Balances Between Agile and Usability

Jakob Nielsen on the use of Agile methods:

Agile’s biggest threat to system quality stems from the fact that it’s a method proposed by programmers and mainly addresses the implementation side of system development. As a result, it often overlooks interaction design and usability, which are left to happen as a side effect of the coding.

In my experience, mostly as a developer, it is really easy to dismiss interaction and usability design for two reasons.

The first comes from the developers themselves, trading prettiness and consistency of user experience for cleaner and sounder domain models whenever they go in opposite directions. Signs this is happening are developers crying YAGNI when the stakeholders ask for a zoomable chart or DTSTTCPW when a sortable, paginated data table is required.

Next time you see a system where there are enormous listings of items with no search, pagination or sorting, ask the developers if they have ever watched a typical user at work; chances are they have only thought about the system as they see it: since the testing dataset is usually small, a loop spitting out a bit of HTML for each element isn’t such a big deal. They might even say there’s a story to implement all that lovely stuff later on, but they just get moved over and over to the bottom of the backlog barrel… until everyone watches a person struggle to find needles in a tabular haystack all day. This is a simple example – almost too trivial actually, but one I’ve seen happen way too many times.

Changing the perception that usability is just the icing on the cake draws attention to all that wasted time to the stakeholders, and should enable a much better dialogue: developers get to write an application users will love, stakeholders spend their money wisely on something that will actually increase return on investment (as productivity gains), users feel empowered and less likely to make mistakes. Everybody wins.

The second reason UI design and usability get overlooked, and this is the one Frank alludes to in his latest post, is that some agile teams rely a bit too heavily on the stakeholder’s descriptions of what is wanted. It instantly reminded me of one my favourite quotes from Cars:

Lightning McQueen: All right, Luigi, give me the best set of black walls you’ve got.

Luigi: No, no, no! You don’t know what you want! Luigi know what you want. Black-wall tires, they blend into the pavement, but these white-wall tires, they say look at me, here I am, love me.

Lightning McQueen: All right, you’re the expert.

I find it rare for the stakeholders to know exactly what they want, down to what the end-user experience should be like. Thinking about a reasonably-sized application at this level of detail can only be done as a series of small, incremental steps and having someone on the team who is really obsessed about making every single pixel on the screen be in the right place. And if you read the last sentence and thought “well, that’s not exactly the role of my stakeholder!” you get the point: the stakeholders should not have the final word as to what the usability and experience details should be, in the same way they simply delegate to and rely on the expertise of the development team to flesh out the details of a persistence layer.

Have look and feel expertise in your team, and trust it, in the same way you would trust the database or network connectivity expertise.