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How “agile” is design?

Agile helps ensure design is not overlooked in application development.

October 21, 2019
KW
Kelly White

Design happens, regardless of whether or not it is planned. However, many clients in the software industry are not design-focused, they are not brand-focused, and are instead in many cases loosely "experience-focused". In some cases these clients are developers or engineers themselves, who more times than not will be happy with a functional solution to their needs. Agile is a process born of software production, and focused on function. However, designers respect that form and function go hand in hand, and with the right mixology, you have a very desirable experience. It's a great feeling when the users AND the client are enjoying the product. So how do we get clients thinking about a better user experience, while at the same time, delivering working software frequently? Consider principle number nine of the agile manifesto:

"Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility."

Ok, so it doesn't help that design is number 9 on the list of 12 principles. So in the spirit of being agile, maybe we should revisit when, where, and how we incorporate design. Maybe the principle might read something like this:

"Early and continuous attention to user centered design enhances working software."

Whether it's iteration zero, or meticulous sessions of usability studies that give us a better picture of our users, implementing and upholding good user centered design should be a top priority for the client and the process. Otherwise, the product will eventually fail.

Fail is a harsh word, yes. But think about the quote you just read. Agile is a process, it's not a direction, or a vision. When good design is followed, it enhances agility, right? Well, not when it's at the bottom of the list so to speak. But, if your growth is defined by pleasing a client, and pleasing a client is achieved by delivering "working" software, and delivering working software is achieved by following a production process that is directed by the client's desires… then what's left to enhance you ask? Simple, the experience. Whether it's the horizon effect, or a lack of funding, somehow software development has a knack for not allowing design to flourish as a pre-emptive practice and vision for the client, even though it certainly favors individuals and interactions over processes and tools. In their book on leading product design methodologies, Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery put it this way:

"You can't sacrifice the experience to drive growth; you drive growth from the quality of the experience."

We produce a variety of great software products at WWT. But we can't stop asking ourselves, "could they be better?". (Rest assured, your users will be asking this question.) Should we care if the client is happy if the user still can't use the product? So this could beg the question, how agile is Agile? We can't over criticize agile yet either; after all it's still new in the grand scheme of things, and it works great for keeping production on track and communication open.

It all comes down to how you define "working" software - If your definition is limited to the context of a satisfied client, or if you are you willing to take a step further and say working software is inclusive of a well-designed, desirable, user experience. Cognitive science and human factors are at the core of software products everywhere. Interestingly enough, they've always been at the core of design practices everywhere. How you get it done is one thing, but why you're doing it is another thing completely...

So, don't ask why. Don't wonder. Don't think differently. As a matter of fact, do what everyone else tells you to do. This is how leading companies innovate, inspire and progress their world. This is how we evolve, right?

We can all be thankful that this is not true, or else we'd still be driving late 80's Mustangs, and cutting our hair with Flowbees. Two very “functional” designs, mind you, but seriously, what woman in her right mind looks forward to their stylist whipping out the Flowbee to get those bangs right?

And a Mustang with four cylinders is just wrong.

User experience is everything. Get some.