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Keepin’ it agile – a recipe for successful UX research during short sprints

19 March 2018 | By Bart ter SteegeManaging Partner
Attention, this is an old blog.

It’s a little ironic. The agile way of working is meant to be client -and user focused, because of the speed of working and short sprints. This means fast product development, speedy testing and easy product improvement, all based on user feedback. In theory. However, in reality it is slightly more complicated. Due to this speed of working, the role of the UX researcher, and therefore the focus on the user, often comes second. To be truly agile, but also user-focused at the same time, requires a different approach to UX research and even a different type of UX researcher. 

Which skills and personality traits does an excellent UX researcher need in order to add value? We had a chat with Imke Weijers, UX researcher at Jungle Minds (a Dutch digital design & technology agency). Working for clients like LeasePlan Digital, AFC Ajax and Tommy Hilfiger. 

Let’s assume that everyone understands the importance of being user centric. So, what’s the challenge?

You’re right. Most clients do realise it is essential to be user centric. However, in practice, it’s the user research that often comes second. This is either due to the budget, or the assumption that it is already clear what the user wants. But often enough it is because of how research is applied during the product development process. Traditional research won’t do as it cannot compete with the speed of agile working. And, yes, for that reason, people will consider research as a delaying factor, a bottleneck.

What do you mean by traditional research? 

Lots of paperwork, massive reports, tons of preparation time, a researcher who doesn’t sit within the team. A phase that takes place prior to product development. Things like that. Therefore, working as a researcher in an agile environment demands a different approach. The product development process is extremely fast. Due to the enormous work load, the team does not have time to wait until all user insights are available, let alone read large, wordy reports.

That makes sense. So, what’s the answer to this? 

In a nutshell. Research is not just one phase within the agile process, it is on-going. The researcher is the user-ambassador and strategic sparring partner for the Product Owner (who needs to consider more than user-insights only). A true member of the team. With access to the backlog. Present at all crucial stand-ups, meetings and reviews. And fully aware of the scale and scope of the project.

Does this mean you only work with one team at a time, full-time?

Not necessarily. As an ‘agile’ UX researcher, you are flexible, move with the team and the phases within the product development process. And that is exactly the challenge. Every product and phase are different, and, therefore, also different in intensity. This means you are sometimes able to work with two teams (or even three!) at a time. However, at other times, you are busy enough with just the one team, and product. 

Roughly speaking there are three phases: the concept phase, the product/market fit phase and the growth phase. Your role will be different for each phase, in terms of intensity and the research methods used. This means that you, as a UX researcher, need to have the skills to apply these different methods. You need to be flexible enough to offer exactly what a team needs from you during each phase.

So how does your role as a UX researcher change for each phase? 

Every new project starts with a concept phase: thoroughly exploring and recognising the needs and issues, collecting all insights that may help finding the right solution. What is the current user behaviour? What are their needs? What are their issues? You also have a look at competitors, and the current market. What are the trends, not only in technology? Together with the team, you use these findings to come up with the initial concept and develop the first prototype that will be tested amongst users.

Your involvement as a UX researcher is intense during this phase. Results are based on how well you work with the team. Your focus: constantly reminding the team of the insights and helping them demonstrate proof of concept. Not by typing up long-winded reports, but by enthusiastically sharing those insights that matter. What makes a great UX researcher is being able to understand and connect with all the different disciplines within a team.

Well explained. So, what is your role within the team during the product/market fit phase?

As soon as the core of the proposition has been validated through qualitative user testing, and the scope for release has roughly been determined, the first product backlog (a prioritised feature list) is set up. The team will start the sprints. Your role as UX researcher is two-fold from now on. On the one hand, it is really important to avoid obstructing the agile product development process. On the other hand, you need to ensure that the team keeps the user needs in mind. This requires anticipation and flexibility by the researcher.

At the same time, you will try to be one step ahead of the team during the sprints. In order to respond quickly to any questions that might arise a few sprints along. You need to be ready for any impromptu sparring or validation questions. For example, you might be asked to run a quick test to see whether a solution is working for users. To deal with practical questions like these, speed is of the essence: a team cannot afford to wait a long time for your response as they will miss important sprint deadlines.

As soon as it is time to go live, things get really exciting. Not just because ‘your baby is entering the real world for the first time’, but it will also be the first time you will have quantitative results. After product release, you will have first sight of user statistics, NPS scores, feedback tools and much more. All real feedback. You will know which features need to be prioritised during the growth (continued development) phase, and at the top of the backlog.

Time for growth! What is your role during this particular phase?

When the product phase has indicated that there is a need for perfecting certain features and exploring additional extensions, the continued development phase, or growth phase, will start. Now you have access to real users. This means you can implement quantitative tools, like A/B testing, to answer certain validation questions. The emphasis of your work will move towards being more quantitative, rather than qualitative. However, qualitative and empathetic skills are still important. For example, you may further explain the quantitative insights with additional knowledge you obtain through user interviews. At the same time, the product might need to grow and, therefore, new markets need to be addressed. This means you will need to start the more exploratory phase and methods of research again.

How do you know whether you have the skills to be a UX researcher, within the agile environment? 

To some extent, you need to have the skills that every researcher needs: being inquisitive, analytical, empathetic, critical, assertive. As a researcher, it is crucial to be critical, to get to the right question, the real issue, and choose the correct research methods to answer that question.

However, you will need some additional attributes that specifically make a difference to the agile way of working. You will need to know a wide spectrum of research methods, both qualitative (interviews, trend analysis, usability testing and more) and quantitative (surveys, A/B testing, analytics). A team will truly appreciate working with the same UX researcher throughout the whole process. With someone who does not only understand the target audience but also the scale and scope of the project. This requires a research generalist, as there is simply no time to involve a different type of researcher for each phase of the project.  

Also, within the agile process, it is even more important to be a good and empathetic communicator. To be a valued member of the team, it is crucial to stay critical, and explain and translate all insights to the team. To be pragmatic when needed, as it is not always possible to come up with the perfect solution straight away. Sometimes it is better to make small changes in order to understand and learn from the user properly. Therefore, you need to be able to empathise with all that is essential within the project, and then choose your battles wisely.

What is the most important lesson you have learned? 

Research within agile product development has to be an essential part of the process. It is not only a phase, but on-going team work. Every team should invest in UX research throughout the process, like it invests in testing and refactoring. This will require a different approach by clients, teams and definitely also by UX researchers. Clearly, having good, basic research skills is fundamental for success.

But in the end, having an inquisitive, empathetic and collaborative personality really is what makes researchers successful within an agile environment.