The Design Process and Agile Development: Part 1 — Design Is Collaborative

A series of design prototype sketches on a large piece of paper.

Daisy Mølving

February 02, 2024

Have you ever felt the pressure of Agile timelines conflicting with the need for comprehensive design? Both design and Agile methodologies emphasize the importance of working in small iterations to develop products that constantly evolve, focusing on the smallest modifications that lead to making valuable products and building upon them.

However, with its need for preliminary research, I’ve observed that UX design can give Agile practitioners the impression of a waterfall process. Agile teams want to deliver immediately and incrementally. As a UX designer, it is my responsibility to say, “Before we start developing this product, shouldn’t we talk to some users? Shouldn’t we conduct some research into competitors?”

Working as a UX Designer in this environment can feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You have a client who cares about the bottom line and wants to get to market quickly and a development team of Agile evangelists who fulfill those desires by working immediately and incrementally. But a designer needs time for research to understand and empathize with the needs of the people the product will serve while also meeting the needs of the client organization.

This issue is eloquently described by design leader Maria Giudice inChangemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World:

Agile started as a pure development process, which has made it difficult to weave in traditional design processes, like big picture strategic thinking and up-front research that may not fit nicely into a sprint cycle. It requires flexibility and adaptability to incorporate those elements into the process. Without experienced guidance, it can easily spiral into chaos.

To avoid this chaos, your team must become integrated and collaborative - it is more than possible for the Design process to work alongside the Agile methodology to produce results in tandem with development and product team members.

Working as an Integrated Team

What seems like a tension between an Agile development process, user experience tasks, and a sustainable business is actually a representation of the three design-thinking ingredients for any successful product: feasibility, desirability, and viability. All three must be considered in the product’s design lest it fails - it can’t be implemented (unfeasible), the market rejects it (undesirable), or the business tanks (unviable). In other words, the differing concerns and expertise within your integrated team actually make y’all better placed to build something great!

Therefore, design is not a waterfall process but rather a cross-functional practice that your whole team participates in, whether they know it or not.

For a tangible example of how this balance can be achieved, take a look at our work with the Royal Academy of Arts. This project exemplifies how thoughtful UX research, combined with Agile development, can lead to exceptional results that serve both the client's goals and the users' needs.

Involve Your Agile Team in Design Activities

The design process could be described as a wheel turning along a track — and much like the Agile methodology, it advances in iterative cycles. A cycle can be split into three categories describing the activities within them: Find Out, Translate, Create. Activities in each category inform the next.

A graphic presenting the iterative design process wheel feeding into each other: Find Out, Translate, and Create over time.

Design is more than just an upfront investment. A UX professional engaged throughout the entire design through delivery cycle helps the team work in a more iterative and Agile manner by testing each new iteration in a controlled, low-stakes environment. Each new cycle validates team assumptions and dives deeper into understanding a user’s desires, the problems they want to solve, and how they expect to solve them. This results in a higher degree of confidence that the solution is a product market fit.

The involvement of developers and stakeholders to Find Out, Translate, and Create, positively influences the design direction, as well as challenging and redressing viability and feasibility hypotheses.

→ Interested in seeing the power of this approach in practice? Check out our work on Axus Travel, where our team took a full-service approach from initial concept through brand development to the creation of user-friendly interfaces packed with extensive functionality.

What Kind of Activities?

You would be right to think that it’s not always practical to completely occupy your development and product teammates’ time in every design activity. However, it is imperative that your findings inform each others’ work.

Productive activities for collaboration include (but are not limited to):

  • Find Out
    • Stakeholder interviews
    • Competitive analysis and analogous research
    • User interviews and testing
    • CI tools for accessibility
    • Analytical tools
  • Translate
    • Presenting synthesis and insights
    • Communicating product service
  • Create
    • Interview and user testing moderation guides
    • Ideation
    • Building prototypes
    • Creating a UI library

By viewing design as an opportunity to join forces and include the entire team’s expertise on feasibility, desirability, and viability, teams enjoy the creation of a successful product much more. To learn more about how your team members can collaborate on each of these activities, be sure to check out Part II in this series.

Consider how a design-led, Agile approach could revolutionize your projects. If you’re ready to see these results in your work, give us a shout!

Daisy Mølving

Senior Designer

Daisy Mølving is a sock knitter, foil fencer, and design enthusiast. She began her career at 8th Light as a developer, before completing another apprenticeship and embracing her love of design. Daisy combines a nuanced grasp of visual styling and research skills with deep technical experience to craft designs that consider every interaction layer, from the users down to the underlying code implementations.