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What Is Agile UX And Why Is It Important For Designers?

What is agile UX design, and how is it different from traditional and lean UX? Learn the basic principles of agile UX design and how to apply them.

16 min read

The design of any product or service is an iterative process. It’ll be wrong to think of design as a stand-alone activity with no links among and between teams, users, and technologies. The UX design process requires careful planning, detailed discussions, and valuable feedback. If done correctly, the process of designing and developing a product, whether in the digital or physical world, is both enjoyable and rewarding. However, it is important to have a clear understanding of the goals, resources, and limitations when planning and designing a product or service.

Scholars and practitioners have come up with different techniques and methods to make the design process more efficient and effective. All of the methods have some pros and cons. Designers should be careful when choosing a track as this decision can have an impact on the final product and the way it performs in the market. Two of the most popular techniques in the field of design are agile and lean UX methods.

Bot the lean and agile UX methods have been adopted by various startups and big corporations to improve their design processes. There are a lot of similarities between these methods but some really important differences that a designer should be aware of. A lot depends on the organization creating designs as the lean or agile UX workflow does not function in isolation but requires collaboration with other teams as well.

Image 1 - Iterations in UX Design (Manifesto)

In this article, we introduce the concept of agile UX, along with its comparison with lean UX. This article also talks about the basic principles of agile UX design and how to apply them in the best possible way.

Whether you’re a designer in a big organization, a UI/UX design student, or someone who plans to run an agile UX agency, this article will help you understand the basics and choose what is best for you.

Agile UX Definition

Agile is a well-established approach in engineering disciplines, particularly software development. The defining characteristics of agile include its iterative nature and the focus on developing finished products at a rapid pace. There are some standard principles for agile, documented well in The Agile Manifesto.

In engineering and development teams, there is a need for a lot of collaboration at all stages. Additionally, since the products frequently get updated after the initial release, it is important to create and deploy solutions in the market as early as possible. This not only helps in getting a competitive advantage but also makes sure that some revenue gets generated during the product development.

UI/UX designers have experimented with various techniques to manage the design and development processes. The agile UX process is one such successful experiment where designers can collaborate with other teams and also create meaningful products in little time. When following the traditional approach to UX design, it is not possible to get feedback from the end-users at all times. Getting feedback only after the product hits the market involves great risks. For example, if the users do not like all the features, how is the design team going to address these issues in little time?

Image 2 - The Agile Methodology (Mobile Jon’s Blog)

This is where doing UX in agile can be of great help. By combining the iterative principles of agile development with the user-centered approach of design, useful and usable products can be created in little time. This can also help in sticking to the best practices of design thinking where users can easily be involved at every stage of the design process. The agile UX design process can bring the best of both worlds, making the lives of designers as well as customers easier and more enjoyable at the same time.

Agile UX vs Lean UX

Along with agile, lean is another technique used to design and develop useful products. Designers in some organizations have adopted lean UX because of several reasons. Both these methodologies have their own pros and cons. The choice of either method depends primarily on the culture at the workplace, business goals, and target audience. Lean and agile, however, have a lot in common. It is also possible to have a combination of both, today or some time in the near future, where designers can reap the benefits of both lean and agile UX, maybe in the form of lean agile UX.

Similarities

Some of the similarities of UX design in agile and lean methodologies are as follows.

Users and business goals

One of the major commonalities between lean and agile UX reflects a basic principle of design: a user-centered approach. Whether a design organization uses a traditional approach to design, chooses lean, or sticks to agile, the purpose of the design is always to prioritize the needs of end-users. What is slightly different with lean and agile is that the needs under consideration are not just of the users but the business as well. The plans are devised in a way that the needs of users are met, but the business also flourishes. This means that the focus is on developing quality products in little time with efficient use of resources. The business goals, therefore, go hand in hand with the needs of users.

Communication and collaboration

Both lean and agile UX research methods require collaboration with different teams and departments at the workplace. This means that according to these approaches, designers cannot — and must not — work in a silo. Instead, they should talk to and collaborate with engineers, content managers, and marketing individuals. This not only helps in bringing different perspectives to the table but also ensures that the roadblocks are removed in little time. Another aspect of communication is feedback from the users. Lean and agile interaction design processes cannot be successful without the users’ input. It is, therefore, important to have a strong communication channel with the end-users.

Planning

Another important similarity between lean and agile approaches to UX design is the excessive amount of planning involved in both techniques. Lean and agile UX methods require that designers create detailed plans about the implementation of the project. UX sprints are one such example, where the design process is split into small fragments, and the teams strive to reach one milestone at a time. In cases like UX design sprint planning, it is also important to have regular check-ins in order to keep track of the project’s progress. Both lean and agile UX, therefore, involve a lot of planning, open communication, and a number of meetings. This helps in maintaining the pace of the project and making good use of time.

Differences

Despite all these similarities, lean and agile UX are two different approaches to design. One may wonder that if both techniques are used to create quality designs in little time, where might the differences be? It is interesting to note that when using agile or lean, the end product may be similar, but the road to that product is quite different.

Image 3 - Traditional, Lean, and Agile Design (Coder Chronicles)

To summarize the differences, it can be said that while lean focuses on making the right thing, agile is more determined to make the thing right. Some of the major differences are as follows.

Getting users’ feedback

Getting feedback from end-users is a part of both lean and agile UX methodologies. However, when the feedback is gathered is crucial in defining the strategy. In the case of lean UX, the designers create prototypes and finalize one design before getting users’ input. This means that once the final design is created, after internal discussions and iterations, only then do the users get involved in the design process. Agile, on the other hand, has a different approach. For agile UX, the goal is to create a working design, give it to the users, and gather feedback. The design is then improved based on the users’ input. This means that at all stages, the internal discussions are accompanied by the actual progress of the product in the hands of the users.

The outcome

As mentioned above, the main focus of lean UX is to design the right thing. This means that at the initial stage, a number of alternatives are suggested. These alternatives are analyzed and scrutinized in the light of available resources, and a final design is then created. The end result is a finished product or service that is ready to be launched in the market. Agile UX, however, focuses more on an incremental approach to UX design. The design process is split into small phases, the output of which is supposed to be a working prototype. The design is launched and updated after every stage, thus creating an iterative process. The new designs not only take the product or service a step further but also bring in real-world insights.

Iterative designs

Lean UX focuses on the minimization of resources, that is, to waste little energy and effort in the design process. The organizations adopting this approach come up with the idea of the minimum viable product (MVP), which serves as the most efficient alternative in the given circumstances. Agile UX is a more iterative process where the design and engineering teams focus on creating finished products even if they have little flaws. The idea is that the functionality will be improved over time, and the users will not have to wait for a long time before they can interact with some version of the design.

Discovery and delivery

Another important difference between these two approaches to UX design can be summed up as discovery and delivery. Lean UX is characterized as a process where the teams discover their traits and those of the design along the way. This is a process of continuous learning and internal improvements. The final product is an output of great toil that has little to no flaws. Agile UX is more focused on delivering a working design. The designers, engineers, and product developers create small milestones to create some versions of the design that can meet the needs of the users. These versions may have a lot of room for improvement and may not meet all the needs of users. However, by getting regular feedback and keeping the end-users in the loop, the design process becomes more efficient. Another important benefit of agile UX is that it starts generating revenue before the final version of the design is launched. This can be of great help, particularly to small businesses and startups.

Principles of Agile UX

Agile is a well-established approach in software development and, therefore, has a certain set of principles that need to be followed. Similarly, UX design has its own rules and values that the designers need to be aware of when working on a project. When the designer or design team at an organization chooses agile, the principles from the disciplines of software development and UI/UX design come together to create a standard approach for UX research in agile.

The basic principles of design in agile are as follows.

Image 4 - Principles of Agile UX

1. Realistic timelines

One of the first things to consider when using agile for UX design is to keep track of the project timelines. Since agile is an output-oriented process, it is important to stay on top of things and deliver the products when they are due. It is for this reason that designers divide the tasks into sprints (another name for phases) where they follow strict deadlines. There is also a strong emphasis on regular meetings in the form of daily scrums. The value of scrum in UX design cannot be overstated as it keeps everyone updated and ensures that the project does not suffer from any roadblocks.

2. Working designs at all stages

Agile UX is a technique that focuses on the fast delivery of working designs. This means that the sprints or phases of design are created in a way that an interactive prototype emerges at the end of each phase. The design, therefore, is incremental and iterative, where a product once launched is not final. It goes through a series of phases before the final version is placed in the hands of end-users. The primary objective of agile UX, however, is to make sure that the products created at the end of each phase are not restricted to the design and engineering teams, but the users can actually interact with and use the designs in a real-world environment.

3. Responding to change

The iterative nature of agile UX and the fact that the project progresses as the users interact with it calls for a flexible approach to product and service design. This also means that the designers and engineers need to be responsive to all sorts of changes happening in the organization (e.g., changing business goals and vision) and in the real world (e.g., social and political changes). This is a great strength of agile UX as it ensures that designers stay updated with the changing needs of users and try to meet them with every sprint.

4. Adaptable and flexible designs

Another principle that is closely related to responsiveness is the adaptability and flexibility of design in agile environments. This is particularly important for products and services in the digital age, where all the websites and mobile apps get updated frequently and for several reasons. For example, a new update for Android or iOS may create some issues with an app, and the designers will be expected to resolve those in as little time as possible. This is where the flexibility of a design can be of great benefit. When working with the agile UX approach, the designers need to have foresight where they can ensure that the design is flexible enough to cater to future changes. This helps in minimizing the time and resources when launching an update.

5. Effective communication across teams

Communication between and across teams is essential for the success of any project. This holds true for agile UX as well. For the teams to stay on track and keep pace with the project timelines, it is important that every team member is on the same page and all complications are resolved in little time. This is only possible if the scrum UX process is managed in a way that the communication channels between teams are open at all times.

Image 5 - Agile UX Requires Communication and Collaboration (Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels)

Another important aspect of communication and collaboration involves users or customers. It is important that the customers’ feedback is always given due consideration. This not only helps in improving the quality of the final design but also ensures that the customers feel valued during the agile UX process.

6. User feedback at all levels

After every sprint or phase of the project, the users get a chance to interact with the design in a real-world environment. This gives the designers a chance to get regular feedback and understand the pain points of the audience. User feedback is an extremely important element of agile UX. Feedback after every working prototype and all iterations is what makes this approach unique and effective at the same time. For the design process to work efficiently, it is critical to have a standard approach and open attitude toward user feedback.

7. Constant testing

An iterative approach like agile UX cannot function without constant testing and evaluation. This is where the shortcomings of a prototype are highlighted, and the designers can then take steps to resolve these issues. The aim of constant testing should not be to only highlight the major issues but should also align with the overall goals of the project and business by extension. UI/UX designers can greatly benefit from an approach where the design is evaluated frequently. Agile UX, where the focus is on creating working designs every time a stage is finished, heavily relies on testing and feedback from the users.

The need for agile UX

Now that you know about the principles of UX in agile development, it is logical to ask whether you should use this approach for design projects at your organization. The answer to this question is not as simple as it may appear. In fact, the choice of traditional, lean, or agile UX depends on a number of factors.

Business goals

One of the most important aspects to focus on before choosing a design approach is the business goals. Whether you’re the leader of a design team or the CEO of a startup, you have to tackle questions about the vision and mission of your organization. When choosing a design approach, you need to ask whether you want quick results or a final product with all features in it? You may also want to know what the future of this particular design project looks like.

Image 6 - Should you use Agile UX? (Shuki Harel on Pexels)

Work environment

In any organization, design teams or departments do not work in isolation. To create successful designs, it is important that designers collaborate with other teams and individuals in the organization. This is where the work environment and culture of the organization play a significant role. If all the projects in the organization are handled in an agile manner, it will not make sense to adopt agile strategies for design alone.

Target audience

UI/UX design cannot function without a user-centered approach. It is, therefore, important to consider your target audience and pick a strategy that will work well with the users. For example, if it is not easy to get constant feedback from the audience, then agile may not be the best approach. If, however, you can stay in constant contact with the users and get feedback after every iteration, agile UX can be a great choice.

Resources

Another important aspect to consider when picking agile, lean, or traditional UX methods is the availability of resources for the design team in particular and the organization in general. This includes tough questions such as financial constraints and technical limitations. If you’re running a startup with only a single UI/UX designer, you may ask whether there really is a need for daily scrums and short-term sprints. It is critical to know your limitations and what you can afford before picking a design strategy.

Conclusion

Agile UX is an iterative approach to the design and development of a product or service. This approach, borrowed from the field of software engineering, is extremely popular in design. What is more, agile UX is extremely successful in the field of UI/UX design. Leading organizations around the world are now shifting to agile methods, owing to their efficacy in project management and flexibility toward the whole practice of design.

Whether you’re a professional or an aspiring UX/UX designer, it is important to understand the modern trends and practices in the field. Agile UX is here to stay, and it is something that you need to be aware of as its popularity is only going to increase in the days to come. Having a good understanding of the principles of agile UX can help you add great value to your design projects. For the students of design, it is also essential to have enough knowledge that they can differentiate agile UX from other methodologies. This will help in choosing the right track and designing valuable products and services.