Managing UX – part 7: Darci Dutcher (PhotoBox Group)

Another interview in the „Managing UX” series – this time in English. I’m talking with Darci Dutcher, Head of User Experience and Design at PhotoBox Group. Darci is a user experience designer and consultant with a background in cognitive psychology and technology. Her first job was designing airplane cockpits! Since then she has done UX work in industries including travel, finance, publishing, not-for-profit, compliance, and technology. She’s passionate about Lean UX and Agile methodologies and will be speaking at ACE! Conference on Lean and Agile best practices in Kraków, Poland 16-17 June 2014.

Maciej Lipiec: For most UX people the platonic ideal of design process is User-Centered Design. UCD is iterative in principle, but could be so slow, costly and heavy on documentation, that it becomes waterfall in reality. Designers often don’t have time and budgets for months of research and speculative design upfront. We are asked to provide tons of documentation and sometimes barely have time to iterate our solutions. Can UX be more Agile?

Darci Dutcher: Yes, most UX practitioners and teams can definitely be more agile. The most successful projects I’ve been focused on ensuring that the right skillsets are present in a team, rather than just having the right job titles. Balanced Team (balancedteam.org) is a group of people, mostly UX people begin with, who are pushing this idea about ensuring that the right skillsets are present on a team rather than having a set of specific job-titles. I find this attitude very helpful for moving UX people (and whole teams) in a more agile direction. Without devolving into „design by committee” if more people believe in a decision, the easier it is to get a project completed. The right level of documentation is whatever helps move the team to the next decision and next piece of work. I have a long legacy of beautiful wireframes that never met the light of day in working software – what a waste of my time and the time of the companies I was working for at the time. When a team (and by that I include the business side of a company) can do their job with less documentation, that’s great! And it means people can focus on doing their job which is building software! To me, UX people are meant to be helping build better software – there’s nothing in that description about creating wireframes or sitemaps, but those might help.

ML: I think there is now a new trend of „Micro UX”. It’s all about working from bottom-up and focusing on the most important details, instead of typical UCD top-down approach. First experiment, build something small, then test and improve. Dan Saffer wrote a book about „microinteractions”, and there was an interesting post about „Micro UX” on Huge agency blog. I think it goes hand in hand with Lean UX and Agile. What do you think about it?

DD: Microinteractions are fantastic! Small moments of pure delight and positive experiences. These are great. However, I don’t think this should be at the expense of getting an overall flow right. The trickiest thing for many UX people is rapidly switching between big picture thinking and tiny implementation details – it can induce whiplash in even the most experienced people. The balance is incredibly tricky, but is increasingly important for our customers/users. We cannot ignore implementation details or you risk ending up with some very strange interactions, however, UX should not just be about the micro details either.

ML: What is the role of UX Designer within the Agile development process?

DD: To be the voice of the people using the software. For me, UX plays an important role in reminding teams that people will have to use their software, while also offering the value of being able to visualize how things will work/look before code is committed. Throwing out a post-it note or erasing a whiteboard is a lot easier than losing days/weeks of code to a bad idea.

ML: Does every iteration or sprint in Agile needs to end with some working software? It makes sense when you are optimizing and developing an existing product. But what if you are redesigning from scratch something huge, like an online banking system? Designing ahead seems unavoidable – so it is really just waterfall in small packages? How do you integrate UX design with development?

DD: It’s about finding a balance. There will always be some designing ahead – overall page structures, functionality, etc, but there is a difference between knowing that at some point you need a way to take payment and knowing the exact pixel location of every element on that page are two different things. I’ve found that using very sketchy drawings to show overall flow is helpful, and as pieces are completed, overlaying a screenshot on the drawing helps show how software can start to come to life. It also gives reassurance that things aren’t being forgotten, as there is a place holder for most of the functionality even if the details aren’t ready yet.

ML: How do you involve users in the Agile UX process?

DD: I try to run as much usability testing as possible – sometimes face to face, but also unmoderated testing with tools like usertesting.com and whatusersdo.com. I’ve successfully used a „five on Friday” approach where 5 users come in every week (or every other week) and then we test whatever we have – sketches, prototypes, live software, competitors, or just talk to the people about relevant topics. There is always something to test and there is always value in having team members meet and see the people who will really be using the software. This approach can work in b2b and b2c settings – the most important concept is to never go very long with putting something – anything – in front of people. This also makes user involvement seem less like a big one-off event. If talking to users seems to be a huge event for a team or a company, then it is less likely to happen as often as is best. So making it a more casual, and regular event, means that everyone seems to accept the value of talking to people.

ML: UX Designers love their personas, user flows, flowcharts, sitemaps, wireframes, specs and reports. Agile values „working software over comprehensive documentation”. How do you deal with documentation at your company?

DD: It’s honestly a bit of a mix. Some projects have more documentation than others. One thing we’ve done though is try to standardize on the names of specific deliverables, so that if a project team asks for an „scenario” or an „empathy map” there is one standard format that we use. This has helped to reduce confusion about exactly what UX deliverables really are. However, we do tailor our approach to each project to help balance the often conflicting needs of time, budget, research, etc. Some projects just get hand drawn sketches, while others get fully designed mock-ups and analysis of data.

ML: Could you describe some successful Agile UX projects you were working on?

DD: The best description of any of the most successful project I’ve worked on really comes down to eliminating job titles, focusing on skillsets and understanding that the best ideas can come from the most unexpected places. For these projects, UX was not just a step in between the product owner/business analyst and the dev team – it was tightly integrated with both sides. UX research was used to influence the business priorities, and then sketches were often used by the developers to ensure feasibility. The projects were often quite light on mock-ups, flowcharts, etc, but there were sketches on whiteboards from nearly every member of the team.

Everyone should participate in user research, even just watching one usability testing session is an eye-opening experience for most members of a development team.

ML: What is the best way to start with Agile UX in a waterfall company?

DD: That’s difficult to do. Agile UX really ties into an agile mindset across an entire company. Using Lean UX approaches for showing the value of research can help, but in a truly waterfall company, agile UX can be a difficult starting place.

ML: In a sentence, what makes a great UX designer – in Agile team or otherwise?

DD: Attitude. Having a good attitude and approach to design are the best indicators of success in every UX designer I’ve met or worked with.

ML: What will be the topic of your talk at ACE! Conference?

DD: My talk is called „Experimentation > Expertise” and is about how an open-minded approach to design and experimentation within design processes is better than a „hero designer” mentality. Even the best designers need to continue to stretch their knowledge and be open to being wrong.

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