At the Nielsen Norman (NN/g) Usability Week (UX conference) in London, 2012 the topic of making UX work in an Agile product development environment was quite trending. Many professionals either still found themselves in a company where management did not quite understand the value of UX, or they struggled to fit UX into the product development lifecycle. We certainly had our challenges at that time, but overall I got the feeling that we were one of the few companies who managed to make it work. This was prior to the publication of Lean UX, which I believe helped a lot of companies to restructure and refine their UX processes.
The UX/UI team I managed in 2012 formed part of the larger Production Department of a Software Development Company. The Production team consisted of three development teams, a QA team, three Product Managers and two Software Engineers.We followed an Agile Product Development methodology and applied Pragmatic Marketing principles. All epics and user stories were documented, monitored and managed with Jira; while processes and and other valuable documentation were stored and managed using Confluence.
The UX team participated in daily stand-ups while I attended the Development and Product Management Scrums. Although Scrum involves a lot of meetings, it works very well in terms of coordinating teams and improving communication and collaboration. At our company, a group of iterations or sprints were referred to as a "train". Each train ended in a release. For a period of around 9 months, the UX team worked in staggered sprints. We never really managed to work in a "Sprint zero", but since the team was highly motivated and worked together well, we always managed to stay ahead of the Developers. While we were busy with the design work, the developers focused on reducing debt and fixing bugs. The following two images represent two versions of our trains.
The next illustration depicts what Desirée Sy (2007) originally coined as the "sprint zero" or "staggered sprint" technique. This process can create a kind of mini-waterfall process where designers and developers communicate by hand-off. This lead to unnecessary waste, creating documentation to describe what happened during the design sprints.
After 9 months we removed the UX/UI team from the train to work independent from the development sprint. At this point there had been some restructuring in the team and we were left with only an interaction designer and a usability specialist. Even though working outside the sprint suited the team very well, it is probably not my first choice for a larger, multidisciplinary UX team consisting of usability specialists, front-end developers, experience designers, interaction designers and content writers.
For Lean UX to work in Agile, the entire team must participate in all activities – stand-ups, retrospectives and brainstorming sessions. Besides negotiating the complexity of certain features, cross-functional participation allows designers and developers to create effective backlog prioritisation. In an integrated Lean UX and Agile process the entire team often works on the same thing at the same time.
Sy, D. 2007. Adapting usability investigations for Agile user-centered design, in Journal of Usability Studies, 2(3):112-132. http://www.upassoc.org/upa_publications/jus/2007may/agile-ucd.pdf.