Successful technology firms have been using agile methodologies to streamline and energize their processes for the past two decades. Overall, these firms are engaging in a worthwhile endeavor. The latest Standish Group Chaos Study shows agile projects are twice as likely to succeed as traditionally-managed projects.
In a methodology that is explicitly geared towards the customer, UX research assumes a critical role – allowing development teams to solicit feedback on functionality and usability from end users. But in practice, time constraints and communication issues mean UX research often suffers within an agile framework. Those difficulties are magnified for UX researchers operating as third-party outsourcers. Many clients still view these operators as service providers rather than team members and are reluctant to accept feedback that fundamentally impacts the project.
“Everyone says they work with agile methodologies but few companies have fully implemented them,” said Jackie Benítez, senior UX researcher at Puntolab, a digital consulting agency with offices in Mexico City. “When you are adapting the process toward an investigation it can be a little complicated. Often clients have big aims for the investigation that cannot be met in a two-week sprint.”
When UX Research Gets Left Behind
Agile practices were popularized by the publication of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in 2001. The methodology differs from the traditional, or Waterfall, project management style by encouraging short cycles and constant adaption. Agile thinking forms the basis of the now-ubiquitous scrum software development framework. This model blends the planning, building, testing and reviewing stages into a single cycle or sprint, which typically lasts between one and three weeks. The scrum framework is widely credited with facilitating the development of better-quality products that more closely align with the requirements of end users.
UX research serves a vital role within scrum, adding insight to the design process. Without functionality in mind from the outset, developers risk building software riddled with pain points that confuse and frustrate the final user. However, to successfully implement an agile methodology, teams often neglect UX research due to time constraints imposed by the scrum framework. With developers rushing ahead on sprints, customer research is frequently left until the end of the process, when it becomes a simple exercise in validating the team’s preconceived ideas.
Nevertheless, Brenn Hill, the director of software engineering at the technology firm Wizeline, said no friction should exist between UX research and agile frameworks.
“All of the major agile systems out there have someone that represents the customer, for example, the product owner… That person should either be doing UX research or working with UX researchers as part of the agile process,” Hill said. “Agile is a very broad concept… and there is absolutely nothing about scrum that prevents or interferes with UX research.”
Hill argued that successful UX research could and should be executed within an agile framework such as scrum.
“There’s nothing that says UX research can’t work on issues ahead of the current development team,” Hill said. [UX researchers] could work on [separate] issues while the engineering team is working on tasks that have already been thoroughly fleshed out and tested and researched.”
Addressing Company Culture
Benítez said that time constraints within an agile framework tend to exacerbate the long-standing issue of incoherent design. While evidence for the business value of strong UX is overwhelming, many companies still see design as an add-on rather than an integral part of the process.
“Many times, design is discussed at the end of the decision-making process,” Benítez said. “Design is not there in the discussion from the beginning.”
Integrating UX research into an agile framework can be even more difficult when the investigators are operating in the Nearshore. Clients typically view third-party outsourcers as a service and may be unwilling to adapt to their feedback.
“Communication is key,” Benítez said. “In the end, we are part of the project. Even for a short time, we are part of the team.”
But Hill sees no reason why working with an external team should complicate the process of integrating UX research within a healthy agile framework
“I still think it’s company culture,” he said. “I’ve been in companies where everyone is in the same room and they still have a bad job communicating and I’ve been in completely distributed remote teams where everyone gets along great and we’re very efficient. A lot of the time I think that remote work isn’t the problem – it just reveals the problems.”
Hill argued that successful UX research and agile methodology were both dependent on the broader corporate culture. Without excellent communication and empowered teams, neither process would work.
“if you have a hyper-hierarchical culture where someone just gives an order on what needs to be done and they don’t want any feedback then a process that depends on feedback is going to struggle,” Hill said. “Do you have a company that allows that process to thrive or not?”
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