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4 Reasons a UX Designer might be unhappy in an Agile environment

Illustration by asukawatanabe


Written by Stephen Ng, User Experience Developer, Kiandra IT

This might be the unofficial User Experience designer mantra — “we rather not deliver than deliver something that no one is going to use.”

Why?

Because we are all about crafting the experience users want.

We spend countless hours doing contextual research, design exercises, and looking at websites for inspiration.

We obsess over finding the right icon, typography, and colour that will speak to and connect with users.

We are not doing linear tasks that take a set amount of time — we are doing creative work that needs time and inspiration to turn out right.

The project managers of Agile teams are focused on increasing velocity and productivity and getting through a backlogged list of tasks, each of which are strategically manoeuvred around the agile board as if it was a game of chess. And, while all of this is happening, the designers are in their own little world, sitting under an apple tree, just dreaming away – or so it appears to the Agile team.

The conflict lines are clearly drawn. But what exactly is causing this unrest?

  1. Task Driven vs Organic

The only goal that matters to an Agile team is the efficient delivery of high-quality code. To facilitate that, the project is broken down into small chunks of tasks which are the main engine that drives an Agile project. Being task oriented gives the team control over the outcome and delivery of a project.

Design, on the other hand, is an organic process and its delivery and outcomes are often hard to control. UX design activities are usually time-consuming and can be perceived as unproductive in the process of shipping code to market.

  1. Non-tangible Outcomes

I frequently get quizzical stares when I tell my project manager that my outcome for a task is to come up with ‘design concepts.’ To Agile teams, that’s smoke and mirrors.

But a lot of design outcomes are intangible, like finding out about our users and determining how to make them happy. That may not seem of value in the successful delivery of a project. 

  1. Invisible on the Agile Board

Non-dev work seldom finds its way onto the Agile board, so it’s importance isn’t measured against other tasks, and thus not prioritised.

This marginalizes the UX effort and allows it to be cut in the event of a time or scope crunch.

  1. Logical vs Illogical 

Developers are generally quite logical in their problem solving. They use a systematic approach with tons of reasoning.

On the other hand, design is just like art; sometimes it can’t be explained. Sometimes things just work without any logical reasoning. And when developers ask why I made a particular choice, sometimes I don’t have an answer beyond “because it works.”

Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom

This situation is not something that can’t be fixed. One of the most effective ways to diffuse the tension within your team is communication.

Speak to the different disciplines in your team and educate them about UX design thinking and methodology. Learning how cross-functioning teams work will be helpful too in understanding what drives the people in your team.

When the team has a common understanding of what UX is, everyone can work as a team to tweak the Agile process to make UX more visible and set up goals that the team can work towards with UX in mind.

This is clearly not a simple solution, but it’s a part of our job as UX designers to effectively communicate and take the lead in balancing the outcomes in an Agile project; delivering both high quality code and design solutions with the user at the centre of it all.