UI Design Lessons: A UI Designer in an Agile World, Get Me Out of Hell! – Part 1

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When I travel to conferences and speak with people about their agile UX experiences I come across a lot of repeat questions. Most of these pleas for help are about time management,  rapid design sketching, traditional usability approaches, group design mentality, lack of support for UI development, and let’s not forget meeting burnout.

Even today UI designers hear the word AGILE and there mind is flooded with demon visualizations straight out of Dante’s Inferno.  Why has this methodology caused so many headaches to UI Designers world wide? Why are they terrified? Can we beat them, or should we join them?

Generally speaking 90% of what a UI designer hears about AGILE comes from an AGILE practicing programmer that has succumbed to the second circle of hell and revels in the fact that you must join them.  Let’s face it as UI, Usability Specialists, Graphic Designers, etc.. we work in a different creative zone. A zone hard for many developers to understand – Even if they want to understand.

Well, that’s about to change as I finally delve into some secrets of success. Rapid UI Design is not easy, it’s usually far from a “done” state, and even in a perfect world, the time to refine and refactor both your code, interactions, and design is hard to come by. In order to survive and thrive you need to look at practical solutions and solve real problems with the process itself. In order to truly excel you need to replace perfectionism with iterative perfection.  You need to find a way to be a time traveler amongst all the chaos. You need to turn hell into paradise.

Cue flashbacks…..

Imagine it’s your first day on as a UI designer in a company.  You are super excited to work in this vast field only to have your boss tell you.

Boss  “We work in a 1 week iteration agile development environment. ”

At first you may panic, you may want to quit. You may not even have a clue what Agile means . All you know is that you were hired on your UX skills and your damn awesome portfolio. You are still a bit light in the experience department, but are self-motivated and driven by a passion to create memorable, exciting user experiences. You have spent hundreds of hours refining small personal projects, none of them were quite near finished and you always had more time. Even fresh your college professors gave you a generous amount of time to come up with the perfect solution.

You  turn towards your new boss and ask the simple question. “What does being an Agile UX designer mean to me?”

Boss “We try to build something quick and let our 200 users test it in the field, we then iterate and make refinement to the functional and design elements of an application. And by quick, I mean rapid development & rapid design.”

Now the sweat starts to build as you think to yourself? What the hell have I gotten myself into? All you know is that you can create semi-decent sketches of vague application functionality, but over the course of a week or longer. Time is your enemy, speed is your weakness.

Your stress level and blood pressure begins to rise.  You start to frantically gasp for air, the questions racing in your mind.

  • How can I produce something that will immediately be built into a functional application.
  • What about my training in persona usage, usability testing, card sorting, etc…?
  • What about multiple sketches for each application path?
  • What about refinement time?
  • What about missing user stories or requirements
  • What about running out of time?
  • What about failure?

The questions just keep on coming as your pulse races. And then the boss chimes in.

“We know it’s hard work, but we know our audience well. We have daily SCRUM meetings, and have a direct channel open to our clients and customers. Our work flow is continuous. You’ll do just fine.”

As you stand there awestruck you are thinking  “No…No I wont.”

Fiction Takes The Form of Reality

The preceding story was not fiction it was true story. Imagine you have 1 day to develop a new major application piece. You need to be able to quickly move from ideation to sketches, to wire-frames, and you have a deadline of tomorrow morning? Add on the fact that a large number of programmers are waiting on you? What do you do?  At the most, you may get out two different designs. This my friend is how the fast paced world of Agile UI design works. Don’t fear it, but don’t let the process control you. (I’ll talk about this in another article).

There are several key factors that will help you tame the wild beast.  Take a breath and let’s start to look at making the chaos manageable.

If you are one of the lucky souls that works on a well structured UX team this process becomes a bit easier (future article Architecture of a UX Team), but if you are a UX Team of One. There is a good chance you just messed yourself. It’s hard to  imagine adding on even more roles to an already overloaded work schedule? Estimating time management, researching the problem, defining the problem, identifying primary and secondary application functions, sketching rapid paper-prototypes, understand stories (AGILE), Understand complex work flows, Refining the design, Gaining Buy-in, More Sketch refinement, and ultimately the next day ready to program. Wow! If you have ever experienced week AGILE iterations then you too might have felt this pressure.

So let’s take a look at this EXTREME situation first and then in future articles talk about refining the process itself.

Help What Should I Do First?

For this article lets imagine we are building a fictitious site called “babyspace” It’s a place for babies and is used to track developmental growth (I actually will cover this in another article as well from a design perspective.).

Step 1:  Ideation & Brainstorming

You want to begin where you excel and that is brainstorming. Use a whiteboard, paper, napkin, toilet paper, whatever you use but make it fast, but also make sure you keep a copy. (I recently purchased a Livescribe pen and keep all my brainstorming sessions in there with recorded notes. It has helped me remeber the most intricate details of a brain storming session and saved lots of time.)

Hopefully, while you are doing this  the business or you yourself have gathered up user stories (small chunks of functionality), and prioritized these.  From the stories you need to figure out what relates to the user interface. Take notes and jot down tasks where you see a UI component being designed. This is going to help you immensely when you go to a Sprint or Iteration planning meeting. You want to be armed with as much knowledge as possible in both function , form, technology and design ideas.

Step 2:  Ask The Right Questions, Who Needs What? Why Do They Need It? How Does This Benefit Our Users?

Do notbe afraid to ask questions. If you need to refine either your user stories or clarify your own UI tasks. Do it! Sometimes it’s easy to miss a crucial detail when you feel the clock is ticking.  It’s better to get as close to the right answer before you start, as opposed to after you start. It’s not fun to rip apart a fully designed application or UI because a crucial story element was missing (Keep in mind this is different then actually refining your UI each iteration).

As a UX designer you want to know these questions so you can put yourself in the shoes of your user. If you utilize personas you want to match up your personas to these user needs and desires (preferably several weeks before the project begins).  Always, Always, Always ask the following question:

How is this is benefiting our Customer ?

When a team looses sight of this redirect the conversation. I highly recommend asking this same question of your team in different ways.

“Why would a user need to do this?”
“Why would persona A care about this?”
“Is user really going to have a need to do this?”
“Does this make it easier for our customer?”

Restructuring and rephrasing your question helps to get people to notice the different sides of a story or requirements. It helps to draw out those that talk to much in a meeting and those that don’t talk at all. Engaging and intriguing questions will save you time.

Stay tuned over the next few months as I roll out Part 2 of this article. We will continue to cover lots of other tips and techniques, as wella s more of my process. Soon I’ll be able to notify my readers if my panel (core conversation) is choosen for the 2010 SXSW conference.