The Importance of Including UX Researchers for your Agile Development Team

A Turbulent Mix

User research and agile development don’t always get along with each other. Typically, agile development focuses on building features by breaking things down into small pieces. User research isn’t always tied to a specific feature, which makes it difficult to fit into the average two to three week sprint schedule. Despite the difficulties, it is still extremely important to include UX research in your development schedule.

The Challenge of UX/User Research in Agile Development

In agile development, user research (which includes UX, user interviews, diary studies, and usability testing) is often approached in the same way development teams build new features: by breaking the workload down into several smaller pieces. However, this approach often leads to a number of challenges. These include:

  • Research spanning multiple sprints:Sometimes development teams may be unable to complete their user research studies within the timeframe of a single sprint. This can create backlogs, leaving the item unresolved across multiple sprints.
  • User/UX research studies too narrow in scope: Without proper planning, user and UX research may be too narrow in scope to address the most important issues.
  • Difficulty interpreting research findings: Project stakeholders and team members are used to dealing with completed designs and may be unable to interpret research findings optimally.
  • Development prioritization: Unless there is an extensive discovery period before initiating development, user research results may come in during the middle or end of the development process. This means design teams may end up working on features that aren’t aligned with user insights instead of addressing the most important issues.

Due to these kinds of challenges, user and UX research often ends up neglected in agile development environments.

The Challenge of UX/User Research in Agile Development

Updating your agile process to focus on UX/user research early in development can help align the team on the highest priority issues. An additional research cycle can also be invaluable when utilized near the end of development as it can validate whether the features your team created solved the user problems. These two small steps can go an extremely long way to ensuring your product will be positively received by its customers. 

It is called ‘agile development’ for a reason. One of the main differences between agile and traditional development is the ability to respond to changes versus following a strict plan. In agile environments, teams should be focusing on continuous learning and discovery. UX and user research should be the driving force behind that discovery throughout your projects. Many development teams seem to view research as a side project or discovery phase at best. But including at least some research throughout each development cycle helps the team learn while refining their goals for the project.

Guide Your Sprint by Conducting Foundational Research

After identifying themes and aligning your team in the preliminary phases, you can begin to break your themes down into overarching questions and plan your research study accordingly. Depending on the questions you’ve created and the type of product you are building, using immersive options such as contextual inquiry or one-on-one interviews for in-depth research is suggested. The results of this early research phase will lay the foundations for your project moving forward.

Leverage Research Findings to Inform Design and Development

After conducting, collecting, and analyzing your research data, you need to ensure it is harnessed by your team to better inform your agile sprint process. Your main goal is to let everyone digest the results of your research and arm them with the necessary insights to create a high quality product. You can do this in a number of ways, including: Q&A sessions, research share-outs, office printouts, or workshops.

Utilize Evaluation Studies

While the development team is busy at work creating solutions to problems you identified during the research phase, you can get a head start by planning an evaluation study. Evaluation studies differ from UX/user research in that its intent is purely to evaluate whether the features your team has built actually address the issues identified during the discovery phase. Your team can utilize strategies like one-on-one interviews with users, concept testing, observational studies, and post-usage interviews. After your evaluation studies, you should take similar steps to those you performed following the discovery phase. Make sure your team has access to the research findings and time to digest their implications.

End of Sprint Reflections

Once your sprint is completed and you have run your evaluation studies, your team should reflect upon the outcomes of your development process and begin gearing up for your next cycle. If you were able to complete the objectives of your sprint and solve the related user issues, then congratulations, your sprint was a success! Your team now has more confidence and experience in agile development than before. If you weren’t fully able to achieve the set goals, don’t panic. You can still take those unresolved issues and use them as the foundations for the next cycle in your sprint. Start from the beginning by aligning your team on the most critical issues and kickoff by refining your questions so you can tackle those issues first.

Final Thoughts

We hope this guide will help you understand just how important UX and user research is throughout the agile development process. The key is making sure that each action taken throughout the development cycle is both aligned with the sprint objective and also solves user-specific issues. Your team should be relying upon UX and user research to assess whether or not the outcome of your sprint will be successful. By implementing these strategies, you will have UX/user research embedded throughout the creative process from start to finish. This will align your team and empower them to address the most critical issues identified in user feedback. 

Kassidy Jezierski Blog Image

Kassidy Jezierski is the Operations Lead at Lithios. She works to clearly communicate the capabilities and optimal engagement opportunities between Lithios and its clients. In her free time, she enjoys finger-painting pictures of lambs and docile sheep.

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