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

“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 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.” 

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