Are we there yet? 3 years in agile design

Posted in: Agile, Design

It’s been almost 3 years since I joined the University of Bath digital team and, despite committing wholly to the agile workflow, I’m still struggling to reconcile certain aspects of our working practice with the freelance life I left behind.

As a designer with almost 20 years of experience and weened on a thoroughly waterfall design process the thought of handing over ‘unfinished’ work to a stakeholder is still an uncomfortable one.

How good were The Good Old Days?

In ‘The Good Old Days’ done meant done.

As an interactive designer I’d often be tasked with producing dozens of pixel-perfect page designs illustrating every conceivable content type, state and variant. These layouts were honed, polished, considered works-of-art (at least in my mind).

And these designs were considered final. The end of the design process. I was done. These static snapshots of a site were then presented to project stakeholders as a fait accompli.

“Do you like the design? This is what your site will look like”
“Yes. It looks great.”
“Wonderful. Summon the developers - we have a site to build!”

The Minimum Viable Product

In the Digital team, we use agile methodologies when designing and developing. In basic terms, this means that we are constantly iterating, improving and updating small, discreet elements of our designs based on feedback.

The upshot of this is that the first version, the thing you launch, the live site, is not perfect. In fact it never will be.

The MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a base-level, functional version that lets the user do what they need to complete a task or locate a piece of information. For a designer, used to polishing a design within an inch of its life before letting anyone see it, the MVP is a rude awakening.

Things aren't perfect, they aren't the best they could be. They most certainly aren't finished. However they do meet the users needs for a functional, viable experience.

The lack of control still makes me feel nervous but designing for a specific user need has changed the way I think about my work.

Just ship it…

It can sometimes seem like an agile project has no plan, no overall vision for the end result.

From a design perspective, this can be frustrating when working on the conceptual elements of a design. Trying to get a grip on what *everything* looks like and how it holds together can be tricky when working on a single aspect of an interface component or tiny piece of functionality in seeming isolation.

The understanding of when an MVP can be described as viable is a skill in itself. The PO (Product owner) holds the product vision and is the arbiter of 'ready' - they say if a component, a template or a feature is in a position to ship.

And shipping happens as often as possible. One of the basic tenets of agile is that we look to get things in front of real users as quickly as possible. Any feedback the users provide is then used to refine or create further user stories to iterate on the previous work and make it better.

I may not have my pixel perfection but I do have real, genuine data from those on the coal-face using the things I have designed.

Caring (for your users) is sharing (with your users)

Putting things in front of people is still scary after all this time. No-one likes criticism. We certainly don’t like watching anything we have worked hard on fail.

The flip-side of this is that user-testing is a liberating, eye-opening experience for any designer. Watching a user struggle to find your meticulously crafted call-to-action or swiftly complete a complex multi-stage task brings you closer to your users.

I love this new-found connection with the end users of the products and services I design.

The MVP of embracing agile…

… is an awkward hug with good intentions.

Learning to embrace agile has certainly been a challenge. Three years in and my user stories could always be better, my fear of bad feedback has only slightly diminished and my frustrations at shipping something that (I think) looks like a dog has chewed it a bit have not abated.

However, the openness of communication and the interaction with the people who use the things I make on a day-to-day basis have meant that I believe my design skills have improved immeasurably.

Maybe it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

Posted in: Agile, Design

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