Notes from the Agile UX Retreat at Cooper

This last weekend, a group of about 30 UX designers, developers, and leading thinkers in the Agile UX space (Jeff Patton, Ward Cunningham, Alan Cooper, Lane Halley, Desiree Sy, and William Pietri among others) met at Cooper in San Francisco to talk about the power and the challenges of integrating the Agile and UX disciplines.

Photos by Chris Nodder.

Not surprisingly, there were a wide range of opinions.  More surprisingly, for such a large group, we were able to keep our discussion focused and productive.  These are some of the big take-aways that stood out in my mind.

The Us/Them Challenge

We intentionally had attendees with a mix of backgrounds, including UX designers, developers, testers, and managers.  A consistent theme throughout the event was that of the Us/Them challenge, of how the separation of work among team members is a fundamentally negative force working against the project’s chances of success, and goes to the core of why traditional waterfall methods so commonly fail.  That separation, be it via role-based silos, throwing work over fences created by phases of work, or the underlying mentality that What I Do Is Different From What You Do, is the source of the Us/Them camps within teams and the havoc they create.  Agile, in contrast, seeks to minimize the Them and maximize the Us, not just through focusing on distributed knowledge, but also on distributed understanding and empathy for other team members.

We tussled over the issue of how much work UX designers should be doing on their own, how much work they should be doing up front before involving developers, and ended up rallying around the cause of the barely sufficient Iteration Zero, of doing the absolute minimum separately from other team members throughout the project.  And when Us/Them thinking would creep into our discussion, such as when a UX designer started talking about the importance of alone time, someone else would call out “Us/Them, Us/Them!” as a kind of mantra of the event.

What is the relationship between UX and the Agile team?

We had a lot of interesting discussion re. where UX fits into, or what its relationship is, to the Agile team.  The idea that UX should be more a competency and less a role resonated strongly. Alan likened the software team to a sports team on a field, in which everyone has set roles but their actual work can be fluid across the field/project. We also discussed the role of the UX Developer, a prototyping competency dedicated specifically to simulating User Experience, as a powerful pattern in Agile UX – at least two of those attending were from organizations that had independently adopted this practice.

Toward a Post-Agile Paradigm

But perhaps the most interesting take-away from this event was that there was a strong feeling among us that we are moving toward (or have already entered) a Post-Agile Paradigm, meaning that what we really are talking about here is not the Agile your grandparents knew and loved, er, I mean the Agile which the original signatories (of which one of them, Ward, was attending) articulated in 2001.  Remember, Agile in its original form is largely silent about UX.  Our conversation was about a paradigm in which the voice of UX plays an equal role in the project chorus.

Here are a some nugget quotes from the event:

Proccesses that are able to embrace the unexpected will look sloppy to the outsider. -Ward Cunningham

The only products that are really done are the ones that die. – Jeff Patton

If you work really hard to please your customer you will most likely fail. If you work really hard to please your user you will most likely succeed. -Alan Cooper

Iteration Zero is about paying down strategic debt. -Desiree Sy

Product ownership is a team effort. -[Don’t recall who said that]

At the end of the event, Lane was leading us through a root-cause analysis, to help us drill down into specific causes and corresponding actions we might take.  We actually were not able to quite finish this exercise before we ran out of time, which sort of left us with a kind of cliff-hanger motivating us to organize a follow-on event, which I very much hope we can do in the near future.

Also, other attendees have posted links to their blog posts about the event at the Agile Experience Design social network.

Thanks to the following companies who made this event possible!

Atomic Object, Cooper, HP, Pivotal Labs, and TechSmith.