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The secret sauce to agile success? Adding software architects and content strategists to your design squads.

Agile is an awesome concept. Moving fast, constant communication to avoid hiccups, sitting in pods, the thought is great. So why is it failing for so many orgs?

The first issue is that orgs call themselves agile that are DEF not agile at all. Relabeling your waterfall process and switching up where people sit does not an agile team make.

So where are the rest of the main fail points?

At the company where I worked previously, we started out going full scrum. We had a scrum master, passed a ball around in the morning (which gave me massive anxiety since I’m basically the clumsiest person in the universe—catching a ball pre-3rd cup of coffee was a nightmare), tracked the daylights out of every task, wall papered with post its, we were in the zone.

The methodology worked for us for several months, until we split out into a mobile team and a desktop team. Suddenly scrum became a trial and tribulation. We were spending more time tracking tasks than we were actually completing them. The 15 minute meetings in the morning were dreaded, we started spiraling into a state of constant frustration. Our poor scrum master was getting the evil eye on the daily and the tracking software became the enemy. Our meetings to plan sprints started to take hours, arguments broke out over feature time estimates, it was pretty much a train wreck.

Then we saw the Spotify video about their engineering team organization, and things improved significantly! The mobile team and the desktop teams stopped trying to use the same workflows since they didn’t work, and things got easier. But there were still issues with communication between devs and the design team, even though they were constantly in meetings communicating with each other. There was a language barrier.

The design crew was focused on killer UX, the dev crew was working crazy hours to try to make it all happen, but the prioritization of what was most important became a huge hurdle. Moving a button seemed REALLY stupid to the dev crew, as did changing a label, but usability testing showed a massive improvement in workflow by doing it. In a perfect world, details like that would have been caught in the prototype testing phase, but this isn’t a perfect world.

So, our awesome VP stepped back, took a holistic look at the way our org was arranged, and made a change that improved things 10 fold.

He split the dev crew into parts. 3 developers were brought over to the design team, one paired with each designer, and renamed Software Architects. Read: researchers/translators.

Rather than sitting the designers, content strategists and devs in the same area, the software architects, designers and content strategists all sat together.

So what was their purpose in life? The architects sole focus was collaborating with the designers on researching HOW the seemingly magical things the designers were asking for could be accomplished without making the devs want to leap from 5th story windows/adding 3 months to the project timelines.

They worked closely with the designers to identify design elements that would take excess time, and would discuss whether they were key features that were worth the investment, or small details that could be tweaked.

As a designer, occasionally I’d ask for something that I assumed would be easy, then I’d find out later that it took 2 days for the devs to make happen, when it was purely cosmetic without a huge UX impact. And since it was part of the design, the devs just assumed it was important.

Why didn’t we discuss it? Because asking about every single feature in a design isn’t ACTUALLY possible in real life. When you’re on an schedule, you need to keep moving. Regular communication sounds like a great idea, but when the designers and developers are all trying to get work done, constant meetings to discuss details can derail productivity instead of improving it.

So basically, it sucked and everyone was frustrated. Specifically the developers when they found out something they wasted 2 days on wasn’t as important as they assumed.

So, enter the software architects. We all sat in a pod space, designers, content strategists and architects together.

Why didn’t each architect sit in a quiet space with the designer they were assigned? Because siloing is terrible and it’s counter productive.

Sitting together gave us the opportunity to collaborate on difficult design problems, both the designers AND the architects. Splitting your designers away from each other is a awful thing to do. Designers feed off of one another, removing them from each other can zap their energy and effectiveness. Collaboration is the key to killer UX.

So each architect/designer/ CS team sat down in the mornings to go through their designs. The designer would explain to their architect in detail why they made the design decisions they made, and the architect would point out areas that would be time consuming to code. The designer would then rank the importance of those tasks and adjust the designs based on the feedback if items weren’t key.

For the items that were trickier but necessary, the architect would then take the time to go out and research the quickest/most effective way to make the difficult/time consuming features happen and note it in the design.

The designer and architect still met with the developers, but instead of having to spend 90% of the meeting going over features/importance/difficulty explanations, 100% of the meeting was spent explaining choices and handing off. It saved HOURS of meetings. It was phenomenal.

So, if you’re trapped in an “agile” nightmare, try adding some software architects to the mix. They’re ABSOLUTELY worth the investment. Even if you can’t afford a 1:1 ratio, adding a couple architects to your design team will make a massive impact on your team’s productivity. Architected design methodology is game changing.

UX Blogger ~ Product Designer ~ Sr Mgr of Design Community Partnerships @InVisionApp Opinions are my own ❤ (© 2014–2019 Jennifer Aldrich)

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