Understanding UX Design for Agile Environments

Understanding UX Design for Agile Environments
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You want to implement a rapid, iterative design process that scales, but what does that mean?


When most people think of user experience (UX) design, they usually imagine the step of building only the user interface on top of pre-existing back-end functionality. Yes, that is part of the process! But “making it pretty” is, in fact, the last step in a complex UX design process. The user experience is much more than what you see on the surface.

Understanding the importance and complexity of UX design is fundamental in moving your organization toward an agile design process. UX design is not just creating the end user interface; multiple steps must be included in each iteration to build usable products in a fast-paced environment.

I think of UX design as composed of four main steps: research, synthesis, define and design.

Other UX designers might have a slightly different take on what to call these steps, but most of us follow the same general approach. So what does each of these steps entail?


Research is the foundation of user design


Remember, product designers create digital solutions that solve both business and user problems, and research is the key to understanding what those problems are. Research gives designers the facts you need to back up their design choices. When you take the time to understand the landscape you’re working in and to research the market, that knowledge leads to more fruitful discussions with end users and business stakeholders. 

So what does research mean in terms of what’s best for the business? First, always identify the decision makers and key stakeholders in the project. Ask each person to describe the problem they’re trying to solve, and how they would measure the success of the deliverable. The more cooperative this process is, the more it will help you pinpoint and prioritize the needs of the business.

More importantly, though, research should focus on the end user. For example, the business stakeholders might identify that they need to build a better control center app, but the user herself should be at the center of design decisions. If the control center operator is spending most of her time working in a dark room, it makes sense that building a dark mode option should be a requirement. User interviews, surveys, and focus groups can be leveraged to gather quality data on end users.

If the budget you’re working with is low, there are still ways to conduct high-quality UX research. As with every other step in the UX design process, research is one that you shouldn’t skip.


Synthesize learnings and insights


You’ve done the research, great! Now what? This is where the next step begins. 

At this point, you probably have a lot of words. But how do you take those words—those pages of text you gathered through discussions with stakeholders and user interviews—and turn them into something that everyone involved in the project, from developers to executives, can easily understand and will help drive the project forward?

Summarize interviews

This is where the user experience starts to really happen! Review the feedback you collected through your user interviews and summarize what you learned. What is the two- to three-sentence version that will help executives understand the takeaway? Creating interview summaries will give you an internal marketing tool and help your team to identify commonalities across all interviews. Common themes provide the guidance you need to identify a direction for development.

Create user personas

Depending on the project, you might have one persona or multiple. A persona is not a single person, but rather a collection of people whom you’ve interviewed who have similar pain points, concerns, and motivators. Wrapping up these shared needs in a single persona provides a touchpoint across departments regarding features. The persona not only helps guide your UX team in design, but also it provides the marketing and sales teams with clear answers to specific customer pain points.

Map the customer journey

The cool thing about having a user persona is that you can take that persona through real-life scenarios to create a customer journey. A customer journey visually lays out all the steps and considerations that customers go through in accomplishing a specific task. It takes the task out of the abstract and makes it concrete. When you’ve arrived at this point, it’s time to gather all the stakeholders together again to review the materials, identify any gaps, and come to a consensus on what you are building. 

What is an example of a customer journey? One might start with the question “What are all the physical and mental steps a customer takes when picking a paint color?” What might this look like within the context of an actual store floor plan? From the time the customer walks in the door until the time they leave with paint in hand, a customer journey helps to highlight where development or modification of a product like an app would be beneficial to both customer and business.

Define the work

Now that you know what you’re developing and for whom you’re developing it, it’s time to break down the project into the actual deliverables. That is best done through creating detailed definitions of user tasks and user workflows, and mapping out the relationship between these definitions.

Defining user tasks includes detailing the actions they take as part of the task and the goals they want to achieve. These tasks will inform your feature set.

Similarly, creating user workflows by defining the steps they need to accomplish their goals and the decision points in that process, in turn, helps identify the pages and content you’ll need to build.

You can then group this information into categories in a site map. This will allow you to visualize the information architecture and will assist the team in planning and prioritizing development of the application structure.


Design time!


This is the final step in UX design, and the one that most people think of when they hear the phrase “user experience.” 

For most projects, design starts in black and white, using simple wireframes. Limiting the color palette to black and white helps remove style distractions and instead helps evaluators focus on answering questions like, Is this the correct data? Does this placement work for you? Are these the correct actions and workflow? 

Once the usability of the product is verified, you can focus on colors, font, and other aesthetic choices. And don’t forget to create or edit a style guide for the product! Style guides help keep the design consistent through future iterations.


How do you make this process part of your agile development framework?


The most important thing is to not think of any of these steps as optional. Incorporating every one as a necessary component in an aggregate “UX Design process” that is then followed for each agile iteration is the key. If we consider the original four steps from above and position each step accordingly, the UX design process now looks like more like a virtuous cycle.


in which the outcome of the previous iteration can be used as a starting point for research in the next iteration. This allows for rapid, robust development that doesn’t break the framework. And each iteration might take more or less time than the one before, but it is important not to leave out any of the steps. UX design is more than what the end user sees. It’s exactly as its name implies—a full user experience.

Alice Toth

Alice Toth

Principal Designer

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