For companies unfamiliar with a new methodology, getting the whole firm to commit to it can be a difficult task. Agile development is a powerful way of producing digital products, but for certain firms, getting the team on board has its own difficulties.
Agile Development: A History
Traditionally, digital experience design was done over the course of long periods of time, leveraging a waterfall approach to development. A team would start with the needed requirements, then apply design, code, test, and finally operationalize the whole thing. Before the 1990s, this team would be a set of relatively niche professionals whose skillset was more specialized than even today’s developers. Furthermore, developing software was difficult and ungainly. Updating an experience often meant wrestling with legacy code and trying to understand technical documentation the length of encyclopedias.
Projects often went through distinct phases from beginning to end. And these phases were rigid, just like nearly every other aspect of the development process. The concept of experience never factored into this process, which is still the case at some firms even to this day.
Software — not the consumer — was the focus of the team. Some distant business stakeholder dictated the requirements from on high, gave the team a timeline, budget, and specific roles, and said, “Make it so.”
Towards the end of the 90s, though, consumer facing software became increasingly common. And with its proliferation, developers had to adapt design techniques to meet the ever increasing demand for better digital experiences. No longer was that business stakeholder able to mandate consumer needs. Consumers themselves determined what they liked, what they didn’t, and just how to report their opinions to software developers: by not buying flawed products.
As more and more people got online, they were able to directly connect with companies through email and SaaS computing — and eventually social media — to communicate their needs. With such open and transparent communication, companies could no longer ignore a group of discontented customers. Organizations needed to respond to remain competitive and succeeding digitally became an arms race for consumer attention. Gaining this attention and keeping it meant that brands needed to create increasingly tailored experiences for their customers.
Meanwhile, software engineers were coming into their own. The IT industry saw its ranks triple from the beginning of the 90s to the beginning of the 2000s. And this growth happened despite the burst of the Dotcom Bubble bursting at the turn of the 21st century. As software engineering grew in popularity, it became more democratized and developers themselves became more empowered.
In this atmosphere, seventeen software developers got together in a resort in Utah to refine the ideas behind a new method for developing software. The Agile Methodology was developed six years prior, and these engineers wanted to codify the process. What came out of this meeting was the Manifesto of Agile Software Development. Its purpose was to make the development process more lightweight and flexible than the waterfall method many developers used.
Today there are still remnants of the old way of doing things everywhere you look. Agile has moved from a buzzword into the realm of misunderstood and unattainable ideal that organizations like to chase. But employing Agile techniques really just means one thing: taking a linear design process and curling it into a ball. Development doesn’t happen with an end goal, but instead a goal of constant improvement. Software is iterative and consumers will constantly provide input. Requirements for any new software are, of course, necessary, but software itself should not be looked at as a monolithic brick. It should be seen as living and evolving in order to adequately respond to an ever-changing digital environment and the consumer sentiments it serves.
In order to get an organization to adopt Agile design methodologies successfully and completely, a company needs three things: buy-in, a supportive environment, and strong relationships.
In addition to gaining the buy-in of the developers themselves, business stakeholders will also need to be open to incorporating consumer feedback into the design process. You’ll need to sell the benefits of working software that doesn’t have all the features, on shorter timelines, in order to meet immediate needs and gather feedback. The goal should be to build a minimum viable product first. That means your team will have to be okay with a product that only offers a few functions at the start. You’ll then build upon this product by adding more functionality after the first function is perfected. It’s really nice to be able to deliver a full-blown car to a consumer, but if the process takes too long and a company is running the risk of not being able to sustain itself, a skateboard will serve the same function while building a consumer base.
A Supportive Environment
Employing agile transformation to the design processes within your organization should feel more like yoga than a forced mandate. Everyone should want to do it, even if getting into downward facing dog takes some practice. There will be bumps in the road, but when things fall apart — instead of playing the blame game — people will need to come together to assess what happened. This approach will enable a team to quickly adapt and change, but still work with a foreign process.
Failure, while ultimately a good way to improve, will make any new process unpleasant. But by committing to it and working to improve, you can avoid the human desire to go back to familiar processes.
At the core of agile design are strong relationships and teams. Agile methodology requires great communication and trust within the team that each member will get their assigned tasks done. When a task is too great for one person, people need to work together to fill in roles and work cross-functionally. These strong relationships will also make the process of change all the more bearable for all parties involved.
The benefits of using agile development are undeniable. And while adopting a new process can be daunting, having a talented and experienced team to bring about change can make the endeavor efficient and effective.