User research in an agile environment

4 min read James Wood

During my time as sales director at Optimal Workshop, I’ve encountered enterprise clients of all shapes and sizes. From the 200+ strong research and design teams to the smaller, yet very punchy, 10+ teams. However, one constant remains: the need for effective, flexible, well-rounded tools to help conduct and communicate effective user research.

Over the past decade or three, especially in the software industry, ‘agile’ has been a hot topic and something implemented in many workplaces. The methodology has a history dating back as early as the 1950s, but really took form in the 1970s. Essentially, it’s an incremental and iterative development process, and under the wide umbrella of agile there are many different flavors.

The concept of agile isn’t something that’s only used by software companies. In fact, in order to keep up with the changing market, tastes and consumers, enterprises in all sorts of industries are adopting the agile methodology.

Because of this large adoption of agile within large enterprises, we’ve seen a huge shift in how we plan and conduct user research and user testing. The idea of UX (or, building what the people actually want) has been around for decades, but the best practice and implementation of UX and how to apply this in an agile environment is still a work in progress for many companies, big ones especially so. And within that, everyone has their own opinion as to what agile is and how it works for them. So, how do the two fit together?

Usability testing in an agile environment

The results from user research almost always affect product or service design in some way. So, ideally, testing and research should start at the design level (read: “earlier”). But that’s not all; software undergoes many changes, interpretations and implementations throughout its development life cycle. To ensure we don’t make usability related mistakes at any of these steps, it’s critical that usability testing and research is conducted often. The consequences of getting user research wrong or neglecting it completely are time consuming, costly, and worst of all the opportunity cost is usually unknown.

Whether a workplace uses Kanban, Scrum, or Lean, one thing that’s present in all types of agile methodologies is speed. Delivering products or features needs to be super quick in an agile setting, which means a need for a very fast turnaround with research in order to progress through the cycle. This can often be where UX and agile collide.

In many scenarios, in-person/lab testing is the UX team’s bread and butter, helping them to gain valuable insights about their users and the product. However, these methods take up a lot of time, which is often not well aligned with an agile cadence.

Conducting remote user research

Conducting your user research remotely often allows it to move faster and be more flexible, fitting into the agile process. It doesn’t take long to configure studies for remote participants, and results can be collected quickly at a relatively low cost. This gives large enterprises an insight into the return on their investment and allows you to progress through the next cycle quickly.

Great user testing tools allow you to duplicate historic, successful studies and adjust them to the needs of your new research goals. They should also give you the ability to recruit targeted participants with ease to get your study live in a matter of hours. Optimal Workshop has an integrated recruitment panel that sources targeted participants for your studies. This helps you to get answers and results rapidly and can fit nicely into your agile cycle. The quick, concise reports you receive will arm you with the information you need to accelerate and quantify your research.

Optimal Workshop allows users to collaborate in a cross-functional team using our suite of tools. We provide easy-to-use, powerful software that empowers user researchers to make informed decisions by balancing their data against the desires and goals of their colleagues and clients. More importantly, our tools allow teams to get digestible and presentable data directly from the end users themselves.

Using our tools, Treejack, OptimalSort, Questions, and Chalkmark, you can quickly and effectively build up a mental model of the user. Adding Reframer into the mix allows your agile team to improve the traceability of your qualitative user research to discover patterns and make sense of your research. Agile usability testing and enterprise is a combination that was made only in recent years, but a perfect match nonetheless!

You can find out more about our tools and how Optimal Workshop is empowering agile enterprises here.

Further reading