What Designers Can Learn From Agile Philosophies



According to the Agile manifesto, the highest priority of Agile development is to “satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery 
of valuable software.” Any designer can appreciate this goal, despite some hesitancy about doing what it takes to get there. But designers who want to stay relevant in a fast-evolving industry should take note: the traditional Waterfall approach is outdated, and Agile is here to stay.

Two Models, Two Missions

With a waterfall approach, designers have the brand, aesthetics, and experience mapped out before building begins. While this is obviously a more comfortable approach from the designer’s perspective, it’s neither the most efficient nor the most successful process for the project as a whole.

The Waterfall Development Model:

  1. Requirements are delivered to the designer.
  2. The designer creates a comprehensive strategy that covers all aspects of the product.
  3. The designer turns work over to the developer, who builds the product, referencing the designer with revisions that come to light during this stage.
  4. The project is tested and verified, and further revisions are usually made.
  5. The product is shipped.

The Mission: to deliver in bulk at the end of a long and linear process a product that anticipates and solves all concerns before iterations begin.

Unfortunately, there is hardly any project that doesn’t run into issues in the middle of the process. And with a waterfall model, it can be very difficult to make revisions after so much work has been done in the preceding phases.

On the other hand, Agile development is bewildering at first to any designer. A holistic understanding of the project is no longer the key objective; instead, seemingly hasty and slapped-up solutions to individual issues are presented with the full knowledge that these designs might need to be altered at the very next step.

The Agile Development Model:

  1. Requirements are intensively discussed by a team of designers, developers, marketing strategists, and any other key players in the project.
  2. The project is broken up into a series of solutions that are intensely pursued by all members of the team. Prototypes are interactive; wireframes and static mock-ups are barely used.
  3. As each solution is created, it is tested and verified against the project’s original goals and the solutions of other components of the project.
  4. The product is shipped.

The Mission: to deliver a product that is functional from the first iteration, by working in quick, modular phases that emphasize present solutions over past work.

Despite a couple of issues that designers must learn to accommodate, Agile development is a strong approach with many incentives:

  • It’s much faster, both because of the nature of the workflow and because it cuts down on overhead and downtime.
  • It’s more collaborative, allowing each team member to be fully up to speed on the project as a whole as it’s happening.
  • This collaboration often results in greater creativity, as any member of the team can present solutions at any time.
  • This system also enables a quicker identification and continuous integration of issues that before would have resulted in time-sucking overhauls, thereby saving even more time.

This being said, there are a couple of issues that designers must learn to overcome to be an effective part of an Agile project:

How to Phase into an Agile Mindset

For a team that’s new to Agile, a good way to get a little more comfortable with the process is by executing an iteration zero. This means getting everything you need in place before you produce the first functional iteration, including:

  • A sketched-out timeframe
  • A list of features and goals
  • Background research into new technologies
  • Background research into the prospective users

This approach should be phased out once your team is more comfortable working in Agile; view it as the step between Waterfall and Agile that makes everyone a little more comfortable before diving in.

How to Maintain a Comprehensive Vision

Of course, a common complaint with Agile products is that they lack a consistent vision; it’s the natural byproduct of the frenetic pace and modular approach. The designer must learn to develop and maintain

the vision while “on the job,” so to speak, constantly tweaking components to fit an experience they develop piece by piece.

This last component is probably the biggest issue that designers have with Agile development. They might argue that continuous integration is a developer’s technical tool, and not something that a creative can be expected to put up with. However, a perfectly apt reference takes note of the fact that filmmakers often work in that fashion, filming each scene according to logistical concerns, and realigning the artistic vision through post-production. It might be a new method for web design, but it’s proven to work in other creative applications. And with all of the readily apparent advantages that come with the philosophy, it’s clear an Agile mindset is worth learning.

Luke Clum

Luke Clum is a graphic designer and web developer from Seattle. He loves UI design, alpine climbing and the soothing splash of earl grey. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeclum.

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