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November 4, 2022

What does Agile mean for a Designer?

Lisa Panke



UX/UI Designer & Webflow Developer
Buffalo, NY

Why I’m asking this question

I am a self-trained designer, who decided to switch careers from management to something more creative and human-centered, which is UX to me. In my previous positions as Project Manager and Team Lead of various tech startups, I have worked with developers in an agile environment. However, when I became a designer, I was asking myself what agile means when you are suddenly part of a team and in a completely different role.

I started my residency at ZEAL after a couple of freelance projects, and suddenly became a designer in an agile software agency. Even though sprints were not new to me, I wondered, where I fit in and what agile actually means for a designer. Luckily, ZEAL has the expertise in-house and there was no better person to talk to about this topic than my manager, mentor, and Director of Design: Amy Dutton.

This article holds invaluable advice from Amy that we learned during one of our Friday-Streaming Sessions.

Streaming Session with Sunjay, Lisa, an Amy

So what does “Agile” mean?

In a project environment, Agile is an iterative approach that helps teams to deliver in small chunks rather than betting on the “big bang”. Working in smaller and more concise increments means less headache for everyone involved and creates space for change and adaptation at any given point in time.

If we look at the word itself, what does “being agile” really mean? For me, it means being flexible, open to change, and able to pivot without getting attached, but that’s probably the Yoga Teacher in me talking... By the way, the CEO and Co-Founder of ZEAL gave an interesting TEDx Talk on Learning to live life in an agile way, which is absolutely worth watching, but back to the topic…

During our live-streaming session with Amy, she shared the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto, which I hadn’t seen before. The manifesto emphasizes that early and continuous delivery while welcoming changing requirements and treasuring face-to-face conversations, teamwork, and trust, lead to customer satisfaction.

Agile Manifesto

Of course, there is much more to agile than the principles, for example, ceremonies, pointing, and sprints. Get all the information in this Agile 101.

How designers fit into agile

To my question “How do I as a designer fit into a sprint while trying to maintain a human-centered design process?”, Amy related the first principle of the manifesto (“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”) to design as follows:

“We are doing discovery, we constantly have our clients and stakeholders in meetings and try to determine the earliest point of delivery. What is the smallest thing that we, as a design team can go ahead and deliver? This could be a UI Flow Diagram, a Sitemap, or a Story Board. By giving the client those deliverables early, so you can get feedback, you can get the best deliverables possible.

User Research fits beautifully into agile because we are not immediately launching the whole application. We are creating and designing a flow, asking people what they think, doing user research on that, getting their feedback, and implementing it. All of this happens before the solution gets coded out, so we are able to iterate on it and make it better before it actually goes out into the world.”

How to collaborate in an agile environment

I also wondered what an ideal collaboration between designers and developers in an agile environment looks like. “Even though we are trying to produce our designs ahead of time, we can also work with developers in parallel.”, Amy explained. While we are designing, developers can already set up environments or work on the backend. A developer’s preference might be to have the designs linked to concrete stories ahead of time, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Being agile means being able to wire everything together no matter the order of things.

As a mental health advocate, I asked Amy if she ever experiences stress during a sprint, which constantly requires changes and adjustments to the design. She stated that she usually doesn’t feel overwhelmed. One of the reasons is ZEAL’s approach to always focus on the top ticket: “Don’t worry about the points, don’t worry about the velocity. Velocity just gives us a better estimate about what’s to come and is based on data, that you can confidently speak to. Focus on the top ticket.”

Take the top ticket

These were just two excerpts from our conversation on that sunny ZEAL Friday. Watch the full streaming session Agile Conversations.

How can we be more agile as a designer?

But there is more! Amy had some great tips and tricks for designers:

  1. “If you can get over yourself, get over your ego, the frustration of that, the end result is always better.”
  2. “Never hold on to a design that is not helping the end user. That doesn’t do anybody any good. Your design won’t be successful, because it doesn’t accomplish the purpose that it needed to.”
  3. “I don’t think agile is as complicated as everybody makes it out to be. You have the ceremonies to make the whole system work, you create your tickets and work through them, and constantly keep iterating. That’s all there is to it.”

What I have learned

I learned that being agile and being a designer actually go pretty well together. Designers can still follow a human-centered process, design, test, and iterate before the actual development starts. Being agile means not clinging to your designs, delivering early, and collaborating with your team.

I felt relieved by hearing that good project management can prevent stress during a sprint for a designer. By focusing on the top ticket and trusting the PM, a team will be able to deliver on time and to the customers' satisfaction.

My personal takeaway is that Agile is not a big, scary thing, that I need to understand through and through or practice in depth. Agile is a way of working, and as Trever, ZEAL’s CEO framed it, “A way of living”, that allows us to succeed and accomplish the most awesome results.

Photo by jana müller on Unsplash

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