At the APLN Leadership Summit I was fortunate enough to attend a track led by Arlen Bankston and Jeff Patton that discussed some of the patterns and practices that are beginning to emerge for incorporating user experience into the agile process. One of these that I found particularly refreshing, and common sense, was the notion of using parallel tracks of development between the usability folks and the development team. Far from the stern warnings of “big design up front” that are proscribed by agile methods, this practice is lightweight, rapid and allows for the development team to hit the ground running with a well designed interface to code to when the sprint begins.
Parallel tracks basically tells your usability team to stay 1-2 sprints ahead of your development team. During this period, they are doing paper prototyping, interviewing users, creating personas, developing scenarios and rapidly iterating on rough mockups of the design with actual users to discover usability bugs. After a sprint of prototyping and developing, the usability team has a conversation with the development team about the stories that are going to occur in the next sprint. The stories are sized and negotiated between the product owner, the designer and the developer.
For example, A developer might point out that what would be a 13 point story for a search interface design, for instance, might be accomplished in only 3 points with a couple tweaks. This meeting might be called a product definition meeting, and could occur a day or so ahead of the sprint planning to give the design team a chance to change the design after the developer feedback. The development team then develops against the design for the next sprint. Meanwhile the design team is busy preparing the next top eight or so stories from the backlog that the team threw into their next two sprint’s lookahead plan. If the development team had delivered any functionality from the previous sprint, the user experience team can start engage in user testing on those stories.
This approach was discussed in an article by Desiree Sy who used this process at a company called Alias, which is now AutoDesk. I have a crude drawing of the approach described in the article, shown below:
Since we were in a modified Open Space format, there was a fair bit of anecdotal confirmation from practitioners attending about the value in this approach. The fascinating thing was that for the individuals in the room, some with many years of scrum experience, you could see there was almost a visible sigh of relief, as they realized that others were using this practice, and that it wasn’t “wrong”. However, as it worked with many teams who had not previously read about this approach, it is looking promising as an emerging best practice.
One of the reasons I believe that this method is consistent with the agile approach, is that if you consider the usability and user interaction designers as strongly allied to the product owner teams, they are actually using a common best practice which is to keep a backlog that is well groomed for the next few sprints. A good user interface design, far from being a cast in stone user specification, can be a tool that can demonstrate more succinctly the user’s goals and value from a system than words can.
Another reason I think it might work to produce really good user experiences, and I’m thankful to Arlen for this insight, is that it allows the design team to employ a type of set based design, where a number of options for the interface can be simultaneously explored at once, to create innovative designs, rather than the single simplest design that could possibly work. While this is a good practice for backend architectures, evolutionary design can only take a mediocre design to an OK design. To create compelling user experiences, you need to start from a good or great design and iterate to make it better.
This practice, taken with the other 12 practices that Jeff recommends can integrate more successfully with usability teams and create the kind of user interfaces that customers are now demanding.