Agile development and User Centered Design: get the foundations right

In my experience, rapid development is not a bad thing at all - if it comes embedded in a well-managed project with well-defined strategy and scope.

house_foundationsThere has been lots of discussion in the UX community about the compatibility or not of  Agile development and the principles of user centered design. The fact that developers are aiming to produce something fast in small iterations can have a scary note to it - best captured in Alan Cooper's book  The Inmates are running the Asylum.

In my experience, rapid development is not a bad thing at all - if it comes embedded in a well-managed project with well-defined strategy and scope.

I first came across "Agile" when I worked for a software company in California (Niku, now part of Computer Associates). After the burst of the bubble and a couple of rounds of lay-offs, the CEO went around distributing copies of Extreme Programming. This happened in an organisation that had had a PMO (gone), Product Managers (gone), Marketing (almost gone), and a full-blown web development team with producers, usability engineers, designers and front-end developers (only 3 remained).

The result was quite astonishing: development was streamlined with automated nightly builds (no more: "but it worked on my machine"), usability issues where addressed on the fly and tested with whoever happened to walk down the hallway, and most importantly, customer requests were prioritized and features added or dropped based on their needs. As a result, we were able to get a number of releases out in record time while working in very tight collaboration amongst ourselves and with our clients.

A couple of things played in favor of  such an agile development effort:

  • Small teams
  • Senior and experienced people
  • A general roadmap and strategy in place
  • UI patterns well defined and documented

However, in order to have a  roadmap and strategy in place as well as a well-defined concept, the mantra of "doing your homework first" is more valid than ever:

  • Research user needs and context
  • Evaluate competitive landscape
  • Assess business goals and objectives and
  • Create an overall concept in form of sitemap, process flows, wireframes, etc..

As with building a house, you want to get the foundations right - or any extension done later on will look like the picture above!

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About the author

Julia Borkenhagen
Julia Borkenhagen

Julia is a certified usability analyst by HFI (Human Factors International) with over 15 years of experience in user research, interface design, usability testing and project management.
Prior to joining blue-infinity, Julia worked several years for the San Francisco based agency Digitas on the account and as the lead web producer for NIKU, now CA Technologies.
Julia has been with blue-infinity since 2005 and is leading our in-house User Experience practice.