What is Waterfall? UX Question #42

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Scott from St. Louis, Missouri, asks: what is Waterfall?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Scott. This is UX Question number #42 and I am Ben Judy.

What is Waterfall? Well, don’t think Niagara Falls. We’re talking about a project management approach in which work is done in a linear sequence of phases.

If you have ever seen a diagram of the ‘double diamond’ method of UX design—discover, define, design, deliver—or any of it’s variants, that is a waterfall approach to design. Each phase of work acts as a gate or dependency for the phases further down the timeline.

Back in episode 25 I described Agile UX, and back in episode 38 I talked about Lean UX.

Waterfall is an older, or more traditional UX project approach compared to Agile or Lean UX. And it is very different. Agile and Lean are iterative processes, in which you repeat tight loops of similar kinds of work—research, design, testing, and so forth—whereas in a strict waterfall approach, you do all the research, then you stop doing research and you create all the designs, then you stop designing, and you test with users.

With the rise of of Agile, there’s been a backlash against waterfall, to the point where it’s blasphemy to even say the word.

But let’s not be dogmatic. These are just approaches to our work, and every approach has its pros and cons. Let’s look at those.

A waterfall approach affords a dedicated timeframe to conduct user research and design complete experiences. Compared to how Agile is often practiced, Waterfall can be friendlier to UX people who need time to do their work holistically and focus on quality in the details.

You can also estimate the scope of the UX work and measure progress more easily with waterfall, since the entire project roadmap can be planned out.

Waterfall works best when you have a static and knowable problem domain—in other words, you are confident you can understand user needs and define a set of requirements that won’t change as you move forward and build the product.

And this is the biggest con to waterfall. With complex software, new technologies, or a rapidly changing marketplace, you can’t predict the future and design for a high quality outcome six months or a year from now. Agile—in theory—allows you to sense and respond.

But you don’t need to choose between agile and waterfall. You can blend elements of both approaches. For example, you might establish an ongoing user research track of work, operating alongside your development team working in two week sprints. With good collaboration and communication, you can avoid the trap of simplistic thinking about whether these methods are good or bad.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How should I name my design files?

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