Adapting Usability Investigations for Agile User-Centered Design

Peer-reviewed Article

pp. 112-132

No PDF available for download.


When our company chose to adopt an Agile development process for new products, our User Experience Team took the opportunity to adjust, and consequently improve, our user-centered design (UCD) practices. Our interface design work required data from contextual investigations to guide rapid iterations of prototypes, validated by formative usability testing. This meant that we needed to find a way to conduct usability tests, interviews, and contextual inquiry—both in the lab and the field—within an Agile framework. To achieve this, we adjusted the timing and granularity of these investigations, and the way that we reported our usability findings.

This paper describes our main adaptations. We have found that the new Agile UCD methods produce better-designed products than the “waterfall” versions of the same techniques. Agile communication modes have allowed us to narrow the gap between uncovering usability issues and acting on those issues by incorporating changes into the product.

Practitioner’s Take Away

  • For our User Experience Team, Agile user-centered design resulted in better-designed software than waterfall user-centered design. Agile communication modes narrowed the gap between gathering usability data and acting on it.
  • Because Agile development is highly feedback-driven, product teams may rely on user opinion in situations where user observation is more appropriate. Usability practitioners can be the best-suited members of an Agile team to mitigate this bias because of their skills in gathering and analyzing user experience data.
  • It is possible to use the familiar arsenal of usability investigation methods on Agile (and other iterative development) projects, including formative usability testing, user and task analysis, interviews, and even field-based work like contextual inquiry. This is achieved by changing the timing and granularity of the investigations, and how results are reported.
  • Just as Agile (and iterative) development implement software as incremental mini-releases, usability and design activities can be scoped as incremental mini-designs. Different validation and elicitation activities can be blended within single sessions conducted at a usability lab or in the field. Design activities occur at least one Agile cycle or sprint ahead of the development team in an Interaction Designer Track separate from the Developer Track. Developers receive validated designs.
  • Prototype demonstrations and daily conversation have largely replaced detailed documents such as usability test reports and UI specifications when communicating with the product team. Documents are now written for interaction designers, to record a history of design decisions.