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Prior to Sprint Zero: A Note on Jakob Nielsen’s “Agile User Experience Projects”

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Dr. Jakob Nielsen published the results of a follow-on study to his 2008 report Agile Development Methods and Usability.  The bottom line from the 2009 study (entitled Agile User Experience Projects) is as follows:

The two main recommendations for ensuring good usability in Agile projects remain the same as in our original research:

  • Separate design and development, and have the user interface team progress one step ahead of the implementation team. That way, when it comes time to build something, it’s already been designed and tested. (And yes, you can do both in a week or two by using paper prototypes and discount user testing.)
  • Maintain a coherent vision of the user interface architecture. Create the initial vision during a “sprint zero” period — before any implementation has started — and maintain it through annual (or semi-annual) design vision sprints. You can’t just design individual features; they have to fit together into a coherent whole — a whole that must be designed as well. Bottom-up user interface design equals a confused total user experience (the Linux syndrome).
  • I would like to highlight one implicit sub-aspect of Dr. Nielsen’s good counsel to maintain a coherent vision of the user interface architecture:

    • Ensure coherence with the underlying application paradigm

    To illustrate the point, think of a Business Service Management Application. You might monitor any number of servers, routers, databases and applications in order to ensure that a service satisfies the corresponding Service Level Agreement. However, the user interface architecture should have service as its fundamental concept. The architecture should certainly enable zooming in on any component of the service. But, the status of any such component (or sub-component) is merely means to an end: reflecting the status of the service and initiating as appropriate action(s) to fix it. Forming a service piecemeal from a number of constituent elements like those mentioned above – servers, routers, databases, applications, etc.  – is no substitute to “service orientation” of the user interface.

    The reason for my strong emphasis on the service as the most fundamental user interface concept is nicely captured in the article “How to Spell BSM” by BSM Review‘s Tom Bishop:

    Most businesses today are so dependent on IT that, if an IT organization does not understand how the business depends on its services, or does not manage those services with that business perspective in mind, they are dooming the business to slow, steady death….

    Dr. Nielsen’s recommendation to conceive the initial user interface architecture prior to beginning any implementation work is very consistent with this imperative need in BSM to manage the services from a business perspective. I would actually go one step further and contend that whenever the underlying paradigm changes in a manner as dramatic as the servers –> services in the BSM example above, demonstration of the core concept(s) of the user interface might need to precede the “sprint zero” period. In the context of the overall planning and budgeting process which governs the Agile process, such demonstration could actually be a pre-requisite to launching “sprint zero.”

    If you consider this “prior to sprint zero” approach a bit heavy-handed, I would offer a simple test to assess its reasonableness. Play with a number of IT Service Management (ITSM) products that you picked in random. Once you did so, compare the numbers of those that clearly have services at their core, to the number of those that integrated services into their user interface as an afterthought.

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