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Agile 2010 - Make Stuff People Can Use


 The description for Samantha Starmer's talk states 

There doesn't have to be tension between user experience methodologies and teams working to deliver fast, value-added iterations. Any agile team member can participate in delivering great user experiences without slowing work. Engaging the full agile team in keeping users central to their thinking is the best way to successfully incorporate emergent requirements and provide innovative and usable experiences. This active session illustrates how user-centric gains can be made with a few activities that activate user empathy and provide enhanced ability to provide deliverables for users’ needs.

The session started with a strong statement that on a collaborative Agile team User Experience (UX) should be an imbedded part of the overall process rather than a separate activity that is in some way imposed on the team. “Agile and User Experience should be friends”.

UX and Agile contrast
Traditionally Agile and UX have taken contrasting approaches to product development. The Agile focus on leaving decisions until as late as possible has been seen as being against the UX need for having a holistic perspective on the design of the product. Samantha advocates an approach that imbeds UX skills into the Agile team, bringing in some up-front design and fleshing out the details from conceptual guidelines to ensure consistency and effectiveness of the user experience in the resultant product.
On the REI teams that have adopted this approach they have the following ratio of team members:

  • 1 Product owner
  • 2 Developers
  • 1 Quality control
  • 1 UX designer
  • ½ Graphical designer

The UX designers produce wireframe designs and low-fidelity prototypes as part of the Agile iterations.
Samantha pointed out that there is research showing a clear correlation between profitability and enriching the customer experience from Forrester Research and from the UK Design Council 

UX profitability correlation

She pointed out that “functionality is table stakes today” – customers and users of computer systems expect the functional requirements to be delivered on, competitive advantage comes with creative and innovative usability other aesthetic qualities of the system. Find ways to “surprise and delight your users”.
She spoke about the need to think about the user experience aspects of the system early – in Sprint 0. This doesn’t mean undertaking all the detailed design work up front, rather it is about carefully considering the intent and goal of the user experience and doing some initial research and planning in order to provide guidance to the development team.
There are many techniques for user experience research and design, and she described some that work well in the context of Agile projects.
User Interviews can be conducted slightly ahead of the development iterations. Some initial interviews should be undertaken at the beginning of the project, with more detailed interviews undertaken as the development gets closer to working on specific areas of the product. When conducting user interviews it is important to understand the GOALS of the user – what are they trying to achieve with the product, and why will they use the product in a particular way. She emphasised the importance of involving as many of the team as possible in the user interviews, so they gain a real understanding of the user needs.
She made the following points about user interviews:

  • Not a survey
  • Not a usability test
  • Often structured questions, but leave room for conversation
  • Best with actual target users, but can gain some benefit with friends and family
  • 5 minutes is better than nothing
  • Can even do remotely

When conducting user interviews the interviewer needs to consider the following key points when interviewing the potential user of the product:

  • What is their desired end result?
  • What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What benefit are they trying to gain?
  • What impediments stand in their way?
  • Time?
  • Access?
  • Technology confusion?

What do potential users expect out of the software/website/app?
She explained the importance of everyone in the team having a shared mental model of what the users are aiming to achieve with the system. She asked the audience to consider their mental model for the term “Eating Out” – what visual image does it bring to mind - 

  • Drive through?
  • Buffet?
  • Fine dining?

The term means many different things to different people – without clearly discussing and sharing the points of view the likelihood of having a common perspective is infinitesimal.
She discussed how the mental model is a subset of the more extensive Persona based approach to user experience design. The mental model is a way examining and expressing how a user thinks about a specific activity.
She took the attendees through building a paper prototype and explained how to address the flow within and between features in the prototype, and assess the prototype iteratively:

  • Create tasks based on identified user needs
  • Evaluate the prototype
  • Get user feedback
  • Evolve the prototype and repeat

Evaluating the prototype can be undertaken by talking to user surrogates, but should ideally be dome by involving real-world users as much as possible. She discussed how at REI the development teams will go to their head-office retail store and conduct ad-hoc usability tests with retail customers – involving the whole team helps the development team keep the useability needs top-of-mind when building and testing the delivered product.

Usability is everyones responsibility

She shared some important guidelines about evaluating a prototype:

  • Check in with the users
  • Ask them to do a task (based on previously established user goals/needs)
  • Good way to test your user stories
  • Best if participants ‘think aloud’
  • Be quiet!!
  • Have a note taker or video tape
  • Can also do remotely
  • Can change on the fly and try again!

Another technique she explained is the Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (RITE) approach devised by Microsoft for games development. A Microsoft document explaining the technique can be found here

She ended the session by pointing out that user experience design should not be considered a one-time activity. It should be incorporated into the Agile iterative process and the user interface should evolve along with the developed product.

UX talk summary

The full slideshow can be viewed here

A video presentation by Samantha Starmer titled "The Holistic Customer: Beyond the Website Experience" can be found here.  


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