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Integrating UX Design into Agile Software Development: Meeting Marketplace Demands as a Leader

By Jeff Gothelf

UX asked Jeff Gothelf to share his thoughts about leadership in incorporating UX design into Agile software development. Here, in edited form, is his response.

After three and a half years as director of User Experience (UX) at TheLadders, I was asked to lead my UX team’s integration into an Agile development process. In that task, I took a hard look at the way we were currently working and how this matched with our organization’s needs. I also looked at the way the technology products marketplace was working.

The speed and frequency with which software products are getting to market has increased dramatically from years to a matter of months, or in some extreme cases, to weeks. Companies that are accustomed to long development-and-release cycles are being disrupted by smaller companies that are willing to validate their business models with significantly fewer feature-rich products.

The project management tool Basecamp (basecamphq.com) is a good example. Their developers took a look at the feature bloat, the software platform, and the long release cycles of something like Microsoft Project, and re-imagined its most useful features—and only those features—in a web-based offering. The result has been wildly successful. Basecamp’s developers constantly adjust in frequent iterations of design, updating their product based on real customer feedback.

Becoming a Leader
After hypothesizing and refining several different approaches to the integration of the organization’s development needs with marketplace demands, it became clear to me that simply shifting the way the UX team worked was not enough.

Agile and UX integrations typically start by trying to cram everything the UX team is doing, pre-Agile, into the shorter time frames (often just two weeks long) of the sprint. This approach usually fails because there simply is not enough time to go through the entire UX toolkit with the full depth previously allowed by a waterfall project or a longer iterative design schedule.

Instead, team members (that is, from both software engineering and UX design) need to focus on how better to communicate with each other to reduce their reliance on highly detailed documentation. The specifications and other traditional deliverables take too much time to produce and require many signatures before others on the team, never having read the documentation, can even begin their work. This approach simply does not compute.

Our entire development team culture (again, comprising both software engineering and UX design) had to adjust—to be more inclusive, collaborative, and transparent. Agile adoption requires a shift in the organizational mindset towards a product-development philosophy more than just another methodology. By accepting a level of comfort with the ambiguity of Agile’s short- to mid-term window of visibility, the organization becomes much more flexible and, thus, able to react to market feedback and, consequently, to unexpected changes. If the product development organization has bought in on Agile, but management is still making waterfall-style demands, the clash will cause the project to fail. The entire company must agree to work this way.

By bringing these ideas to the organization as a whole, at the company level (that is, involving business management, engineering, and marketing), I was able to get buy-in from them for this cross-functional, transparent philosophy while securing a seat at the management table, as not only a UX and design leader, but as a process and organization leader.

Taking It On the Road
I have been given permission to make a presentation about leadership in Agile UX design based on my company’s experience, which I plan to give at conferences. My introduction to Agile UX began with a significant amount of research, including interviewing others who had tried to integrate UX and Agile. I spoke with people at Salesforce.com, Wal-Mart.com, Citrix, Liquidnet, and Wireless Generation, all of which came recommended as companies that had succeeded with such integration.

The insight the people at these companies provided was tremendously helpful in giving me a direction, and I built on the details from those conversations. Some felt they had succeeded, and others felt they failed. All of their ideas were valuable. The integration of Agile UX was, in itself, a highly iterative learn/fail/iterate effort that revealed itself gradually.

In my current presentation about my experience, I share what I have learned with UX and design team leaders and organizational leaders who are currently navigating Agile transformations. Almost all individual contributors, managers, and leaders who are seeking a more collaborative workplace, and a changed relationship with their colleagues, stand to learn some useful ideas. The current version of my presentation is located at slideshare.net/jgothelf. The presentation, just like the philosophy, is a work in progress. I welcome feedback. That’s the Agile way.UX

Jeff Gothelf is author of the upcoming book Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business (O’Reilly, 2012). He has recently founded a product design and innovation studio in New York City called Proof. In past roles, including as director of User Experience at TheLadders.com, he gained extensive experience as an interaction designer, Agile practitioner, user experience team leader, and blogger.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2, 2012.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2012-2.html.

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