UX Yoga – Or how to do UX in an agile world

5 min read Guest Blogger

Senior User Experience Specialist Natalie Kerschner pens some thoughts about how UX and Agile fit together before her presentation at UX New Zealand 2016. 

UX as an industry in New Zealand is young — like seriously young. We are professional infants in the field. If UX were a child, we would be dressing up one day as a fairy and the next as a police officer and declaring this is what we always wanted to be. As an industry we haven’t got it all together yet. We don’t have a clear consensus on how we do things, and we all don’t understand the meanings of all the different terms we use. And if you’re in any doubt about this, just ask someone in the industry: “What’s the difference between a UX researcher and UX designer?”

To make it more complicated, the industries we work in are changing at a phenomenally rapid pace — just like UX. So while we try to work out who and what we are, our environment has been terraformed, and we need to adapt to survive in the new world.

A snapshot of early UX

If we stuck to the old methodologies (the tried and true ways of doing UX) we would now be as relevant as an old telephone table. You don’t have to look too far back to see that we used to work in a very different way. Ever seen a usability lab? They were awesome; they had two way mirrors, cameras and mics everywhere. They were a true dedicated space where you could do your research. And the people that worked there were gods — the elite of the elite in specialization!

Had problems with your product? Go to the lab. Need new ideas? Go to the lab. It was full of mystery what happened in there, but what you got out of it were beautiful reports. You also had documents that outlined everything that had been observed, the reasoning behind the observations and recommendations for resolving any issues. They were spectacular, they took forever to create and quite often they were never, ever used. As an industry we are lucky we didn’t die in those labs.

As professionals, that was a hard lesson for us to learn. Labs weren’t the answer, we weren’t gods and you didn’t need to be a UX specialist to do UX activities! People, normal people who didn’t have degrees in human-computer interaction (HCI) could actually go out and do UX research and design and get similar results to the labs — in a faster time too! And in some cases, the results were even better!

The modern era of UX

Those were dark days as a profession, but the introduction of Agile practices gave us the opportunity for an industrial rebirth. Agile introduced changes of work practice, shortened work time frames, and put less focus on documentation. This was very confronting for us UX professionals who were used to having weeks or months to complete a project. But we adapted, we had to, this was about survival! The key to survival in a rapidly changing world is adaptability and flexibility. In our case we needed to be extremely flexible. And now in a world of Lean, we needed to be so bendy we are practically doing UX yoga to get through our day!

What does that mean for us now? How do you integrate any time for interacting with our end users if your entire development process is limited to a Minimum Viable Product and executed in two-week time frames?

For us, we needed to build in customer feedback into our development process. We have done this a few different ways, but one key way was by introducing customer sessions booked in every week on the same day that anyone can use for any purpose. Now I know that’s a scary concept but stay with me on this one while I explain how it works.

How UX and Agile work together

We have quite a few development teams running concurrently who are all at different stages of the development lifecycle. During a two-week sprint it’s hard to get enough material together to justify bringing a customer in for a discovery or usability session. To combat this, we time share the customers across the projects. We have one facilitator who runs the session but we may have two or three different projects accessing the customer for different purposes for 20 or 30 mins each.

Project teams debrief after the session so we can talk about what has happened, and then we feed the outcomes directly back into the development processes. There are no reports… ever! The projects get a continual cycle of customer feedback into the project without having a large time and money commitment.

Now I know a few of you will ask how you do this without recruiting for a specific target audience. And that’s an absolutely valid point. We recruit for our customer sessions in 10-week blocks and we do try to recruit to the personas for particular projects.

Does this meet every project’s needs? No, of course not. However, by running sessions every week with participants who are somewhat targeted, but not exact, we can see the warning signs faster and that can highlight where a project team needs to do further research or design. It’s a lot easier to justify a fully-fledged and targeted research project if you have evidence that something isn’t right. Further, teams can still build in specific targeted, long customer sessions for key times during the development process knowing there will be ongoing short bursts of customer interaction and feedback.

We’re no longer hidden in the lab. Now, we’re exposed to the world as a facilitator of UX-focused sessions that involve entire development teams as part of the process. And that’s just one form of UX yoga we use that changes the role of the UX practitioner to a UX facilitator. The key to any UX session we undertake is flexibility and the ability to adapt sessions at short notice to meet the needs of a project in rapid development. Done right, it can even increase the amount of UX activities undertaken for a project.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear more about how Natalie uses UX in an Agile world, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2016 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 12-14 October, 2016, including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here.