Top agile takeaways to apply to your design process

As designers, whether or not you have a focus on product, visual, fashion, motion or web, we are constantly faced with various process methods. Naturally, we work in a very iterative process, learning and evolving the concept as projects matures. Often times this is by utilizing design thinking and other methodologies to reach an outcome.

What is agile?

Many or most product designers have been immersed in agile teams or have been exposed to the project management agile methodology in some sort of shape or form. The term “agile”, in the case of product development basically means we break a concept or design into multiple pieces and deliver them in shorter phases of work. Going through various cycles of planning, meeting, designing, development, testing & iterating. This is instead of handing off a full design to development and saying “ready, set, go” (a.k.a waterfall methodology). This allows for the ability and flexibility to learn as you build and give you the ability to pivot and do shorter, more frequent design adaptations as a project continues. In many ways, agile has many crossovers with design thinking and lean methodologies.

In this day and age where in companies are releasing features in a higher frequency (sometimes multiple times a day, week, month depending on the company), it allows for the flexibility to ‘try it and learn’ as you go. It is hoping to reduce the amount of upfront wasted work and allow for mode adaptive changes as you continue to learn from what worked and didn’t work with users. As a product designer, it does pose a lot of benefits as we are constantly trying to understand and adapt to user needs and feedback. Agile, if done correctly, can help give us the flexibility and the canvas to do so. As the reality is in most design projects, we only know so much until we put it in the hands of users or the desired audience.

Top takeaways to apply to your design processes

Not every project type can fully embrace the methodology, but there are some learnings that any designer can learn and benefit from. For all of those designers out there who are not working in agile or work in other design sectors, here are my top learnings that could be applied to your own design process:

1. Avoid upfront ‘wasted’ work

One of the major takeaways when working in this environment was to be efficient with your time by avoiding unnecessary and wasted work. It is really easy to ‘waste’ time and energy focusing on unnecessary designs and details to show too much too soon. It is encouraged to do explorations, but be smart when to show hi-fidelity vs low fidelity designs or details. At the beginning phases of most projects, getting into fine details too early can turn into wasted work very fast, as projects can and will evolve and change rapidly.

For example, if working on an app design in the beginning phases of the project, we would focus on the flow of the app, and the basic bones of the pages before getting into the ‘nitty gritty’ details of all the UI interactions. Once those flows and basic bones adjust, it could make certain UI interactions irrelevant, thus creating wasted work. Many designers follow this practice anyways by using storyboards, wire-framing, process flows and low fidelity proofs to help communicate a concept. Do as much as is needed to communicate what is needed for your audience.

2. Know how and when to negotiate for ‘cheap’ vs. ‘expensive’ designs

All design projects have a time allocation and cost associated with the work we do. In the software world, when working with developers, we are constantly getting them to estimate the effort for certain features or components we wish to build. Sometimes depending on the effort level, this will result in us re-prioritizing or simplifying a design.

In some teams they will call an easy enhancement ‘cheap’ if the effort level is small. In some cases you can even receive ‘free’ items, when it is a feature that comes with another feature (a win-win). But you can often run into situations when a feature is very ‘expensive’ due to it being a high effort level. Without taking away from the experience, it is sometimes worth re-evaluating that feature and try doing a ‘cheaper’, less complex solution, instead of not doing it at all. It’s important to find a balance for when to advocate for a more complex design and it is an opportunity to learn from simplified designs.

3. Try to avoid “over designing”

As designers, we can occasionally have the tendency to ‘over design’ for a solution or concept upfront, we often want to address everything at once so we are solving all the problems we are aware of. Part of agile, is to learn when to prioritize complexities. Sometimes it does not hurt to try something very simple to start, learn from it and then start to add more complexities as a project continues. Sometimes, what you may assume is very important or the right direction, may not be once you receive feedback, data and get it into the hands of your audience. It is easier to add something later then it is to take away. This can allow for more flexibility for a project to pivot, weather or not it is digital campaign you are designing for, a training video template, software application or even a dress design.

4. Get feedback constantly, always

As designers, we are often well versed in how to ask for and take constant critique and feedback. In agile teams in software development, as product designer, you need constant internal feedback from development, product owners, business analysts & internal stakeholders to help evolve and iterate designs. Not only that, but constant customer validation and user testing. Those check-ins for both internal & external parties, are crucial to help evolve and prioritize product features and designs to get it closer to what users want. It also helps to ensure you are closer to success when releasing a product or enhancement. It is okay to fail, have negative feedback or have something not work quite as planned, because you should never have to fully go back to the drawing board if you are getting feedback continuously throughout a project and have been working iteratively. It allows you to make mistakes with less risks and wasted work.