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Samsung's Agile & Lean UX Journey

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Samsung has applied a team-led agile transformation followed by a culture-led agile transformation, to focus teams on real users and valuable products. Teams create and use personas in order to implement team-driven user research throughout product development, said Jaesung Jo, senior UX designer at Samsung SDS, in his talk at the Lean and Agile ME Summit 2019.

Jo mentioned that Samsung tried out several agile transformation approaches. They started with a Process-Led transformation in 2010 because it looked like the fastest way to apply agile. They made an agile process and structure to change the company, with the help of a consulting company. However, it did not last long, said Jo, because it did not touch human resources and organisational structure. Jo stated: "We couldn’t deliver the core value of Agile and Lean to our employees."

In 2015 Samsung applied a Team-Led transformation which led to a small achievement. The team had part ownership, so the team could decide for themselves. Jo mentioned that the transformation touched on five aspects: "Leadership, Process, Strategy, Structure, and People", to change the overall company. They still have some conflicts with other other departments that work with agile teams inside the company, but they are on the way to progress to a Culture-Led Transformation through changes in people and the organization.

The greatest strength of a designer is understanding the users, argued Jo. They tried to get designers thinking about the users, to get users to the center of the team. Have teams focus on the real problem for real users in a desirable and usable product.

Samsung applies several user-centered practices to develop products. From the start of the project, the team creates personas together so that they can look forward to one goal without looking at different directions. Personas are connected to all of their activities. Jo mentioned that they used them in the scenarios, storyboards, workflows, design review, and user stories.

Jo explained that since their personas are added and refined based on iterative research, they become more robust and concrete with their insights. Whenever we learn something new about users, we add or change our personas, said Jo. He stated that "the important thing is that our personas must be alive and evolving more and more, like real characters."

One more tip is to make personas visible and accessible to everyone, said Jo, as working with a visible persona is very beneficial to the team. He explained that they draw their personas on the big whiteboard so that everyone can find them easily, making them useful not only for designers, but for all team members and stakeholders.

Jo claimed they turned user research into a team-driven. All team members consistently participate in user research sessions at Samsung. As team members participate, the clear direction of the product is spread through the team, avoiding ambiguity and uncertainty. It helps our teams feel they are making valuable products to users, said Jo.

InfoQ spoke with Jaesung Jo after his talk about Samsung’s agile and lean UX journey.

InfoQ: What challenges did Samsung face in adopting lean and agile practices?

Jaesung Jo: It’s a lot better now, but in the early days it was not easy to apply Lean & Agile in a rank-driven company like Samsung. We were a pretty much rank-driven organization before. I do not mean it has only negative aspects; when there is a clear direction and everybody needs to run for it, it works great. But Lean & Agile requires all the team members to be more creative and innovative. In that case, the rank-driven structure can be a problem, as it has a thick middle manager structure because they need to transfer information from the bottom to the top quickly and vice versa. After many years of effort, we are trying to break the walls in-between multiple organizations, to better to adopt Lean & Agile practices.

InfoQ: How did Samsung deal with these challenges?

Jo: We’ve wanted to use both a top-down and bottom-up approach. We started one-on-one with "Learn by doing". We’ve made the employees feel and understand the core value of Lean & Agile through everyday experience. We made a balanced team focus on collaboration, consistent communication, and transparency in working toward a shared goal: a great product. It’s the ACT (Agile Core Team) which is the Agile center of excellence in Samsung.

Pair programming & designing is the practice of having two employees work together at the same computer to complete each task. As pairs rotate, knowledge was spread rapidly through the team, avoiding silos of knowledge.

Adopting user-centric design, the whole team could focus on a clear goal and verify the uncertain hypotheses and make sure team members have confidence in the direction. It was the most powerful way, but it took some time.

To gain support from our leadership, we did continuous demo days and showcases. We show them the working software regularly and frequently. And also, we touched process, strategy, and structure to be more flexible for the whole company. By doing so, the entire company is trying to change little by little. We are still in the process of change.

InfoQ: How do you involve stakeholders across the organization during development?

Jo: As you can imagine, Samsung has a very complex organization. So we need to know who we should focus on the most. To find that, we made a stakeholder map. At first, we added all team members and then their managers, leaders, internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and so on, listing all people who have a direct or indirect influence on the project. And we connected all relationships and added how to communicate with them and what their goals are. And we choose our "key-man". Then, we focus on the "key-man" to go forward to our goal.

We always try to include stakeholders, not only in the team activities but also in design activities such as "creating personas", "data synthesis", "design review" and so on. Through these activities, they are on the same page as us. And it makes stakeholders focus on a clear direction and goal.

InfoQ: Which benefits have agile and lean brought Samsung?

Jo: One of the biggest benefits is reduced waste. In a large company like Samsung, unnecessary processes or documentation are frequently created. But sometimes they are created and used without knowing what for. We worked towards having only processes and documents that are really needed to make the product. And we minimized or eliminated the meaningless ones.

With Agile & Lean we are able to focus more on real users and products. We started to listen to user feedback quickly and continuously. And user research eliminates unnecessary features.

Agile never succeed by simply embracing good practices and methodologies. We must try various attempts and find what is right for us. The culture has to be constantly changed and developed in that environment, rather than be stagnant. It is more important how team members feel the changes and what experiences they’re having during work hours, rather than how well they stick to the agile process. Every organization has its context, environment, structure, and process. You need to define your Lean & Agile way. Focus on your people & culture.

We learned that it’s important to lead the whole team to have empathy for the users. I’ve talked to many developers in so many organizations who have no idea why they are building features and products. When designers share experience and understanding of the users to the team, they create bridges between users and team members to understand what users want and what teams can do for them. It helps them to go forward without any confusion and ambiguity, and increases team members morale. It allows teammates to feel like they’re part of a greater thing, and lets them build a valuable product for customers.

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