Sprints, Agile, and Scrum…Oh My! A Designer's Perspective
As designers, historically we’ve lived and died by how well we execute any given experience. Today we live and die by how well we collectively execute any given experience.
For much too long we’ve lived in a culture of form vs. function instead of form and function. Where, for the most part, we held fast to our time-honored stereotypes that kept both parties - designers and developers - neatly packaged into their own silos.
Enter SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework). SAFe is a team-based approached to design thinking and design execution, even though it’s not talked about or even sold that way. And the entire SAFe framework not only breaks the all too familiar silos that exist between disparate practices but ultimately it empowers human-centered design (HCD) principles, the core tenant of UX, to become the engine that powers the entire system.
My entire career has been a delicate negotiation between being a designer and working within development centric frameworks, between the art and science of living and working in a digitally centric world. And, for the most part, designers have been left out of the “Agile” conversation for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that Agile is inherently a development toolset and has a very long lineage within the development community and secondly because designers have been, with very few exceptions, viewed as the people who would come in at the very tail end of a project with their magic wand and pixie dust and would make everything “pretty.”
“My work is not decoration, it’s definition” -Anchara (Lost)
Over eight years ago when I was asked to join Universal Mind, I became the first design hire within a company comprised solely of high-end developers. These were the people who dreamed in numbers and, for all intents and purposes, had a language all their own. They too looked at me with cautious eyes as I slowly began to tread into their territory with a language all my own. Two worlds, one of art and one of science, navigating under the same roof with the same vision yet guided by different sets of rules.
They spoke of Sprints and Scrums as if I was in on their secret handshake but soon I felt overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was indeed not, and I immediately began to question how to maneuver within this new environment that came equipped with its own vernacular.
Daily, I was confronted with a vast array of developer-centric vocabulary, like Jira, Agile, and Scrum, Sprints, Backlogs, and Epics. These new pieces of language challenged me with new concepts and new ways of working — A completely new set of tools that were inherently geared towards developers, NOT designers. Most days I felt like I was doing everything I could just to keep my head above water. Time and time again I would think to myself ‘why does this stuff matter to a designer, why does it have to be so difficult, and why should I conform to a developer’s mindset?‘
Fast forward eight years and today the design community at large is on the cusp of disruptive change as vocabulary and methodologies like Scaled Agile and SAFe are gaining significant traction in every vertical market and popping up all around us — yes, even within the hollowed halls of global design agencies that have been, for the most part, insulated from such conversations. Designers and agencies alike are now being asked, “have you worked within the Scaled Agile Framework before?” These very same designers and agencies are also being inundated and overwhelmed with questions similar to my own like “does this really matter” and “I’m not a developer” or “I work at a design agency, not a development shop.” Questions that ultimately keep these traditional silos and stereotypes in tact as designers hurl shiny objects over the fence.
Ultimately SAFe is a holistic system designed to help facilitate communication and manage output. It’s really that simple.
I think we can all agree that one of the core tenants of design is to simplify the problem into its most basic form. By its very nature, SAFe is doing just that. It’s trying to strip away the complexities of the “waterfall” approach by giving participants tools and guidelines in order to help foster iterative design thinking, communication among teams and systems, high-level cross collaboration, in-depth checks and balances, and focused delivery mechanisms. All of this is not dictated as a list of boxes to be checked as it tries to micro-manage a process but rather it’s a way to better execute on a vision, understand needs, and deliver relevant contextual experiences at scale. That’s why this matters for designers.
Within SAFe, design thinking and the practices and principles of UX are infused in the DNA of its structure. It’s the thing that binds it all together and synthesizes the vision into malleable pieces. For instance: Within Portfolio UX/design thinking is at the Enterprise table at the very beginning helping to facilitate workshops and leading conversations around the vision by first and foremost being an advocate for the end-user as well as to challenge, shape and mold, and to help qualify the suite of offerings that will eventually reside within a larger product ecosystem. Design thinking, as part of the Experience Strategist role, sits as a crucial front-end to the UX practice within the SAFe environment. This practice helps to shape the story that will begin to weave its way through multiple narratives of the vision. This type of storytelling is foundational to design thinking and the user experience practice as it not only imparts empathy and understanding with evidence-based design principles but because it permeates everything within the system. It gives us tactical approaches to managing communication, it gives us a framework to which iteration is foundational, and it gives us concrete mechanisms to help facilitate output throughout the entire product engagement. In fact, SAFe is an enablement engine for designers, technologists, business owners, and a myriad of other practitioners that lets everyone do what they do best within a known set of boundaries.
As a designer, if you can get over the sometimes convoluted nomenclature of the SAFe framework and look at it as a well-designed system of interactions that create efficiencies throughout a products lifecycle, I think you would be well served.
As practitioners, and I mean business thinkers, designers, developers, strategists, delivery managers, and a myriad of others, we all desperately want to manufacture beautiful experiences. For my people, the visual designers, we crave the human-centered touchpoint, that emotional connection to a product, a story, an idea, and ultimately to an experience. And guess what…so do developers and everyone else sitting next to you. It’s what we do independently as well as communally who we are. We may all be guided by a different set of rules but in the end ,when someone opens up that app or uses your product to make a purchase, book their next trip, grow a new business, or share a great idea, that experience was conceived, designed, developed, and delivered by a large collective of talented individuals working within a framework that enables great experiences to be born. It is not one person or one part of the organization, but a collective working within a framework with the sole purpose of helping support the whole.
SAFe is design thinking in disguise.
For all intents and purposes, SAFe is here to stay even though from a Design/UX perspective, it may seem an immature framework. And for designers, it is critical for you to hear and understand — if you do not take the time to fully educate yourself and your team in the Agile process, you will be left out of the conversation. It’s that simple. Design talent is no longer the secret sauce at the table, it’s table stakes. The new ‘value add’ that organizations are looking for comes in the form of those that understand, embrace, and deliver with this framework.
It is my hope that this framework continues to elicit conversation and inspire a new breed of thinking, doing, and making within an enterprise-wide culture.