The Lean Agile Executive Blog

Agile User Interface Design and Information Architecture from the trenches

I was a technology Director in a large web design company 6 years ago, and they failed to adopt Scrum. There were numerous management dysfunctions, however the Creative managers were the most resistant. Primarily it was a case of not wanting reality to hinder the pretty designs they were making in Photoshop or Illustrator with the reality of building enterprise software. Of course there were huge issues when these artifacts met the reality of enterprise architectures on the development floor. This dysfunction resulted in missed deadlines, high stress, low code quality, and 40% annual turnover in IT staff (and pretty graphics). Being at this company spurred my interest in UX and Agile, and I have since found basic solutions that work when people want to do Agile. To date I would say that of all the disciplines in creating software and especially web sites, UX people are the slowest and most resistant to adopting Agile principles and practices.

Here is the way I work with UI Designers and Information Architects who want to work Agile:

    1. Product backlog and its priorities drives all the work. So we work from business priorities not UI priorities.
    2. Sketch the highest level level UI for the site. No drill downs into buy flows, just top level.
    3. Look at the backlog and start thinking about what the team will need for UI 1/2 an iteration ahead.
    4. Make paper prototypes (sketches, paper menus, paper buttons) to support upcoming user stories for next sprint. Don’t embellish with new features UX thinks would be cool. KISS. Include validation and other acceptance criteria for fields. Reference style guide as required. Reference page templates as required. I call this a 1 page design spec.
    5. Review prototypes with PO, QA and lead dev a few days before sprint planning, ensure they think it is good enough and it is testable. Keep notes regarding potential trade offs.
    5a. Check in design docs, version them.
    6. Participate in sprint planing with rest of team.
    7. Work with team on implementation, clarify details of design (dimensions, locations, behavior, etc.). Work with QA on test plans for new UI. Help build UI (HMTL/CSS/PHP/etc) in dev IDE, pair with dev as they wire it up. Pair with QA to run test cases and implement automated UI testing (Ruby/WATIR, etc).
    8. repeat for every sprint.

To recap the UI designer starts 1/2 sprint ahead of the team, helps the Product Owner with UI issues, and creates very lightweight and flexible prototypes as input to sprint planning. The rest of the work is done within the sprint. I have found this is “just enough” lead time to have thought through UI issues without creating solutions in a vacuum away from the team.

Additional tactics to include:

  • Create a style guide for the team and have them read it, listen to their feedback and improve it.
  • Create templates: every page is not a unique creation. Refer to those templates in prototypes and design spec.
  • Break dependencies between UI/layout and business logic at beginning of the iteration. Agree on data/fields/controls at beginning so business logic can be rendered to a very simple layout free page.
  • Test your paper prototypes with users by asking them to do certain operations and then observing the resulting actions. Don’t worry about big usability testing at end, do it often and informally with people who are easy to access and know enough about that business.
  • bad idea ui tool

  • AVOID COMPLEX HIGH FIDELITY USER INTERFACE DESIGN TOOLS. They really slow you down and lock in decisions far too early. These decision are often wrong.

The root cause of an unstable UI design is usually a lack of detailed knowledge about the customer requirements and technical limitations. The product backlog and its user stories and acceptance criteria are probably not in very good shape. To cover these gaps the UI person has to go find out a lot of detail to create the design, which slows them down and results in numerous design changes during the sprint. The UI designer is likely having to make up for lack of knowledge or lack of effort on the part of the Product Owner. Fix this root cause by getting the Product Owner to improve the product backlog so the designer and the team have better user stories and acceptance criteria coming into the sprint. User Interface work is simply another form of software requirement, as are software architecture, features, and test plans. All of these activities can be done in a “just in time” and emergent fashion and result in consistent architectures and usable interfaces. Many are doing it today. However it does require people to change their behavior, and that is likely the hardest thing to do.

3 Responses to “Agile User Interface Design and Information Architecture from the trenches”


  1. There were some twits about this post. The idea was that the UI designer needs to be part of the Product Owner team. Well, we tried that, and it doesn’t work. At one client we had two POs for 4 teams and another PO who was the UX designer. It doesn’t work. The UX designer wants to control UI, while the POs want to get top priority features done. The UI gains a disproportionate power in this structure, causing changes in priority based on UI designer needs not the business needs. UI is not strategy, UI is not business value. UI is an interface. Major interface innovations occur slower than technology innovations in frameworks and language. How many times do we change the menu layout? The number of functional UIs is relatively low, and many UIs are very similar. UI is not strategy, UI is not business value. UI is user interface.

  2. Here is a link back to the original discussion on Linked in that caused me to write this post. There are some great comments by others including Clinton Keith on how they do this in video game development where UI and artwork are huge efforts. “Pre-Production Sprints to manage the creative process” in the Certified Scrummasters group http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=842347&type=member&item=41986493&qid=ff4bb2d3-bd00-49ae-9802-08fb4103926b&goback=.gde_842347_member_41986493.gmp_842347

  3. 3pm

    Couple of comments. In SOME CASES UI is realization of some very strategic things such as vision for product, brand, quality, competitive differentiation. Take for example iPhone. UI and UX is everything, technology doesn’t really differentiate it, it’s how user is presented with technology. You can zoom and rotate objects with traditionel controls as well… If you are building something you could buy as COTS, you propably shouldn’t be building it in first place. Buy package instead. Investing in own development is against lean in very deepest sense. However, if you want to acheive competitive edge by building something better (usually faster and more effective) that markets can offer, then you propably have to invest whole lot into UI as well. Artwork is another thing, that’s referring to “decoration”.
    The process you described is very much what usability and ux practitioners have been doing for ages. That is how it was thought in university… I’ve lived across change to more formal documentation, which was initiated by request from developers and project managers. Same develoers that forced me to do UML twelve years ago swear by SCRUM now and don’t want any detailed specifications. I’ve wished many times that I could replay many of the discussions for them now.

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