How to integrate usability testing into Agile

Agile is a development methodology the goal of which is to reduce the amount of overhead required to get projects done and to empower team members to decide how the work gets done. It can be challenging to fit a customer-centered design process into Agile. This article won’t be a detailed evaluation of UX and Agile but instead will focus on how to integrate one aspect of the UX development process - usability testing - into Agile.

I have been on teams using Agile for about seven years now. Previously, development was done in a Waterfall fashion, where everything is sequential (similar to building a house). Agile accommodates an iterative approach to development, where pieces of work can be estimated and built separate from the whole, and revisited later if necessary. This is great from an engineering perspective but can pose real challenges for design. Using the house analogy, how do you ensure the end result looks like a house if you may be building a bathroom first, as opposed to the foundation? From my experience my best advice is to ensure there is a phase before the first sprint (a sprint is a collection of tasks a team commits to completing during a fixed amount of time) where design related activities take place with the goal of creating the framework for “the house” so at least it looks and works like a house. This phase can be called Sprint 0. The activities conducted during Sprint 0 will vary from project to project. Assuming it’s a fairly large project you may include some collaborative activities with your team like brainstorming all the features you may need. You may also sketch many ideas and usability test those ideas in order to whittle them down to a couple for further testing. At the end of Sprint 0 you should have enough of a framework for the design that user stories can be created and the engineering team can start estimating the work. Later, moving a sprint ahead of engineering, you can refine aspects of the design to be included in the following sprint.

It may be helpful to give you a brief example: I recently completed a project for a site redesign. The original site had separate desktop and mobile sites and was going to replatform to a single responsive website. The Sprint 0 phase lasted approximately 6 weeks. That time period included collaborative design sessions, wireframing, design reviews, and 4 usability studies for both desktop and mobile. The usability studies all used interactive wireframes (no engineering necessary) and tested the end-to-end workflow, paying special attention to one of the steps. The only way I was able to do both the design work AND conduct 4 usability studies was to do remote unmoderated testing. This means the participants can be anywhere in the country, and you don’t get an opportunity to ask questions in real time. Back in the days of Waterfall, the “usability phase” was a process-heavy procedure. Recruiting could take up to two weeks, with a week of in-person moderated testing, followed by a week of analysis. Though it has some advantages in the richness of the resulting data, it is definitely not a “lean” process. We need to move faster and be able to conduct quick usability today to help inform tomorrow’s design work.

Once the engineering sprints begin it may be difficult to conduct usability. It’s simply a question of logistics: typically sprints run in two week increments (though this can vary by team or project). If you are working a sprint ahead to finalize portions of the design, you may not have a window to conduct a usability study. If you can figure out how to do it, great. It can only help. But don’t count on it always being the case.
I do recommend that after launch you conduct a usability study of the live system. The goal of this study is to benchmark the current design and have an artifact from which to start later design iterations.





About the author:

Warren Croce
Principal UX Designer at Gazelle
Principal at Warren Croce Design
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Warren gets great satisfaction from knowing that he can help people through design. He believes customer empathy and a desire to simplify are two of the most important traits that a designer must possess. Warren received his BFA in Communication Design from Pratt Institute in 1990 and has been designing professionally ever since. He spent over twelve years at Intuit, most recently as Principal Designer and Team Manager for a team of eleven designers, usability engineers, and writers. Warren joined Gazelle in 2014, where he is responsible for the user experience of both the Trade-In and Direct Store sites. Previously, he worked as an independent consultant for two years. Warren has recently begun offering free, in-person, UX-design mentoring to small groups. He is also a fine artist with a studio in Boston.

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