Tips for integrating user research and testing into an agile development process
User Experience & Usability
Does your organisation use agile methods to develop digital products? While there can be real benefits to it, the associated time constraints can make it challenging to integrate vital user research and testing into the process.
Widely practiced agile methodologies such as Scrum often do not consider user research and testing as a component of the process. We’ve got some valuable tips on adapting your approach to user research to maximise the benefits, within a typical sprint period of 2-3 weeks.
1. Test early, test often
During a sprint, the agile team will be working towards building a particular increment of a product or service from the backlog. The UX and development teams can work closely together to user test early prototypes and ensure development efforts are aligned with users’ needs and capabilities. This is known as the ‘just in time’ method.
Alternatively, user research and testing can ‘lead’ development work by researching and testing designs that will be worked on in the next sprint. The conventional approach to user testing can require weeks of lead time and planning. Scheduling regular user testing slots as part of a sprint can help the development team get timely answers to design problems, while embedding the approach in the team’s process and thinking.
For example, the DotGov team advocates ‘Testing Tuesdays’. Predictable and regular testing intervals enable your team members to schedule time to watch sessions. At System Concepts we’ve helped O2 to setup a series of rapid user tests, to help them quickly iterate their designs within their agile framework.
We recommend involving the whole team in the user research and testing process, observing sessions and helping to identify issues. This promotes consensus and investment in the outputs of user testing, and can avoid delays in analysing and documenting results.
2. Recruit a panel of participants
Typically, recruiting participants for user studies takes time and lengthens the user research and testing process. It can accelerate timescales to maintain a panel of users willing to attend user sessions, and help test the design, at relatively short notice.
3. Do it RITE
Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation (RITE) is a user testing approach that works particularly well with agile methodologies. With RITE, a prototype is continually updated between user sessions, to fix identified usability issues (even with data from a single user). In this way, several iterations of a design can be tested during a few hours of usability sessions, instead of having to wait weeks for design iterations and a new set of sessions to be planned.
But wait! How can we be sure we’ve identified a usability issue after testing with only one participant? Isn’t that going to make our results incredibly unreliable?
It’s important to remember that when conducting formative usability tests our focus is on qualitative not quantitative data, and based on observed behaviours not voiced opinions. Dismissing usability issues because ‘they only happened to one user’ is a common mistake with small sample sizes (from 5-12 participants for lab-based usability studies).
Behaviours tend to be fairly consistent: if one user fails to understand the user interface to your product, it’s likely that other users will too. So do it RITE: if you’re testing with an early prototype or mock-up, it should be relatively quick and inexpensive to implement and test a solution.
New to agile? Here’s a quick summary of some common terms to help get you started
Waterfall: A traditional method of project management for developing software based on a single, sequential process of design followed by implementation.
Agile: A project management philosophy or method for developing software that focuses on short iterations of design and development, and emphasises iteration and flexibility.
Scrum: A particular implementation of the agile philosophy based around dividing the project into multiple iterations of design and development, with daily team meetings.
Sprint: A single iteration within a scrum process. A sprint typically lasts several weeks, during which the team focus on a small number of goals identified at the start of the sprint.