Top 3 Reasons Designers Object to Agile and How to Overcome Them

This content is syndicated from Agile Development Blog: Scaling Software Agility by Ben Carey. To view the original post in full, click here.

As larger organizations are diving into using Agile methods, we hear a lot of questions about how teams integrate various specialities and skill distributions. One common question that is frequently asked by traditional UX departments is “How will our work and focus change?” Moving from traditional design practices to agile design practices is a big step and requires a significant shift in both thinking and approach.

Jeff Gothelf is the Director of User Experience at and is at the fore-front of the Lean UX movement. Jeff is also active in the Lean Startup community and posts frequently to his blog and twitter (@jboogie).

I first ran across Jeff at a talk that he gave at the SXSW conference this past year called “Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business.” Jeff’s talk was excellent, extremely well-received by the audience and heavily discussed across the Lean UX and Lean Startup communities for quite a while after the conference. I frequently send copies of his Smashing Magazine article (written to accompany the SXSW talk) when UX teams enquire about the shift to agile thinking.

In this post, Jeff shares his experience in addressing the top 3 reasons that designers initially object to agile and ways that we can help introduce alternative thinking to traditional practices.


When first introduced to Agile thinking and processes, user experience designers often balk. Years of software projects and interactive agency-driven initiatives have built strong waterfall muscle memory. Successfully integrating these designers into Agile teams and, more importantly, Agile thinking requires allaying their most important concerns. The three objections below are not the only obstacles to Agile and UX integration but they are the biggest ones. I’ve provided ways to overcome these issues that have worked with my team at TheLadders. Succeed here and you’ve taken a significant step towards creating a higher-performing team.

Objection #1: No more BDUF
BDUF stands for Big Design Up Front. It is what’s known in the waterfall world as the “Design Phase” – a period of time that can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months where designers can take the project’s requirements and ideate, at length, over how the solution will manifest in interactions and aesthetics. Designers will typically explore various workflow options, data collection tactics alongside aesthetic, layout and typographical treatments. Even with the addition of a Sprint 0, which allows designers one sprint to get “ahead” of the development team, BDUF vanishes. Designers new to Agile will protest that they are not given enough time to think about the solution and that in no way can they turn around a design in the given timeframe. This resistance alone can quickly kill the momentum of an Agile team.

To understand how to resolve this issue, we need to examine its root causes first. BDUF allows designers time to think about the entire experience the team is building. The expectation is that at the end of the design phase, the entire product is designed and spec’ed out. In addition, this is typically the first and last time the designer will get to spend a significant amount of time on the project so everything must also be right as there’s no (significant) going back.

When introducing Agile to designers, it is imperative to stress that they focus on only a sprint’s worth of design work. In fact, they should hesitate to design too far “ahead” of the development team as priorities may shift after each incremental release and that additional work may go unused. Focusing on a sprint’s worth of work dramatically reduces the workload for the designer. All of a sudden, turning around a much smaller amount of design work becomes much more realistic in the given timeframe.

Second, Agile is iterative. There will be another sprint and it will provide another opportunity to refine and build on the work currently being implemented. The waterfall designer’s mindset doesn’t expect that. The expectation is that the work will be launched never to be touched again. By convincing your designer that this is the first iteration of the implementation, that learnings will be collected and that subsequent iterations will give her opportunities to update, improve and resolve the UX you begin to alleviate the concern that a less-than-finished piece of design is released to customers.

Objection #2: Minimum Viable Product
Designers don’t design Minimum Viable Products. They design robust experiences that demonstrate years of training and skill. The idea of putting out an experience that is “good enough” is antithetical to a designer’s mindset. To her, it feels like half-assing the project.

“Yes, I can lay out a simple, grayscale grid that displays the data but with a few more days I can create color-coded representation of that same data complete with hover states and interactive menus.”

This is a variation on a common refrain from designers new to Agile thinking. The idea that each iteration is being used as an experiment to prove a hypothesis runs counter to the on-the-job training many designers receive at companies and agencies they’ve worked with in the past. In those scenarios, there was typically a “big idea” conceived by a high-ranking stakeholder and the team executed that idea to its fullest. There was no opportunity to get a lightweight version of the idea out, validate it’s potential and iterate from there. This is the true power of the MVP.

A good UX designer is well-aware of the benefits of customer research. Couch the MVP as just that – a way to ensure we’re meeting customer needs. What is the least amount of product we can design to prove this approach is valid or not? Using the MVP as a research tool puts it neatly within a familiar UX toolkit, demystifying it and increasing the designer’s level of comfort with the technique.

There’s a second challenge with the MVP – who gets to define what is minimally viable? In many organizations it’s the development team. In others it’s the product owner. As the responsible party for the User Experience, the designer wants a say in this decision. By including the designer in this decision, you, again, increase their comfort level with releasing what they feel is an incomplete product. Because they had a say in it, they can reconcile the experience in their minds as “complete enough” for this iteration.

Objection #3: Collaborating with non-designers
Agile espouses collaboration and conversation. Designers are comfortable with these tactics, as long as their collaborators are other designers. When asked to discuss their unfinished work with their teammates, defense systems are engaged. At the root of the problem is the designer’s sense of uniqueness and value derived from a belief that only designers can design. Hence, why should she consider the opinions of a software engineer regarding the informational hierarchy or layout of the page? This objection is exacerbated by the other two mentioned earlier. The lack of up front design team and a drive to release minimally viable experiences early on leads to what designers perceive as “unfinished” work. It’s one thing to show rough sketches (both literal and digital) to another designer but a non-designer will likely misunderstand it, provide feedback on the wrong elements and critique elements that aren’t fully baked.

To mitigate this, focus these conversations with non-designers more on functionality and feasibility rather than design elements. Review the rough work for the interactions and data requirements and set those expectations up front. Stress to your designer that discussing these directional sketches earlier in the process provides the developers with a better idea of what they’ll need to do, especially on the back-end, to bring this experience to life. If done well, these initial conversations will build a level of trust between designers and others on the team paving the way for more open discussion and the ultimate contribution of everyone to the design.

While there are other reasons designers struggle with Agile adoption, these three are the hairiest ones to overcome. Each one is a challenge and can take many months to get through. The mitigation tactics laid out in this article are techniques that have worked well for TheLadders. They are, by far, not the only way to bridge these gaps and bring teams closer together. What’s worked well for you? What other objections do you think should be on this list?

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