Project Framework Comparisons: Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Hybrid vs. Lean

A somewhat…heated subject within the tech industry

Getting a team to successfully align on a project plan, when creating a digital product, can be difficult. It can be due to a number of factors, such as cost, the members of the team (experience, age, personal preference, etc.), technological limitations, and of course, time.

When these factors aren’t properly weighed and taken into consideration:

1. Tension and communication breakdowns between teams can occur.

2. Lackluster solutions are formed.

3. The business and the users, end up with a disappointing product.

Specific Project Plans

Project plans, particularly when creating a digital product, are determined by frameworks. These frameworks define necessary steps, methods of communication, and actions that need to be performed between different departments, in order to successfully deliver a product.

Defining the Different Types of Frameworks:

Waterfall

Known as the sequential framework, where the process is executed in a linear format, rather than an iterative cycle. This framework allows for higher quality craft and design, but its rigid structure does not allow for a high degree of flexibility and iterations, and mistakes are costly.

Agile

Known as the iterative process, where each stage is done in multiple sprints of the same iterative cycle. This framework allows for development speed, low cost, along with a focus on quickly finding mistakes. However, due to the speed of this process, the tight deadlines can cause a drop in overall quality.

Hybrid

This framework is initially sequential, and then iterative throughout the development process. The Hybrid model creates a disciplined timeline that allows for client alignment, but still flexible enough to iterate and refine. Due to the sudden shift from sequential to iterative, strong project management is needed, in order to keep the project’s decision making on track.

Lean

This framework focuses specifically on the minimal viable product, where the MVP is completed before considering extra features/content. The Lean model narrows down the prime focus of what needs to be created, but sometimes the product does not hit its potential ceiling, and sometimes may not be seen as a viable product within the market.

Nobody has a concrete answer as to which framework is the best, but people definitely have their opinions and insights, based on experience.

Input from Professional UX Designers

My good friends Nate Baker, Justin Barber, Ricardo Medina, and Ameer Carter, who all have several years of experience in the industry, and who’ve worked for very well known companies, were generous enough to allow me to interview them, and give their thoughts and insights about these specific frameworks.

The Interviews:

Ameer Suhayb Carter

Design Director, Romio: www.medium.com/portfolio-of-ameer-suhayb-carter

1. What’s your favorite project framework and why (waterfall, agile, hybrid, lean)?

I honestly don’t have one. I think all design frameworks have the same foundational core in that they all have to identify needs, establish product intent to solve needs, align with business goals, define requirements to build, design, implement, and finally test. I’ve tried a few of them, but I don’t have a particular attachment to them nor do I look for other frameworks. Perhaps that’s sort of a weird anti-design or something, but at the end of the day, any process is as good as the participants’ willingness to execute it. I will say that the “slow movement” or the idea of doing something at the right speed, faster-isn’t-always-better, quality over quantity, is something I’ve been more interested in doing. Western startup culture spends too much time in a state of FOMO (fear of missing out) where the area of opportunity is scarce and ideas have to be funded and built quickly lest someone else beats you to it. I think to some degree Apple applies slow methodology to their software and hardware. You notice Google, Microsoft and others develop groundbreaking new tech first and Apple adds a layer of polish that is needed for consumer adoption. Their patience is undeniable.

2. Can you name a specific example of a project where you used this framework?

So I’ve used a few: waterfall, agile and lean, and all of them were used at different points in my career thus far. One pretty good example was standard Agile process during my brief stint at Audible. The project was to develop a better way to discover audio content on the Audible platform and introduce new content types under an entity labeled, “channels”. I was apart of a cross-functional, self-organized team (hey look, Jargon!) with a Project Manager (PM), Senior Designer, myself as the Visual UI consultant, two UX designers, a technical PM and 3 developers. We executed two week sprints with design being 2 sprints ahead of development. Each sprint cycle had a day for sprint planning, a mid-sprint demo + review and an end of sprint demo + retrospective.

3. What do you think is a current weakness of your favorite framework, or a way that it can be further improved?

Because I don’t have an attachment to any of them, I’d probably say that all frameworks have vulnerabilities and can be improved — nothing is perfect. But if you can identity the pitfalls of a system early, you can make workarounds or be cautious in effort estimation or produce more tests to validate your assumptions. One of the biggest issues is the notion of time and setting a realistic standard of getting work done, doing it as close to right as possible without having to do double work. The concept of iterative process or design should always be building on top of a core foundation. Sometimes that doesn’t always happen due to time.

4. What’s your least favorite framework?

Any framework that claims to be better than another. And more importantly, any framework that emphasizes speed over making smart decisions.


Justin Barber

Designer, Google Pixel

1. What’s your favorite project framework and why (waterfall, agile, hybrid, lean)?

It’s hard to pick a favorite because I think the effectiveness of each framework depends on the organizational structure in which it’s used. For big projects at large companies like Google, for example, the design process seems predestined for the waterfall framework (for better or for worse) — it has natural milestones for stakeholder alignment and the linear sequencing fits neatly into business deadlines. But it isn’t inherently better than any of the other frameworks, so I guess what I’m saying is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

2. Can you name a specific example of a project where you used this framework?

The speed at which we move and the number of iterations we go through might be labeled as hybrid or agile, but at a high level we still follow a waterfall process because we’re on a fixed, yearly release schedule. Two features I recently worked on within that process are the Pixel 2’s Always on Display and Android O’s notifications .

3. What do you think is a current weakness of your favorite framework, or a way that it can be further improved?

When the milestones specifically meant to uphold design decisions throughout the process fail to prevent regression. I’ve found that documenting the rationale of design decisions is one way to recenter everyone on the why during the long, convoluted, search for how.

4. What’s your least favorite framework?

The spirit of the lean framework can so easily be twisted into an excuse for hasty, thoughtless, or harmful experiences that I find it irresponsible to use past a very small scale. Everyone building digital products would benefit from following Craig Mod’s advice to “move slowly, carefully, like a mother f’in very smart turtle.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’d like to change my answer to the first question — my favorite framework is the mother f’in very smart turtle framework.


Nate Baker

Associate UX Designer, Prolific Interactive

1. What’s your favorite project framework, and why (waterfall, agile, hybrid, lean)?

I can’t say that I have a favorite framework per se, since I’ve only been exposed to one in my career. But at Prolific our approach is a hybrid of agile, waterfall and lean. We borrow the basic rituals that underline the agile method — sprint planner, daily stand up, retro, etc. — within a waterfall framework (i.e. design proceeds development), along side lean methodologies. And to make it even more confusing, our approach changes from project to project based on the client needs.

But if I just hone in on the UX Department, our approach can best be defined by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seidenat’s book, Lean UX, which came out in 2013. The book, in short, describes a scrappy iterative approach to UX that prioritizes insights and collaboration over deliverables and siloed thinking. I’ve found this to be a great way to maintain team alignment, while iterating in an agile way.

2. Can you name a specific example of a project where you used this framework?

I’m going to call an audible here and give you an example of project where I used a different framework — I think it’s more interesting. On a recent project for a brand I can’t name, we took a slight departure from our usual process and implemented a more traditional Agile framework. In particular, our design team gave the developers shells of the features we’d be creating. So while the engineers created the basic engineering framework, we could focus on prototyping and testing.

It sounded good in theory, but when it came to implementing it in practice we had a lot of issues.

3. What do you think is a current weakness of your favorite framework, or a way that it can be further improved?

Sticking with the story of my most recent project, there were some clear points of contention that were beginning to show early on. Design was gaining insights through our research that challenge some initial assumptions of the framework we gave our engineers. So as a result we were stuck with the difficult question of rewriting/refactoring code or accommodating the research insights to our best ability into the framework we’d started with.

Unfortunately the project got put on pause due to a reprioritization of business goals for our partner, but the key learning for me was the importance of designing without code. The implications of refactoring code and the costs associated was becoming a burden on the Design team that could potentially push us to compromise the user experience.

4. What’s your least favorite framework?

I don’t really have a least favorite framework, since I’ve only used one for the most part. But I would say that the framework needs to fit the problem. I don’t think it’s so much a problem with the framework itself, but the situation in which it is applied. And in the case of our last project, designing, coding, and conducting user research simultaneously was not working for the problem we were trying to address.


Ricardo Medina

Product Designer

1. What’s your favorite project framework and why (waterfall, agile, hybrid, lean)?

Probably a hybrid. Agile It keeps things nimble and flexible. Easier to adapt to change, but sometimes you need to do more work upfront in design which can be slightly more towards waterfall. When building and developing, agile for sure.

2. What do you think is a current weakness of your favorite framework, or a way that it can be further improved?

It’s hard to full on design in agile, or in pieces because as a designer you need to really understand the whole project. Focusing on parts can leave blind spots. Mixing it up is usually good to target larger sections while still being nimble.

3. What’s your least favorite framework?

I don’t like designing full on waterfall because you don’t really know how it will end up getting developed at the end.


Conclusion

As you can see from their answers, there isn’t one shoe that fits all sizes, especially in an industry such as UX that is still in its infancy. It’s very important to stay open-minded, and to accurately adapt your project plan based on the needs of your team, and the needs of the project at hand.

Thank you for your time, and please feel free to leave any thoughts or comments below. Open discussion, whether complimentary or constructive, is always welcome :)