not working. Retrospectives and project postmortems are great help.” and “Educate the team on most Agile methodologies. Let them decide which elements from each to use. Since teams are self-organizing, they should decide what’s best for their process. They own it.”Agile provides a framework for structuring your work, but does not dictate how to run your project. It encourages teams to be self-organizing, reflect on ways to work more effectively, and adapt as necessary to pare away unneeded complexity.Advanced software-development teams are becoming more multidisciplinary and fluid than ever before. Successful teams often take hybrid approaches. Agile and UX methodologies were invented in response to the pitfalls of traditional methods. Both Agile and UX methodologies have its merits and can work together if we place less emphasis on the rules and more focus on the outcome.