Is UX research (still) too slow for agile?

Leeds Digital Festival audience
May 8, 2017 1:04 pm

Is UX research (still) too slow for agile?

SimpleUsability hosted a panel debate as part of the 2017 Leeds Digital Festival. Facilitated by Dr Lucy Buykx, one of our Senior UX Practitioners, and with a panel drawn from a variety of sectors, each at different UX adoption stages, the event drew a sizeable crowd keen to discuss, “Is UX research still too slow for agile?”

Shan Beerstecher, Digital Transformation Manager, Skipton Building Society
Adrian Berry, Product Owner,, Hermes
Sophie Dennis, Lead User Researcher, NHS Digital
Phil Stevenson, Senior Digital Proposition Manager, TD Direct Investing

Lucy Buykx kicked off the event by explaining that at last year’s Leeds Digital Festival the same subject had proven incredibly popular, with attendees likening it to a therapy session for those trying to reconcile agile and user research. As agile is becoming more embedded in organisations, the topic is even more relevant hence the re-visit 12 months on.

The panellists got started by introducing themselves and sharing their experience and thoughts on whether UX research is too slow for agile.

Leeds Digital Festival panelFirst up was Sophie Dennis who has worked with the NHS since January 2017 and has a range of experience from previous roles within the public and private sectors. She’s had a variety of design research and delivery roles doing variations of agile. She said the challenge is introducing design and research together and how do to reduce the cycle time of design sprints.

Adrian Berry from Hermes stated his team are fairly mature in agile and that although UX is a relatively recent concept, they are now finding that UX and agile come together to help them with rapid prototyping. When testing, be open-minded as to what might come out, dismissing preconceptions is really important to eliminate any bias.

Shan Beerstecher from Skipton Building Society admitted they wouldn’t go as far as calling themselves agile yet and have only just brought in the concept of UX and UX design. She mentioned that agile can often jump a step and that sometimes you need to take a step back to pull out the user journey before making a prototype or an agile sprint plan.

Phil Stevenson from TD introduced the term ‘Agile revolution’ to the session but said he has been trained in traditional waterfall methods. They have only just started applying a UX function within the last 2 years with a “let’s see how you get on with this” approach. He went on to explain that often senior stakeholders or project owners think agile means ‘faster and cheaper” but actually, the experience of agile can be more like ‘frustration, confusion and anxiety.’

Tell us about a project where you have successfully integrated UX and what challenges you faced.

Adrian said Hermes are currently working on new functionality whereby labels can be printed in store as part of a ‘one parcel, one price’ simple proposition which Royal Mail don’t offer. To do this, they conducted rapid prototyping whereby they would spend 3 or 4 days coding, test and retain the learning. He emphasised the importance of being prepared to build something and be prepared to throw it away and retain the learning!

Leeds Digital Festival audiencePhil has worked with his team at TD on the portfolio page, one of the most important pages in the TD user experience, critical for conversion success. He talked about his experience with agile whereby they followed a Google design sprint approach. They used every potential sort of data to get started creating personas, defining the user and identifying the problem to learn more out of the process. He said the real eureka moment for them is when you see someone going through a page they have designed, and getting stakeholders to view this research is critical.

However, he went on to say that the stage of testing and designing they did on the portfolio page took a long time and so did not meet stakeholder understandings of agile – “fast, iteration and cheap”. Despite this, he concluded that although the perception was that they were slow and that the work took a lot longer than anticipated, the end product was of an infinitely better quality than what might otherwise have been the case.

Shan then went on to talk about her experience of the ‘grid card problem’, whereby users need a grid card to log in to their account. She said the main challenge for her is communication within the team and having to go through 5 or 6 committees in order to get things approved, makes the length of a project far from agile. The challenge is to convince people to ‘STOP and think, does the customer even want this?’.

Sophie Dennis stated that she has experience with a “formalised agile” process, and that the aim was to bring research and design a lot closer. She supported Shan’s point that you need to ask the question ‘is there any value in this product’. The challenge is how to fit the ‘plan, do, analyse’ approach in a 2 week agile sprint window. She said a more efficient method may be to think ‘What do we need to learn now, and what do we need to learn within the next month or so?’

Where is agile and UX heading?

It appears that regardless of organisation, there are common themes regarding selling the value of agile and UX research within the team and with senior stakeholders.

As the session drew to a close, Lucy asked the panellists what their next steps are and where agile in UX is going. Shan said for them it’s about working out how to gather all of the data and customer insights they have and to make decisions more quickly and that the agile fight will continue!

At Hermes, Adrian believes it’s about bringing the connection between stakeholders and the customers closer because often stakeholders are aware of what customers do, but not why.

Sophie Dennis said at NHS Digital, the next step is to get methods spread more widely and scale up but the problem with healthcare is that everyone is a user, and therefore a highly subjective point of view.

Phil concluded the session by saying that UX isn’t the responsibility of one team, it’s about getting everyone to understand who the user is and all getting together to solve the problems.

In order to do this everyone, regardless of role, needs to see the benefit in it. But it’s sometimes hard to prove the value until you can say ‘look, here’s what we did, here’s the feedback, how about we do it again?’

Lucy concluded with a take home message that what we do in digital should not be about closing down choices but about opening them up.