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Agile Development: Being Genuinely Interested in Other People

10-19-22 Natalie Lestini

Agile Development and user-centered thinking are not incompatible. In fact, two of the four pillars of the Agile Manifesto overlap perfectly with UX. In what is dubbed Agile UX, empathy and really listening to the needs of the stakeholders drives the process.

I remember a conversation I had with a colleague early in my career over the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” At first, we focused on the ethics of some of the lessons. Are you simply trying to sway people to your point of view? Are you, in effect, manipulating them? After some healthy conversation—and actually reading the book—I came to realize there are some salient truths in it that apply to my job as a project manager working to develop websites, software, and applications that people actually use.

One of the object lessons I can directly apply from this is to hone in on what another person is interested in, understanding that in turn they will genuinely feel valued. This is the empathetic person we all want to be, and it’s also applicable to what we build at Sparkbox on a daily basis. Simply put, listen to what the user wants and is interested in, and thereby find the value of your product.

Empathy is also compatible with Agile Development. Of the four Pillars of the Agile Manifesto, I think two really come into play when you keep the end user in mind:

  1. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  2. Responding to change over following a plan

Traditionally, customers were a part of the process only before development work started and then again when it was completed. In hindsight, this is so obviously incorrect and is a spectacular miss when it comes to understanding what really matters to the customer. Agile makes it much easier to keep the needs of the customer front and center. Effective, thoughtful change management is at the forefront of tapping into the experience of the audience you are trying to please.

Satisfy the Customer

How do you know if you’re actually delivering what the customer or end user is looking for in your product if you don’t always keep them at the forefront of what you are building?

Agile needs user interaction at every step of the process from the beginning to the end. This makes it easier for developers to address any changes that might arise to meet the customer’s needs. In other words, the requirements represent the true value to the end user. How do you know if what you are building is valuable? You make user-centered thinking a part of your Agile cycle.

Historically—and sometimes paradoxically—Agile teams have found it difficult to incorporate User Experience (UX) and Product Design into Agile. In fact, I’ve seen some Agile teams suggest that a product owner has all the information necessary to define the need for a feature. Yet no matter how effective the product owner may be, the detail about user needs should be coming from the user even if a little bit more time will be required to gather this information. So while Agile and the Manifesto leave more than enough room—in theory—to keep the user at the forefront, this doesn’t always happen.

I’ve found that a good portion of my role as a project manager is to be an advocate for keeping UX as a constant throughout the work. Being this proponent is easy to justify, as a core Agile Principle is: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer. ” This means if it isn’t valuable to the customer and how they use your product, then you don’t do it. Overproduction of features to meet a stakeholder promise—but one not needed by end users—is the Achilles heel of many projects.

Agile UX Process

So how do you fit UX into your workflow and have direct conversations with your clients or business owners about how important UX practitioners are to the process? You work to change the traditional mindset from big design up front and handoff to development, to an extremely collaborative process that involves UX and Product Design in the cycle that repeats with each sprint.

Agile process graphic starting with requirements, then to a loop of design, develop, and test, finally to deploy.

One of the easiest ways to underscore the importance of making UX a focus of the iterative work of the sprints is that it can be seen in the same light as building an accessible product. Accessibility isn’t an add-on or an afterthought, it’s part of the process of building and developing. In fact, user-centered thinking and accessibility go hand in hand—they are part of this same school of thought.

Make UX a Part of the Agile Team

It’s important that all parties understand that UX is a part of the DNA of a project: from kickoff to planning and into development, then as part of the iteration of development, and finally to QA. Most often, the small wins and changes in the ongoing build of the work are found by testing and validating with the UX team as part of the steps of the process.

The User Experience team’s goal is to constantly hone in on the features and design of the product that satisfies the needs of the end user, overcomes obstacles or pain points, and works to make the experience an enjoyable and valuable one.

Without the integration of UX it looks something like this:

The stakeholder tells you what they think they need, developers build and test it, and then the stakeholders review it. They may change their minds or find it to not be the best experience after all. This forces the team to go back to the beginning, or it could put pressure on engineering to figure out how to best give the client/product team what they think they now need.

With the integration of UX it could look something like this:

The project begins by working with UX specialists to define the vision and goals. The UX team goes through user-centered design tasks and iterates. They are testing stakeholders and users for input. Ideas of what is valuable are tested and iterated upon. UX delivers the results to the engineering team, and they build out what has been shown to be valuable. You repeat this process again and again. It’s the small iterative way of working throughout that proves out the best product, and the changes can be fast and nimble, saving time and money along the way.

The Power of the Process

The Agile Manifesto is clear in giving high priority to satisfying the customer. This is done through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. If it isn’t valuable, don’t do it. Contrary to what I have sometimes heard in different Agile environments, UX enhances and is a vital part of this Agile process.

If you give the UX team the support they need, involve them in the entire process, and trust them to work with the rest of the team to get the job done, you are able to minimize the work that need not be done.

​​Attention to technical detail and design enhances agility.

Keeping users and customers at the forefront of our minds results in a delightful experience. Continually paying attention to user-centered thinking enhances the entire team’s ability to pivot as you gather feedback and adjust course all along the way. And ultimately, even if you deliver a project on time and on budget, what does that really matter if you built something nobody actually wanted?

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