How to Build Better Digital Products By Embracing Human-Centered Design (HCD) + Agile

Striking the right balance between Agile methodologies and Human-Centered Design (HCD) principles paves the way for product development teams to find the right customer-market fit. At the risk of oversimplifying, HCD provides a framework for "thinking" about product development, while Agile provides the framework for "doing". Calibrating the “thinking” vs “doing” is critical to developing great digital products.

When combining these strategies, it is important to note that some of their basic tenets are at odds with one another. Agile methods focus on eliminating inefficiencies found in the Waterfall model of project management (“doing”). They encourage design and development to happen concurrently to foster increased collaboration and teamwork. On the other hand, HCD principles highlight the importance of user research to discover and solve real user-facing problems (“thinking”). They suggest a discovery phase at the beginning of the project with limited or no developer involvement.

To better understand each method and how to resolve this tension tension between them, let's review the basic tenets of each strategy.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development

Agile methodologies are best explained by the Agile Manifesto, which was penned by a group of seventeen leaders from the software community while on a ski trip in Utah in early 2001.

The manifesto reads as follows:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
4. Responding to change over following a plan

Although the technology landscape has changed significantly since the Agile Manifesto was written, Agile Coaches, enthusiasts and avid practitioners agree that these principles are still key to guiding successful Agile development. While different frameworks may interpret them differently, they remain a core component of both conversation and study around this strategy.

The Top 4 Principles of Human-Centered Design

One of the top scholars of HCD is Don Norman, an accomplished researcher and professor who serves as the director of The Design Lab at University of California, San Diego. He is best known for his books on design, especially The Design of Everyday Things.

Much of Norman's work involves his advocacy of HCD. His talk Principles of Human-Centered Design is considered by many to cover the fundamental teachings of the theory.

These principles include:

1. Focus upon the people
2. Find the right problem
3. Think of everything as a system
4. Always validate your design decisions

In his talk, Norman identifies two types of problems — fundamental problems and symptoms of the problem. He argues that it’s essential to solve a fundamental problem first because by doing that you’ll solve a root cause of other problems. He contends that no matter how much time it takes, development cannot begin until the right problem to solve has been identified. Failure to do this could lead to an ineffective product that does not meet the needs of users.

Bridging the Gap Between Conflicting Strategies

In essence, both strategies are trying to achieve the same goals of fostering collaboration, solving real problems, and keeping customer satisfaction at the forefront. The main difference between HCD and Agile is how various staff roles are applied to a project and at what stages they are involved.

To remedy this healthy tension between the strategies, we assert the following practices that allow HCD and Agile to work together effectively.

Include Developers Early On

Although developers may not participate in user research, they can still be part of the design process early on. Design sessions would ideally include developers, the people who will use the services, and designers who are experts at engaging users and interpreting qualitative feedback.

As the software is developed, designers would review changes regularly and the whole team would participate in validating the service with real users. This fosters greater collaboration and communication, as well as ensures that proper user research is performed throughout the project timeline to ensure that the right problems are being focused on by the team.

Trust Performance Metrics Over Research

Some challenges, such as making a high-demand software component perform faster, require little user research, yet can deliver high impact results. While user research is certainly important, it should not be trusted over performance metrics. When a team can get something testable in front of real users, they will be able to make more informed decisions about their product roadmap.

Reserve very in-depth user research for user-facing functionality that is new or different. The more innovative your project, the more it justifies the amount of time spent on research.

Add More Customer Facing People to Your Team

In commercial technology industry, there is often a tendency to have too high a ratio of engineers compared to other roles on the team. This is often due to a focus on rapid development rather than customer-centricity.

When in doubt, always refer to the people in your organization who interface with the people that experience the problems that the team is trying to solve. A balanced team should involve the same number of user-facing people as software engineers. This includes product managers and user experience experts. In some cases, members from other teams such as sales, customer experience, and support should also be referred to in order to better understand the voice of the customer.

Measure Productivity by Value, Not Volume

More lines of code do not directly translate into a product that better meets user needs and business goals. In Agile, many teams try to measure their velocity to understand their progress. However, this practice can fall short as it is only important to a specific team in the context of its own achievements.

The only measure of productivity that matters is user satisfaction. Craft KPIs related to your users experience and the value it provides.

Above All, Act in the Best Interest of the User

In conclusion, Agile and HCD are best combined when they are utilized with the common goal of creating happy customers. This will calibrate the "thinking" and the "doing" in the best interest of the user.

Through this calibration, the product design and development processes will become more effective and more resilient. Resilience enables teams to focus exclusively on generating user value, rather than getting locked into a specific plan that does not result in meeting user needs.

By following the suggestions above and keeping users first, product development teams can work together to resolve the healthy tension between Agile and HCD in order to generate the most value for their users.

December 15, 2020
Tiffany Chang
Tiffany Chang

Tiffany has a deep understanding of how to help complex organizations build digital products. She’s phenomenal at leading technology teams and communicating with her business counterparts on roadblocks, status, and the best way to move forward. She perfectly navigates the complexities of working with clients to help them build better products faster. Read more

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