In recent years, Agile has become one of the most popular and appreciated paths for developing digital products. Agile product development offers plenty of benefits: transparency, short timeframes that keep the teams focused, as well as an iterative, incremental approach that enables flexibility to incorporate customer’s and stakeholder’s feedback at any stage of the development process.

However, while agile principles address and solve testers and developers pain points encountered during the traditional development methods, they seem to miss the UX perspective at all. No consideration is given to the time and resources UX professionals need to create and deliver a user-centered design. What is more, Agile Manifesto, the principle document delineating agile values, provides no dedicated guidelines for setting up collaboration between designers and developers and incorporating UX methods in agile development projects.

Over the course of many past projects, intive Kupferwerk’s agile teams have been seeking for a team set-up to enable full and deeply integrated collaboration between developers and UX designers. We discovered that an old-school set-up with long-term design projects, extensive deliverable documents and complicated hands-off from the design side was not meeting the growing needs for quick and responsive communication between UX and development. So we decided to fix it. In this article, we want to share the journey we took to discover and implement a 3-Mode set-up that efficiently combines product designers, product engineers and product managers in one flexible and responsive team environment.

Leveraging well established Agile UX principles to create the new set-up

The first problem we needed to tackle was that designers and developers had no clear communication flows and no regular updates on the progress of development. In other words, it felt as if the designers were not part of the agile development team. The first step we took to improve this was to integrate product designers into an already ongoing development project in a more organized and structured way. Therefore, we applied the well-established Lean and Agile UX tactics. With the proven and well-known methods and principles, such as pro-active, non-hero designers and an outcome over output mindset, we believed it would be easier to convince developers and other stakeholders to experiment with the new approach – we were right. As a result, the product designers became fully “accepted“ team members.

Instead of only attending the initial meeting and some occasional gatherings over the course of the project, designers participated in regular scrum-meetings such as refinements and dailies. They obtained access to the commonly used tools and frameworks and were allowed to test early and often as well as to prototype for future sprints. The results speak for themselves:

  • We reduced the amount of documentation because every project member knew how a jointly developed solution would behave without describing it on paper.
  • We increased the speed of adoption of user feedback and learned continuously.
  • We enabled a better and common understanding and collaboration between developers and UX designers.
  • Developers understood that designers are not just creatives who have an immediate solution to everything – they really understood that designers are no rockstars but ask a lot of questions and work based on hypotheses.
  • Furthermore, the product-outcomes were a lot better.

Facing limitations on the way to innovate

However, the new team set-up had its limitations. Based on the Scrum workflow, developers worked in sprints - usually 2-week periods where they implemented planned user stories. In this set-up, the UX designers working alongside the developers were serving either as sparring-partners for this particular sprint (we called it Mode 1), or they were preparing for the next development sprint (Mode 2).

Unfortunately, this left no room for the UX professional to gain a broader understanding and take a look at the big picture in order to generate ideas for new features. Moreover, as only finalized designs can be integrated into the development, designers were busy creating, testing, refining, and delivering their output fast. Facing these challenges, we had to find a solution which combines the benefits of Mode 1 and Mode 2 but leave room for UX professionals to work on higher-level and longer-term tasks that suit consistent and user-centered designs.

Creating a parallel product design workflow for better results

To address these challenges, we applied an idea of so-called Themes (we call it Mode 3) which is a set of two or more Product Design Sprints running in parallel to the main agile development workflow. To bring this idea to life, we increased the number of UX designers working in ongoing projects to enable collaboration with the core UX professionals, who were already working in the agile teams.

To improve the collaboration between the new UX designers and the developers, we arranged meetings directly after the agile-dev weeklies to chat about roadmap topics, such as new features and to gather feedback on the project in general. This approach brought immediate results as both parties gained understanding and better focus on the operative tasks.

Eventually, after a few lessons learned and team rearrangements, we managed to get the Theme setup together and running. Providing a structured and strongly integrated design-dev agile team with a great amount of flexibility for the UX professionals to generate tons of ideas outside of the development sprint limitations.

Integrating developers into the initial design phase

Within the Theme environment, UX designers were able to react quickly and to create better products iteratively. However, there was still one problem to be solved: how to integrate developers into the initial design phase before the agile development project (Sprint Zero).

Our idea was to work in the exact same way as we did in the Theme setup. In a new project, we integrated developers selected from the agile team into the initial design phase. We established regular and structured meetings to exchange ideas between the UX and development side and used the same collaborative tools to foster communication. Software engineers participated in UX workshops and worked alongside product designers in formats like Google Design Sprints or Design Studios, to solve a particular problem.

Implementing an integrated 3-Mode team set-up for outstanding results

This is how our blueprint was born. Now, we have integrated the 3-Mode team set-up in up to 70-80% of all intive Kupferwerk design & development projects and witnessed outstanding results:

  • We are able to build better products faster and more easily.
  • We established a new collaborative and open-minded working culture that helps to eliminate silos and isolated thinking.
  • We are able to support our clients to transform their business in a more effective way.

If you are seeking more detailed explanations on the best practices for integrating UX into agile development or simply want to exchange your views on how a full and deeply integrated collaboration between developers and UX designers can improve team results, we are happy to take your questions.

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