What is Agile UX? UX Question #25

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Grace from Ann Arbor, Michigan, asks: what is Agile UX?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Grace. This is UX Question number 25 and I am Ben Judy.

What is Agile UX? Well, there’s a straightforward answer and a cynical answer.

The straightforward answer is, Agile UX is an integration of UX practices with Agile software development practices; an iterative approach to designing and improving features with an emphasis on team collaboration.

The cynical answer is, Agile UX is practicing user experience design poorly, without a serious commitment to research or strategy, with a hasty approach to UI design, resulting in software that feels like it was designed by developers.

I will tell you from personal experience—that is a cynical approach, and it is also a highly accurate description of how Agile is practiced in the real world.

You have to understand what Agile Software Development is. I’ll drop some links in the description. Agile began with philosophical ideas about better ways to do software engineering in the face of uncertainty.

Agile practitioners embrace a set of principles and values, such as a preference for conversations as a team over reliance on processes and tools; shipping working software in small increments over comprehensive documentation and a long time between software releases. Good UX is not an Agile value or principle, by the way.

Various methodologies exist to help teams work in accordance with Agile principles. Scrum is maybe the most popular Agile methodology; there are others. You may have seen or heard of teams working in 2 week ‘sprints.’ This is a common Agile approach.

So Agile UX is just UX practitioners trying to collaborate most effectively with Agile software development teams.

I have worked with many Agile teams over the years. Some of them practicing good Agile methods, many of them not. I don’t have a problem with the theory or the principles. In theory, we can do UX work in alignment with Agile values of customer collaboration and responding to change.

I have a big problem with what happens in reality when software teams prioritize speed of feature delivery over quality of the user experience. When UX practitioners can’t do our work effectively—discovery research, empathizing with users, design ideation, UX strategy—when those things are not allowed to happen because of a dogmatic commitment to engineering methodology—that only benefits the software developers, and harms everyone else.

Successful UX practitioners in Agile environments find a way to establish their own, parallel track of work in concert with whatever Agile methodology is in place. And that’s why it’s really hard for junior or mid level UX talent in Agile environments. It usually takes a more senior, experienced, UX designer to adapt our work to the engineering team’s process.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: What is a good UX design process?

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