Bringing Human-Centered Design and Agile Together

If you’ve worked in software development, whether in an Agile shop or alongside Human-Centered Designers, you’ve probably noticed a tension between the two camps. It’s a common problem in the industry — one that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering each of these frameworks has different origins, focuses, and priorities.

While both Agile and HCD address real needs in software development, they’re also each limited in a number of ways. So, what happens if a company figures out how to integrate HCD and Agile as complementary aspects of a broader, more effective framework? They create a system that enables them to build the right thing the right way. 

1904labs has committed to an HCDAgile approach since its inception, just over three years ago [here’s a 3-minute video of our approach]. Sharing what we do, how we do it, what works well, and what is hard to do, is the goal of this series of blog posts.

This first post will focus on the Agile gap involving Planning.

Planning: Adjusting the Course

Agile aims to build products efficiently through a flexible, iterative process, with a focus on adding value as early as possible, and adjusting incrementally along the way. Alternatively, HCD, among other characteristics, has a concerted up-front planning focus — reminiscent of Waterfall approaches — that seeks to understand and identify what would add the most value before any development begins.

Agile moves quickly, but it’s often unclear what should be built to add the most value, especially in the early stages of a project. HCD takes too long, and — in line with a Waterfall approach —  tries to do “too perfect” planning up front, so the value and direction you initially identity may change by the time development begins.

To sum it up: With Agile, Plan Less and Adjust Quickly. With HCD, Plan More so you won’t need to Adjust nearly as much.

Despite the bias toward action advocated in Agile approaches, we believe that the best products come when design precedes development — when just enough planning occurs to set the team moving in the right direction. At 1904labs, this begins in earnest in our Discovery phase, where we learn as much as possible about the “three legs of the stool”: the business, the technology and the users. If any one of these aspects goes ignored, the project results will be suboptimal at best.

After gaining these insights, we ask two questions:  “What’s the ideal?” and “What’s doable?” Another way of framing these two concepts is melding “the art of the imagined” with the “art of the possible.” Answering these questions allows us to come out of the Discovery phase with a shared vision among our teams, our clients, and the users — including a roadmap that gives us a good idea of where we’re going, and how we plan to get there. In addition to helping our teams stay on track, the roadmap serves to manage the expectations of everyone involved.

In short: Waterfall approaches spend too much time and effort in planning. Agile spends too little. HCDAgile strikes an optimal balance between too much and too little planning.

How to plan a road trip

Another way of understanding the benefits of upfront planning in HCDAgile is to ask yourself: Given a specific methodology, what’s the best way to plan a road trip to, say, Disney World? Let’s look at three ways you might do so.

Waterfall

You spend months researching and planning each day of the trip, detailing exactly where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. After spending time understanding what your family wants to do, you set a bee-line for Disney World, calculating the shortest, quickest way there. But along the way you miss opportunities — like the The US Space and Rocket Center —  that weren’t part of your plan. You didn’t stop at that cool restaurant a few miles off your route. Maybe you didn’t realize a road you planned to take was closed due to construction, and you wound up losing time waiting because you wanted to stay on your original route. All the planning you did was supposed to make the trip more direct, but you missed some cool opportunities not identified in the plan, and due to unplanned road closures, ended up getting there late.

Waterfall

Agile

You and your family decide on a vacation to Disney World. You depart taking a southerly route, and you detour often along the way to see some interesting sights. On the way, your family stops at Six Flags for a couple of days, and has a lot of fun, but gets “theme-parked out.” You also realized you had to rush to get to Disney World because of the time you lost at Six Flags, so you put in some very long hours in the car. By the time you got to Disney World, you just wanted to stay in the hotel and watch TV. The “just in time” planning made it easy for the family to change direction, but the time spent exploring opportunities along the way resulted in a last-minute rush to the destination and less time there to enjoy the park fully.

Agile

HCDAgile

Your family decides on a vacation to Disney World. Before you depart, you spend some time creating a flexible plan to get there early enough to fully enjoy the park, and get back home in time for the end of your vacation. You depart taking a southerly route, stopping to see the sights you planned to see along the way, like the The US Space and Rocket Center.  Your family also embraces changes to the plan, deviating from it to have lunch at a cool restaurant, or to identify  an alternate path to your destination that bypasses construction. By researching the destination and being open to making changes both early and along the way, your family was able to enjoy the journey while remaining focused on the ultimate destination and a great family vacation experience.

HCDAgile

Building the right thing the right way

Much of the tension between HCD and Agile comes from a disagreement over how much planning teams should conduct before beginning development. HCDAgile is that sweet spot between too much and too little planning. In Discovery, by front-loading the right amount of understanding to the Agile process, you can be sure you’re adding maximum value in the early stages of a project. It’s proof that HCD and Agile aren’t inherently oppositional, but rather complementary when you harness their natural strengths.