UX in the Agile Environment

The adoption of Agile software development approaches are on the rise across the UX industry, which means UX professionals are more likely than ever to support Agile projects. Many UX professionals have found effective solutions.

I first encountered Agile Development in 2005, when a team I supported was chosen to help pilot Scrum development methodology at Vignette. There are variety of Agile development approaches in use, but Scrum is currently the most popular: over 70% of software professionals using Agile methodologies employ some variant of the Scrum methodology.

When I left the company three years later, more than 150 teams at that company were using Scrum for developing both infrastructure and product features. In 2009, I moved on to Perficient, where Agile methods (including Scrum) were implemented across their entire User Research and development organization.

In my experience, when product development is managed with an Agile development approach, user experience professionals are expected to find a way to work within the Agile framework to succeed. But, while team members may be offered training or even certification on Agile development practices, the training rarely discusses best practices for integrating UX design into the development process.

I reached out to twenty UX professionals (including interaction designers, user researchers, and visual designers) who were actively supporting Scrum development teams. Many of the problems they reported indicated that both UX professionals and technical staff lacked a shared understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Other problems stemmed from UX practitioners feeling disconnected from the daily life of the development teams they supported.

Fortunately, for nearly every specific issue raised, some other UX colleague independently described an approach they had used to successfully resolve it within their team. I learned that effective relationships between UX and technical staff could be created and sustained by actively involving the Product Owners earlier in the UX process, by active participation by UX professionals in the Product Owner’s life cycle it trickled down into the SCRUM team activities.  Utilizing frequent communication with the Development team members about UX issues in the process of gathering requirements and the artifacts like wire frames and Hi-Fidelity Designs I found less GAPs when the developers produced code based on those artifacts.

Trust and Earned Respect

UX Designers and User Researchers share techniques to keep Product Owners and Developers informed and aware of their progress. This includes presenting information about their roles to teams, inviting teams to observe User Research sessions, and sharing Hi-Fidelity and Low Fidelity Wire frame documents to track progress on usability issues.  Being transparent about the UX process helps foster trust between the product Owners, and the technical and development staff on the scrum teams.

Creating successful relationships with the product teams by involving their scrum teams in the UX process–especially by collaborating on UX issues with development staff gives all ideas and contributions equal consideration regardless of the role of the originator, inviting all team members to give feedback on designs, and inviting them to participate in user research helping promote developers’ ownership of design decisions.

Being present in the life of the scrum team

Active team participation (beyond UX-specific activities) with the SCRUM team has success in building relationships and fostering trust, and with achieving more user experience goals. Frequent communication outside of standard agile interactions in addition to participation in regular scrum meetings, UX colleagues shared that adding meetings specifically devoted to coordinating UX activities with the team were successful in increasing ownership and a shared vision of the design direction.  Particularly UX was effective when regular check-ins with product owners for both user research and design, regular design review, or design initiative meetings with scrum teams, and weekly meetings with those working specifically on front end development (or even more frequently when preparing for usability tests).  When included with daily SCRUM meetings, UX was able to map a path to be ahead of the sprint by a few sprints and help relieve any design gaps identified in the current sprint.

Conflicting expectations around quality, fit, and finish

Concerns raised around UX were mostly related in some way to delivering a quality user experience–a key concern for everyone in UX regardless of role. Some issues related to conflicting expectations, specifically around a perceived lack of commitment to quality by developers and product owners. Perhaps because UX views the product through the lens of the user experience, UX professionals pay more attention to fit and finish than product owners or other members of a scrum team when judging whether a release is ready for launch. Some members of the teams felt that developers ignored specifications and resisted improvements, or that insufficient team resources were devoted to executing specifications aimed at improving product quality.

Lack of holistic planning and prioritization for the user experience

Concerns arise about designs being “bolted onto existing products incrementally without concern for the overall product experience.” Design managers often complain that they were brought in too late to the process, were left out of the loop on strategic planning, or were not adequately exposed to the product road map.  This happens when the UX process is supplanted for speed to get the “minimally viable product” live.  Many times I have heard this term, “minimally viable product” followed by the false promises to iterate the changes into the final product at some later perceived date.

Unclear expectations about the role of UX on the team

Many frustrations arise when working with UX in an Agile environment due to a lack of clarity around the role of specific UX members on the scrum team. In some cases, product owners and technical staff members did not have a clear understanding about the skills of UX practitioners, their overall role in the development process, or that they were a shared resource dividing their attention between multiple scrum teams. In other cases, the expectations held by different members of the scrum team about the timing and relationships between design and development activities appeared to be out of alignment.  Product owners or developers thought of design only in very tactical terms and did not recognize the value that UX brings to the product iteration process. UX team members expected to be included in developing product strategy, but many are not brought into the process until after requirements were set and coding had started, leading to problems with the overall user experience delivered.

UX team members expect ownership of the design of the user interface, including decisions about overall information architecture and interaction models–but this expectation will not necessarily be shared by members of the technical staff on Agile teams, who may perceive the role of the designer as simply “skinning” the user interface.  I have heard the term, “putting lipstick on the pig.”  This creates difficulties when developers code elements of the user interface ahead of, or at odds with, UX work with specifications still in progress.

Perception of UX as less valued than development

UX is often undervalued as part of product development. In particular, organization as have a “developer-centric culture” that often dismisses UX input, resulting in usability and utility deficits in the product.  Some PMs and Development managers have relationships with a few key developers and worked on product functionality with the exclusion of UX and left product direction entirely in the hands of a few key developers.  Those developers would want to work on the things they saw as “low hanging fruit” to the exclusion of UX input, therefore delivering partial product and incomplete code.  By doing it this way they also were redeveloping a lot of code that could have been identified as reusable and saved time and money.


Helping Product Owners, SCRUM Masters, and Project Managers understand the roles UX team members play within their own team’s time management skills, with improving their estimation of the overall body of work, and with understanding the roles and responsibilities of everyone on the project team helps improve effectiveness with Agile teamwork.

UX managers can begin by improving relationships between technical and design staff by actively engaging product owners, scrum masters, and technical leadership earlier on in the process.

Encouraging an atmosphere of trust and understanding between UX and development staff, and clarify the role of UX for everyone on the team, consider:

  1. Explicitly training people to recognize that including specialists on teams may be necessary for some projects or sprints, and to reject the old Agile dogma that openly denigrated specialization.

  2. Include training about UX practices and process in organizational training for developers, scrum masters, and product owners (including the relevant recommendations below).

  3. Setting clear expectations for involving UX in team activities.

  4. Setting expectations early that developers and product owners participate regularly in customer contact opportunities and iteration sessions around user needs (such as design studies and workflows).

Scrum masters

To encourage an atmosphere of trust and understanding between UX and development staff and clarify the role of UX for everyone on the team, consider:

  1. Team intros at project kickoff. At the beginning of each project, give each team member a brief chance to introduce themselves and explain what they will be doing and how they need to integrate with other team members. Allow team members to ask questions and clarify answers as needed. If there are serious disconnects between the expectations of different team members, use this time to achieve consensus about the role of everyone on the team.

  2. More in-depth definitions of each role on the team.  Give a member of each discipline a chance to deliver a presentation or talk to the larger team about their skills, their background, their experience, and the tools or techniques they use in their role. This will help developers understand what UX team members do and help UX team members understand the roles of different members of the technical staff.

  3. Include the UX team in synchronous and asynchronous communication channels (such as Skype, IRC or other chat systems.)

  4. Include UX goals and needs in sprint retrospectives.

  5. To create shared team ownership of expectations for fit and finish, consider clarifying the definition of ‘done’ to include UX criteria.

To enhance project planning and prioritization, consider improving estimation for UX efforts by:

  1. Adding knowledge acquisition activities and design exploration work to the product backlog.

  2. Separating design effort on each story from implementation effort in product backlogs.

  3. Experimenting with tools and practices that have been used elsewhere to improve estimation and tracking of UX work across the feature life cycle or within the context of a particular release, such as story mapping, design spikes, and UX matrices.

  4. To foster understanding and empathy for the needs of users, consider hanging appropriate persona posters in the team’s work area or scrum room.

Product owners

To improve holistic planning outcomes, consider:

  1. Drawing on the expertise of design managers and leads. Invite them to participate in early strategy and product iteration sessions.

  2. Identifying and validating core needs of target users before initiating development (and capturing that information in product persona)

  3. Using prioritized personas to groom the backlog.

To foster understanding and empathy for the needs of users across the team, consider:

  1. Associating user stories with specific personas.

  2. Scheduling and participating in a persona development process if appropriate personas aren’t available.

  3. Encouraging team participation or observation in user research activities. Consider making this participation explicit in the backlog so it doesn’t negatively impact velocity estimations. Opportunities may include joining daily stand ups, speaking to users at events and observing usability studies.

To clarify expectations for fit and finish, consider:

  1. Including UX criteria in the definition of done.

  2. Setting clear UX goals for each sprint.

UX managers

To enable more holistic planning, set expectations with product management and executives for UX participation in product strategy meetings at all levels.

To increase team communication across business areas or large projects, create and support mechanisms for communication about priorities, design themes and patterns, and design efforts in progress.

To enable stronger relationships to form between designers and scrum teams: consider:

  1. Limiting the number of teams each designer supports during any one release.

  2. Improving estimation for UX efforts across business areas by tracking velocities for UX across each area with a UX matrix, or maintaining a master backlog of all UX activities in conjunction with scrum masters. This data will eventually help support your requests for additional headcount.

To clarify the role of UX for everyone on the team, provide regular Agile UX training for new hires.  This training should cover:

  1. Known effective tools and practices, including design studios, story mapping, design spikes, RITE studies, and un-moderated usability tests (including click tests, card sorts and tree testing)

  2. Techniques for estimating and tracking design work.

  3. Explicit training about the role of UX within the Agile development process and expectations for how UX team members interact with technical staff.

Interaction designers and user researchers

To improve involvement of scrum teams in the UX process, consider:

  1. Inviting all team members to give feedback on design directions and listening to design ideas from everyone on the team, regardless of role. Design studios, product walk through, usability test debriefs and user research data interpretation sessions are all effective ways of soliciting this input.

  2. Inviting teams to participate in user research activities such as joining site visits, speaking to users at events and observing usability studies.

  3. Leveraging opportunities to provide more information about your role and about UX in general whenever a team member asks questions about your work.

To improve relationships and trust with stakeholders and team members, consider:

  1. Increasing your visibility in the life of the scrum team.

  2. Calling meetings outside of the standard agile interactions when necessary.

  3. Providing access to works in progress in a collaborative work-space.

  4. Listing UX issues and tracking their status in a shared document.

To foster understanding and empathy for the needs of users, consider:

  1. Reviewing appropriate design personas with the product owner and scrum team at the start of each release, and assign priorities to each.

  2. Hanging persona posters in the Scrum room as reminders.

  3. Associating user stories with specific personas.

  4. Including the product owner and scrum teams in the persona development process if appropriate personas aren’t available or complete.


The Agile Manifesto was written to promote better ways of developing software–but the twelve principles behind it are relevant to everyone involved in the process of software delivery, not just those who code. Better integration of UX specialists will result in better outcomes for the business and for developers who work with UX.

In the words of Scrum Alliance founder Mike Cohn, “Agile does not at all require individuals to be generalists, but individuals are expected to work together as a team.”

For Scrum and Agile to live up to its full potential, it must address the needs of all team contributors, not just software developers. Giving support and trust to UX contributors will help motivate them to do their best work and leverage more of their skills in the pursuit of excellence.


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