The increased adoption of the agile development process within the digital industry can present a challenge for incorporating rigorous research as part of the design process, particularly in the way that we have traditionally approached research. This is due to the time involved in doing research with rigour.

Not including research can result in building products that do not meet user needs. This is ironic because this is also one of the reasons for organisations embracing agile. That is, to ensure the end product aligns with user requirements instead of spending years building a product that is not what people want.

At its essence, research is about extracting information. However, that information only has value if it is accurate and can be relied upon. To make doing research worthwhile we need to do it properly.

The problem: Conducting rigorous research within an agile development process

Research can be a slow process, potentially incompatible with the rapid iterations of Agile. This is due to:

  • Recruiting participants for research activities, qualitative activities like interviews, or moderated usability testing, can take as much as 2-3 weeks.

  • Conducting qualitative activities such as interviews or contextual enquiry is time intensive. This typically constitutes days or weeks of work as opposed to hours.

  • The analysis phase can also be time intensive; identifying the insights from research requires time as opposed to regurgitating observations and direct feedback from users which adds limited value.

A photo of a impact marix of ideas

Incorporating design research into an agile process.

Much like the culture shift which is required to go ‘agile’, research also needs to become a part of the culture. Here are some ways to include research in agile.

1. Effective planning: Research activities must be planned for. Sprint zero can be used to define the research needs generally, as well as the information sought from research. This could include any outstanding questions regarding users and identifying the design assumptions that require validation. Research activities can then be scheduled for upcoming sprints which can accommodate the time involved with recruitment. For example, we can schedule a round of usability testing for in 2 weeks' time, to test the primary design assumptions and include any questions that arise over the coming weeks.

2. Using time-efficient techniques and tools: Online quantitative techniques such as un-moderated usability testing, tree jack studies for testing IA, surveys and online card sorting can be conducted without the lengthy fieldwork periods associated with qual techniques. Some of the great tools out there include Userzoom and Optimal Workshop. User zoom offers a comprehensive suite of UX research tools including un-moderated online usability testing, card sorting, IA testing and survey capability. Optimal Workshop is another example of the tools available, offering card sorting and IA testing.

A further factor reducing the time associated with utilising these tools is their analysis functionality which can dramatically reduce the amount of time taken to complete analysis in comparison to in-person methods. Time is also saved via the automation of data collection.

3. Placing the right systems and processes in place: A key requirement is setting up access to customers to be able to get rapid feedback. A database of customers who are willing to participate in research is ideal. This can be effectively supported by an active social media presence. By having a system to get access to customers quickly it is possible to rapidly reduce the time involved in recruitment.

Customers can be asked to get involved in research during a sign-up process or via communication channels such as email.

Another approach is to schedule research which takes place at set intervals. For example scheduling customer interviews once a month, every month, regardless of the research needs and information required. Tomer Sharon (UX Researcher at Google) discusses using this approach to great effect at Google on Gerry Gaffney's UX Pod. He conducts ‘Fieldwork Fridays’ where he gets software engineers to conduct the research with customers on a regular basis and argues that this has a huge positive impact on their products.

Both of these approaches overcome the shortcomings of long lead times for recruitment. The key is to conduct research in a time-efficient manner by removing unnecessary overheads.

Example: bringing it together

To provide an example, I recently conducted a card-sort within an agile team at SEEK. There were questions about how the IA should be labelled and grouped; an understanding of how customers thought about the content was core to creating a successful design. Evidence was also required to justify decisions to stakeholders. On a Wednesday morning, I created the card sort in Optimal Sort with around 40 cards. At midday, it was sent out to customers. By 10 AM the next day I was analysing the results and in the afternoon I was able to provide feedback to the product manager and the rest of the team. This was a great example of having the right systems in place and making use of the right tools to provide rigorous and highly rapid feedback.

By ensuring research is time efficient, its' value can be realised in agile environments, and a culture can be created that embraces and values research.

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
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Chris Gray

Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer

Chris is a leader in the Human Centred Design field with a 18 year track record of improving customer interactions with some of Australia’s largest organisations. He is a strategic thinker who brings a calm and considered approach to tackling complex problems. An accomplished workshop facilitator, Chris excels at engaging with senior stakeholders and guiding projects to success. Chris has expertise in user research, service design and embedding Human Centred Design within organisations.

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