How the role of a UX designer has changed  –  thanks Agile

UX has evolved a lot over the years, and a lot of this change has been introduced to improve our methods of practice. Recently Agile has become more and more prominent for UX, bringing it forward in the design process, but how has this affected our role?

The traditional role of a UX designer

The traditional UX process is waterfall. A linear approach, where each person responsible in the design of a website has a job to do, and they would only begin theirs once the last person had finished. A bit like a relay race, and everyone really only wants to see the last leg.

It went: UX (understanding people’s needs and interpreting them) > Visual Design (creating beautiful, usable interfaces) > Development (the hard bit where you see the ‘real’ thing).

Why the role is changing

Waterfall just wasn’t delivering against clients needs. It was putting too much onus on the development teams, responsible for the actual build and launch of the website. More often than not, finding that they wouldn’t have enough time to meet deadlines. Compromises would be made, and quality ultimately suffering. This meant wireframes rarely looked like their built counterparts and expectations weren’t met. Something had to give —enter Agile.

Agile in UX

Development teams have been working using Agile methodologies for a number of years now. Iterating on their work, improving it incrementally through time boxed sprints. Applying this process to UX design would certainly make it more efficient. Removing the slow paced process of creating bloated wireframes, turned into graphical user interfaces and finally code.

By merging the disciplines, you don’t only work more efficiently, but are more likely to start delivering value to your clients quicker. At the same time, breaking down the inter-disciplinary walls and building stronger teams.

The new activities a UXer is supposed to undertake

With the design decision making process squeezed into sprints, UX designers now have to create solutions to needs against singular or grouped user stories. Focusing their time thinking about solving singular problems rather than trying to design an entire website at once.

Working together with the other disciplines at the same time allows for more brains to be able to work on a solution. This is extremely important, because it isn’t always the UXer who has all the good ideas. I find that actually they can come from anyone in the team.

So instead of creating artefacts such as wireframes, what is a UX designer expected to do and produce?

  • Sketches! From the high level candidate sketches we create when we estimate the sprint to detailed content hierarchies, we do a whole lot more sketching. Actually, I don’t tend to take a design any further than sketching.
  • Create a copywriting brief for each user story to enable a copywriter to develop compelling copy that would slot seamlessly into the designs without diluting the experience — no lorem ipsum here!
  • The designer and myself also work together on a similar brief for a photographer. Not a luxury you always get when building websites.
  • Input content from the copywriter into the CMS.
  • Testing and QA — review the built interfaces, make sure quality is high and the user needs are represented through the content. Also taking a step backwards to see how an experience slots together holistically.

What this means

What is really nice about this process is making sure the users needs are delivered all the way through to design, by consulting the development team throughout. Balancing these with the business needs, by also working more closely with the client (acting as a Product Owner) than we would on a waterfall project — meant the removal of a big bang reveal.

It feels like much fairer way of working (particularly on our dev pals). However, the pace is fast and you have to be constantly thinking on your feet and solving problems as soon as they arise. This puts more responsibility on UX designers (and visual designers alike) than ever before. Is this a bad thing? No I don’t think so. Just a paradigm shift in the way we work — and isn’t that something we tend to help our clients do?

Industrial Designer come User Experience Consultant. Alex has a penchant for strategy. A knowledge seeker and anecdote preacher (albeit rather mediocre at the latter).