June 13, 2022

How to better integrate Agile with HCD?

A group of four UX, HCD, and service design professionals are gathered around their desk working within Agile methodology.

If you are a product manager, UX or UI designer, service designer, software engineer, or a leader in tech, then you have undoubtedly heard of the Agile process. Most likely, you are already using it in your daily work to bring your websites and applications to life. 

These days, Agile is the gold standard of project management approaches for digital product and service development. Not only does it incorporate continuous improvement and iterative design (which ensures the product is feasible, usable, and desirable), but it also helps to de-risk product launches quickly while saving you time and money. With that being said, (and we know this might be an unpopular opinion) we feel that when it comes to successfully integrating Agile methodologies with human-centered design and UX, there is still much to be desired. Ultimately, if improperly managed, Agile can lead to creative burnout, retention issues, and ineffective designers. 

In this post, we will explain the Agile process at a high level and dive into the challenges we see when combining an inherently structured process (such as Agile) with an inherently messy and creative process like human-centered design. We’ll also give you our top six tips for avoiding these pitfalls and getting the best out of your designers and researchers (which will lead you to more innovative products and services!)


In this blog, we’ll cover:

  • What is the Agile process?
  • What is the creative process?
  • Common challenges that designers encounter with the Agile process
  • Top six tips for better integrating Agile with UX and service design


What is the Agile Process?

Before we can dive into all of the challenges we have with Agile, let’s first cover the broad strokes of “what is Agile”? Agile methodology is an approach to project management, typically used in software development. It takes a large project and breaks it into smaller tasks that team members complete iteratively over the course of many weeks and months. An Agile project is broken down into numerous sprints. A sprint refers to a short time-boxed period (usually a week) where development teams try to complete a set scope of work before the end of the sprint. Within a sprint, there are several Agile rituals used, including sprint planning, sprint retrospectives, daily standups, sprint reviews or demos, backlog grooming, and more. If you’re unfamiliar with the Agile approach and are looking for a detailed breakdown of each of these rituals, we think Agile Alliance does a great job!

All of these rituals (weekly and daily touchpoints) make for an iterative and highly-collaborative, yet structured, working environment. Compared to the traditional Waterfall software development process, which is very linear, taking an Agile approach will ensure that you (a) get to market faster, (b) are able to unblock your teams more quickly, (c) catch product and usability issues earlier, and (d) incorporate feedback from your users regularly to make for a better user experience in the long run.


What is the Creative Process?

The Agile approach, while great in many ways, is somewhat contradictory to the creative design process. Where Agile uses daily and weekly “rituals” to keep the team moving, the creative process is messy and somewhat unpredictable. 

Let’s dig in a bit more. The creative process is typically defined in four or five stages and involves preparation, incubation, illumination, verification, and execution. In this process, the designer or researcher takes in information (many different data points gathered from research) and then must actually step away from the work in order to let their subconscious mind percolate (incubation), until the “aha!” moment of inspiration occurs somewhat randomly. From there, they reflect, criticize, iterate, and play with their idea until they achieve something good (verification), and finally, they will execute and realize the idea into “a thing.” In the world of product and service development that “thing” could be a design artifact (aka a journey map or insights report) or wireframes and design concepts. UX designers, UX researchers, service designers, design researchers, design strategists, or UI designers will all go through the creative process one or many times during the lifecycle of a project.

So, the question becomes, how do you take this messy creative process and stuff it into the Agile box? Alas, this is the challenge!


Pitfalls and Drawbacks of Agile in HCD & UX

Now that we’ve explained the natural clash between the Agile process and the creative process, let’s discuss some of the tensions that arise in HCD and Agile teams. Look out for these pitfalls in your current digital product development projects, especially when working with a team of UX designers, researchers, and service designers.

    1. Creative burnout: Agile can have a negative impact on a designer’s ability to be creative for sustained periods of time. One of the cornerstones of the Agile process is the idea of working in one or two-week sprints. This means that for a long time (potentially eight or ten months), designers are required to produce new ideas and designs on a daily and weekly basis. While this schedule works well for development, creativity is not an endless well that can be drawn upon weekly. This pressure of “creating” every day and on-demand in time for sprint demos (held at the end of the sprint) can be exhausting and lead to designers feeling creatively tapped out. 
    2. Boredom or disinterest: Depending on the personality and strengths of your designer, the constant rituals and routines of Agile can make a creative person feel bored and even trapped! It sounds surprising, but over the years, we’ve had many designers ask to be removed from projects because they wanted a new challenge and were bored of the project with its weekly Agile routines. When designers become disinterested, the quality of work suffers along with their morale–hello, employee retention issues in a ruthless and competitive hiring market.
    3. Feeling like you need to report on or show your work in early discovery phases creates unnecessary work. In the early stages of the HCD process where your team is conducting discovery research, there isn’t always work to “show” or report on. In fact, the discovery phase (similar to the creative process) is also messy and it can take several weeks or even months to complete. However, in an Agile model, there is pressure to report on your accomplishments weekly –especially when the technical folks are speaking to user stories they finished developing that week. This means that your designers/researchers might be creating reports and summaries of work for the sake of showing it to the team, when in fact, the time it took for them to develop a report would have been better spent conducting more interviews or analyzing data.
    4. Too many meetings and checkpoints. AKA, meeting overkill. The beauty of Agile is that your team functions as one unit–completely in tune with each other and aware of what everyone is working on or struggling with. However, for some individuals, this can also be its downfall. Agile rituals include daily standups, weekly sprint planning sessions, weekly sprint reviews, and daily or weekly retrospectives, and require the constant availability of team members through collaboration tools like Slack, MS Teams, and Jira. This can create a lot of unnecessary touchpoints that can slow team members down.


Top six tips for better integrating Agile with UX and service design

To create the most innovative products and services, while also fueling your designer’s creativity, consider adapting some of the Agile rituals so they work better for your specific team and project. Here are our six tips for making Agile work for your designers.

1. Know your team.

Every designer and individual is different. Some will thrive in structured Agile environments, while others may struggle. Our first tip for adapting Agile to the HCD process is to understand the different personalities and strengths of your team members. For example, a service designer or UX strategist may love thinking about the big picture and thrive in the fuzzy front-end of design work. They love ambiguity and may shy away from the daily routines of Agile or get bored once the complexity of the work has been fleshed out. Other designers (who are more detail-oriented and focused on the micro) may work better under the pressure of weekly sprints. In fact, they may need the hard deadlines of Agile to force them to drop their procrastination and perfectionism.

Similarly, introverted or extroverted team members may feel differently about the number of team check-ins. Where an introverted team member may feel like they’re being forced to over-communicate, an extroverted person might love the frequent touchpoints. The point here is to spend some time getting to know your team members and consulting with them to make sure your Agile rituals will help them thrive. Specifically, ask your team whether a daily meeting is too much and if they would like one or two days a week to be meeting free. Or perhaps, designers don’t need to attend daily standups, instead, they could attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays only. You could also consider setting up and enforcing boundaries in Slack for when a person needs to have quiet “thinking” or “creating” time.


2. Break it down (especially for service designers)

Service design looks at challenges from a system perspective and often deals with challenges that have no-scope or that are ill-defined. Under ideal circumstances, service design and discovery research would take weeks and months to complete. One of the problems when it comes to integrating service design and Agile processes is that there is no weekly deliverable that exists in service design… in other words, you might take 4 weeks to analyze data without actually producing something tangible. Therefore, to better mould service design into the Agile process, you need to chunk it down. A good idea is to break down all of the research or service design activities into bite-sized steps that can be accomplished in one sprint. For example, a service designer might commit to creating a recruiting guide and emailing participants to schedule them for interviews in one sprint.


3. Reduce reporting or “show and tell” requirements in early stages

In the early stages of the design process, as we mentioned above, you may not have much to show. However, what you will have are interview protocols, recruiting scripts, survey questionnaires, ecosystem maps, etc. –but you may not have a wireframe or pretty UI design to present. In fact, when things are very fuzzy, you may not have much of anything because you’re just trying to digest and think about everything you heard and learned. It’s important to give your service designer grace in the beginning stages of the design process. Release the pressure of sharing work constantly. This will give them room for the creative problem-solving they need to do that ultimately leads to innovation! Note that your designer/researcher may not have much to show at your sprint demo. This isn’t because they’re being lazy, but actually, because they are percolating, forming ideas, and framing concepts that aren’t ready to be presented to the group yet.


4. Choose your own adventure

Agile is not a one-size-fits-all solution. A great thing about Agile is that through the numerous rituals and principles, it’s possible to create a schedule and structure that works for your team, even if it isn’t 100% following the true Agile methodology. For example, you can determine whether a 1-week sprint or a 2-week sprint works better, and decide with your team on the frequency and format of your check-ins and standups (e.g. daily team standups or Slack check-ins). Through knowing your team, you can choose what will help make your project a success.


5. Adapt rituals based on the phases of the project

As we mentioned, the creative process doesn’t naturally fit with Agile. Understanding where your project is in the human-centered design process should influence how you structure your rituals. For example, in the discovery phase, it may be overkill to have daily standups because discovery work can take months to accomplish without much to report on. Whereas during the definition phase, when research insights are being formed into product requirements, it will be important to check in frequently to ensure everyone is aligned on the scope and direction. Subsequently, when you start the UX design (high-level concepts) it may make sense to step back a bit on the daily standups because this is a heavily creative part of the work that requires critical thinking and space. Then, when you get into the detailed UI design, it is important to check in daily and implement the true Agile process. Ultimately, don’t be afraid to revisit your rituals as the project progresses.


6. Be prepared to switch up the team

We told you that during long projects it’s been known to happen that designers get bored! We commonly see this with high-level strategic thinkers. Once the project is no longer complicated and the product requirements have been defined they may start to mentally check out. At that point, it may be important to evaluate who you have on the team, what their strengths are (which goes back to knowing your team!) and decide if it might make sense to introduce a new designer to the project who thrives in that phase the work. This can mean that the strategic thinker still provides some oversight, but isn’t required on a day-to-day basis. We want to keep our team members excited about and engaged in their work as best as possible. 


We know that applying this methodology to service design is good but not perfect, so our best advice is to be agile with the Agile process! Agile certainly has its own distinctive set of challenges, but remember that it can be tweaked and modified to best suit the unique needs of your team. Hopefully our tips for better integrating Agile lead to successful results for your design and research teams!


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