Much has been written over the past several years about the numerous benefits of the agile development process. In stark contrast to the waterfall method, agile is, well, agile, emphasizing the importance of minimal viable products, diving right into work rather than getting caught in the research and planning phases, bringing customers on to the team and communicating with them frequently, and generally letting a broader vision arise organically from the process, rather than imposing a static vision onto developing projects.
Given how closely developers and designers often work, it’s no surprise that many aspects of agile have begun to spill from the development world into that of the designer. But agile isn’t just a template into which design work can be dropped. It can also take some concerted adjustments to a designer’s mentality to get used to this new breed of creative method, which operates across silos and relies on greater flexibility in the formation of that higher creative vision.
Rather than trying to fit designers into agile, it’s far more effective to take cues from the developer workflow and adapt them for maximum suitability. Let’s take a look at our top 3 tips for doing just that.
1. Continuous Integration
Image Courtesy: Mental Models
Development teams can be hundreds if not thousands of people strong. As such, before a product ships, it’s important that the work of each team member plays nice with that of every other team member. In the waterfall method, integration of work is something that occurs either near to ship time or at lengthy month-long intervals, requiring developers to backtrack, and undo and redo work. Not surprisingly, this is often a key culprit in the shipping of a working product.
In the agile process, developers practice continuous integration, which is pretty much what it sounds like: integration that happens at least once a day. This allows problems to be fixed as they arise, and in many cases can lead a team down a new creative path as the problem forces them to re-evaluate their approach. This is essential when working within the format of intense iterations.
While designers will never embrace continuous integration as a cut and paste model, there’s a lot to be gleaned from this mentality, which really encompasses the broader mentality of continuously testing your work. The importance of communication can’t be understated here, as it’s really the glue that will help designers see how their work is operating in the wider team and customer context.
It should be noted that you won’t necessarily have to fix integration issues as they come up. While urgent design bugs that impede the work of others should obviously take priority, many can be added to the backlog for the next iteration. In this way, continuous testing will help teams identify issues and prioritize solutions as a manner of fueling that iterative pace, not slowing it down due to backtracking.
2. A Problem Solving Point of View
In many ways, the agile process is a synonym for a problem solving point of view. While devs do take the time to do some initial scoping before a project begins, the emphasis on creating deliverables necessitates solving problems along the way. This changes the creative process so that it’s less about sticking to a plan than it is about discovering the true heart of the project. It also really fuels the iterative process, as dev teams are forced to break problems down into smaller parts to meet their goals, therefore making them much more likely to get done.
Designers will benefit from adopting a similar mentality, designing when required rather than putting in so much energy upfront to create static PSD mockups or styling for styling’s sake. When a bulk of problems arise, it can also be quite effective to further break down the iterative process into even tighter time frames so that the design team can focus on solving each one at a time.
However, one big risk of agile design is getting so narrowed down that you lose grip of the larger whole at hand. To address this, I particularly enjoy the concept of design spikes, in which designers devote an entire iteration to zooming back up and taking in the wider view of the project to better identify and integrate multiple elements of design into one grand vision.
3. A Good Grasp of What’s Possible
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Too often, designers get so carried away with admittedly awesome ideas in the brainstorming phase that they lose track of what’s technically possible. This becomes a real problem in a more traditional waterfall process when a designer then spends weeks if not months designing something that then can’t be implemented.
Here is where the communication piece of agile really comes in again. Designers and devs should knock down silo walls and stay in frequent communication about just what is and isn’t technically possible. Though this may seem limiting to designers at first, there’s actually a surprising amount of creativity that can stem from within clear boundaries as opposed to having a surplus of potential paths to walk down. With a little adjustment, this mentality will not only keep projects on-time and on-budget within the rapid iterative framework, but it might just be inspiring, too.
Though it’s difficult to implement the agile development process wholesale into the design process, agile has a lot to offer the designer. With a few tweaks and a deeper understanding of the agile philosophy, designers will fold their work more easily into larger teams and produce better work, faster than ever.