By Fiona Murphy and Mark McNally
A core advantage of Agile methodologies is gathering feedback from users early and often. But how do you ensure that your research methodologies are robust and are successfully guiding your Agile design and development processes? Based on our experience working within multiple Agile teams over many years we have some recommendations on integrating user research into Agile cycles:
- Understanding broad user needs before implementing design and development sprints.
- Integrating the research team into the Agile process (and vice versa).
- Using moderated research in Agile.
- The importance of getting the right test participants.
- Maintaining the integrity of the complete user experience as well as specific tasks flows.
Understanding broad user needs upfront
Alignment between business, software development, and user needs are central to the Agile development process. One of the key advantages of Agile over Waterfall is being able to assess whether user needs are being met early in the process and adapting. Yet, if users are only consulted once design is underway and/or you are only focusing on specific tasks, there are implications. Teams can miss the broader picture when solutions are only iteratively tweaked rather than addressing user needs from first principles. Conducting robust research with target users upfront can establish guidance that focuses ongoing sprints. While some Agile teams do include this upfront research within their process, not all do. We believe it is an invaluable and formative step in the Agile process.
Agile speeds up processes and reduces documentation. Reporting of research findings is often short and sweet. But you can lose the subtleties of user feedback in such brevity. The research team needs to be integral members of the sprint team, particularly when solutions are being formulated. Contexts and nuances can have significant impacts on solutions and the speed in conveying these is central to the Agile ethos. Again, some teams do this well but others not so well. User feedback is not a box for the team to tick. It is an integral part of defining the solution. Continuous collaboration is key.
Delve into the ‘Whys’
As part of the Agile process, it is crucial that testing informs the design process as well as verifying that design decisions work. Understanding the ‘why’ behind user behaviours and perceptions is central. It enables the design team to fix or improve a design with the fewest number of iterations. So live, moderated testing is best. This allows the researcher to delve into participant feedback and gain a detailed understanding of behaviours and contexts. This flexibility is often not possible in automated and unmoderated user testing.
Recruit representatives of your target users
The speed of the Agile process can often lead to the temptation of using test participants that are convenient to access. This can have significant implications. Often participants can be poor matches of actual end-users. Which runs the risk of misdirecting your design and development efforts. You need to have confidence that the behaviour observed and opinions gathered in your testing is representative of your end-users.
Of course, recruiting representative participants does present its own challenges, particularly around time. Recruiters may often need to start the recruitment process well in advance of the design sprint. This means fixing the test dates early on, whether solutions are ready or not. This often puts pressure on design and development teams to have materials ready to test on the day. Some teams find it challenging to keep up the pace of work, particularly after the first few sprints. Balancing the cadence of user tests with design and development capabilities of the team is critical to success.
Overall experience and task-specific UX
One of the major challenges we have found when working in Agile processes is the siloing effect. This occurs when teams become too focused on the subject of the current sprint and lose track of the bigger picture. Designs can become disjointed, where the overall experience becomes less than the sum of its [well-designed] constituent parts. Teams need to identify impacts of design changes in one area and test them across the complete system.
To maintain the integrity of the system teams may have to revisit tasks and designs covered in previous sprints. Users rarely conduct a task in isolation. So consistency and overall system visibility are core to good UX. As much as possible, testing should reflect real world scenarios where users conduct tasks within the broader context of the overall system. So we recommend including some tests that are not related to a specific sprint, but are holistic evaluations of the product design in its entirety.
Agile presents significant benefits in product development and service rollout. User research is core to successful solutions. Solid research methodologies do not need to be at odds with the rapid rollout of Agile processes. Rather they can considerably impact the success of a solution. In fact, when you integrate researchers into an Agile team and conduct user research accurately, you can achieve superior user-centred solutions even faster.
Get in Touch
If you find the ideas we have explored in this article to be interesting and relevant to your corporation then contact Fiona Murphy, our expert on this topic.
Our multidisciplinary software design team is based in our studio in Dublin, Ireland. Unlike most design consultancies, our research is conducted by professional researchers while our design team have over two decades of experience in complex systems, software programmes, usability, psychology, data visualisation, computer science and business process improvement. We engage with all stakeholders, understanding their environments and creating solutions that work at every touchpoint. Contact us to collaborate on your upcoming software project.