For a very long time, Human-Centered Designers (HCD) have struggled with the intersection of validity and efficiency when working in Agile development environments.

What do I mean by that? Lots of HCD folks have been trained in traditional research methods, such as Contextual Inquiry, iterative usability prototyping and testing, and many others. While some of these activities can take a couple of days, many can take more than a few weeks or longer.

For HCD folks like myself who work alongside Agile developers, we recognize that traditional research and Agile development occur on two very different time continua. Agile typically exists in the realm of two-week sprints. Yet, HCD activities have a range of timeframes, many of which exceed the length of a typical Agile sprint. This brings us to a critical question that has plagued development shops trying to incorporate HCD:

How do we ensure HCD research is valid while still being efficient?

#HCDAgile is an approach that focuses on, among other things, coordinating HCD efforts with development efforts to ensure that the timeframe of HCD activities are done in a timeframe that supports development. Of course, this coordination takes a lot of planning and a little math but it also requires HCD methods that embraces the Agile ethos and cadences.

So what are some of these methods? I’d like to talk about one such method: The Five Ss.

What is the Five Ss?

Many years ago, I pioneered an activity called the 3×3. The 3×3 is a rapid prototyping exercise that occurs after business requirements have been gathered, and contextual inquiry and persona/journey development have occurred. Once key user tasks are identified, multiple prototypes are explored and tested in a 5-day iterative sequence, resulting in a single solid prototype.

The Five Ss takes that concept and boils it down to 90-minutes.

Now, before I get into details, I want to be sure you’re not buying snake oil. There is no way to be as thorough in 90 minutes as you can be in 5 days. But we are working in an #HCDAgile context. Agile is about getting enough Just-In-Time information to move forward in the development lifecycle, with many opportunities to refine and validate later.

With that, here are the Five Ss.

To prepare for the Five Ss, get the right people in the room: the key people who understand the nature of the activity you are going to prototype. In Agile, it’s often the development team and key business stakeholders – no more than 5-7 altogether. Then, get started!

  1. Scope. Spend time scoping out the task you are going to design. The scope should be in the form of sentences started with the phrase, “I want to…” The attendees are encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of the users, and describe things in non-technical, practical terms.
  2. Steal. The attendees then spend time looking online for examples of solutions similar to the one you are trying to craft. It may be in a different domain, a different task. But virtually anything you’re trying to design, someone has designed something similar to it in the past. Use this as inspiration!
  3. Share. Go around the room and share what everyone has found. Tell what you like about it, and how it might apply to what you are trying to design in the present.
  4. Sketch. Now, everyone gets a chance to take pencil to paper and sketch their best approach to solving their design challenge, using everything they know about the problem space. Usually, this means 3-4 screen mockups in a storyboard-type series of sketches.
  5. ‘Splain. Now, go around the room, and give everyone an opportunity to present and explain their sketches. Everyone else chimes in with regard to what they like, questions, what they could improve, etc., about the designs.

Once the session is over, the HCD person collates the design ideas and mocks up the best solution, based on everyone’s ideas and input. That solution can be taken forward to prototyping, testing, and eventually, implementation.

Does this Five S technique solve every design issue throughout the project? Of course not. This is Agile. The key is to stay targeted, to provide enough information to support the project, and to move development forward. There will be time later to test MVPs and other aspects of the larger design. But the Five Ss can help drive HCD into Agile in a way that augments, supports, and accelerates development – that’s the goal, that’s what we strive to do.