Agile and UI Design

Agile is a software development process that works with short development cycles, identifying required functionality at the beginning of each sprint and completing functionality within those sprints, usually two weeks in length.

But how do you achieve UI designs while doing sprints? Usually UI design takes longer than two weeks to accomplish.

I’ve had experience developing software where the UI is the last piece of the puzzle, where the needed features (or the features the devs created) are bundled and packaged into a UI. To take it to the extreme, it becomes a case of, “Where do we put A? Where do we put B?” User Interfaces are created with a menu layout and info display area, with buttons or icons for certain features and filling the menus in the most “logical” way possible—for the devs.

As you may have guessed from these blogs, I am a strong proponent of the User Experience. How do you create the best user experience? How do you make software intuitive for the user? There is needed functionality that the software must perform to fulfill its role. Then there is the user who operates the software.

In an Agile world, devs are still inclined to work backwards from functionality, creating the software to perform the functionality, then plugging a user interface between the functionality and the user.

The last time I checked, users are the ones who buy and use software and if you want to go viral, you need to design the software for how they work, not the other way around.

Which means UI design should be done before coding features. Defining requirements defines the software, and one of the shortfalls of Waterfall software development is these requirements often change before the software is released, making the product obsolete at launch. Doesn’t this need to change conflict with UI design?

In my experience, no. Good UI design that is intuitive to use is always in vogue. Case in point, iPad UI design has been tweaked, but the main functionality hasn’t really changed.

UI Design should be performed by a UI team—in parallel with the dev team. The UI team will mock up UIs and test them on users, checking how the UI functionality works. Is it intuitive? Can users find the features they need quickly and easily? Are menus laid out logically for the required functionality? Does it act like the user expects?

Simultaneously, the dev team is developing the architecture, database design, core functionality design and so on.

UI Design is done in a sprint format, setting tasks and targets for each sprint, with the intent to have a developed UI concept in X period of time.

Once that is achieved, the layout or concept is turned over to dev and the UI is developed following the sprint procedure. Then when the underlying functionality is finished, the UI is matched to the features and tested.

In a year-long product development cycle, the last three months should be used for beta testing and bug fixing for release. That leaves nine months for development. The UI should be functional about four-five months into that nine month process, with the remaining four-five months driving to hook everything up and achieving “code complete.”

During the beta test phase, the core dev team concentrates on bug fixes, with light involvement from the UI team. The rest of the UI team goes to work on the NEXT product phase, with a three month head start over the rest of the team.

During this beta phase, the UI team is user-testing the current UI and seeing where it is weak for users. New concepts are developed and when the product team is released, the UI team has a head start on the next release.

In this way, you’re always pushing the envelope on UI design, making the UI more intuitive, easier to use, and contributing towards the viral growth curve.

This is a unique approach, one seldom contemplated by software companies.

During my years in the auto business, we had a maxim, “Styling Sells. Quality Brings Them Back.”

Translating that into the software world, “Sexy UIs Sell. Bug-free Software With the Required Functionality Brings Them Back.”

Start your FIRST UI design simultaneous with product development, follow the rules of Agile/Scrum while doing the UI and core development, marry the UI with the product about halfway through. Then when the first product goes into beta, the UI team concentrates on the next release and makes the UI better.

Of course, the Product Management team is working behind the scenes to define product requirements, user needs, what users want, and gives the direction to the UI team to do their thing. Product Management is doing market research, talking to customers, identifying what customers want, learning the functionality and behavior needed, performance needed, and so on.

This continuous improvement of the UI, with user testing and constant drive for intuitive UI design, will result in GREAT product in the eyes of the customer. This continuous improvement will keep pushing the software forward and making it “best in class.”

And that’s how you do it.

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Case Studies in Going Viral

Let’s look at some famous software packages and see how they perform on the viral curve.

Office 2007-2010-2013

Some will argue that Office is the best-selling word processor/spreadsheet/presentation program on the market today. And they’d be right.

But is it experiencing viral growth? No.

Is it intuitive to use? Heck no! (Personal axe to grind here.) I was very used to Office 2003. I still have it on several computers at home. (I admit it, I’m a geek, I have four running desktops at home, work and personal laptops, an iPad and an Android phone. Not counting my kids’ devices.)

Migrating to Office 2007-2010-2013 was painful. I will give them credit, when I give up searching for my favorite features and pull up Help, the directions are quick and easy to follow.

But why change? Millions of people were used to how Office worked. Why introduce the Ribbon? What problem(s) were they trying to solve? Why the hell did they move all my favorite features to obscure places???

When you’re the big gorilla in the room, you can get away with a lot. But it’s NOT how you start out and go viral.

Windows 8

OK, this is almost too easy. Who has picked up a computer with Windows 8 and found it intuitive and easy to use? Does it operate the way you want to do things?

Or does it have a logic of its own that you must figure out?

And what the hell happened to the Start menu?

When I was doing antivirus software, the interest in Windows 7 was astounding. It fixed the problems with Vista while keeping the cool features. The number of people we worked with who were beta testing Win7 and planning upgrades was staggering. Our software HAD to be Windows 7 compatible before Windows 7 was even released!

That OS worked the way people wanted to operate. They were familiar with XP, they were familiar (but unhappy) with Vista. They liked the cool features of Vista but hated the bloat. And the blue screen of death. So voila! Windows 7! Vista without the problems! Plus better security. IT managers SWARMED to Windows 7—at least those who weren’t constrained by the economic crash. This is an excellent example of an intuitive evolution of software versions.

What happened when Windows 8 was released? IT managers stayed away in droves. If it wasn’t for new computers being force-fed Windows 8 I think it would have been still-born.

Has Windows 8 gone viral? No.

I won’t go into the Microsoft philosophy of developing software, and whether they are trying to create their own paradigm, or or or… The big question is, is the software intuitive to use?

The market has said that Windows 8 is NOT an intuitive progression for users.

Quicken

Create a software program to manage money that looks like a check register. Be able to do the things you always wanted to do with managing money, and it’s not hard. What a concept.

I was an early user of Quicken, from way back in the Windows 3.1 days. It was the first time I was able to balance my checkbook on the first attempt. I have used it ever since.

Intuitive for users? Pretty much.

And they don’t try to reinvent the wheel with each new release. Take note, Microsoft.

Excel and Word (first versions)

I remember attending a conference and the speaker was presenting data on an XL spreadsheet. Turns out it was Excel, but I didn’t realize the correct name at the time. He was singing the praises of this new spreadsheet program during his presentation.

A loyal Lotus 1-2-3 user, I said to self, “Self, forget about it. Lotus is the king. XL isn’t going anywhere.” How wrong I was!

How did they do? Last I heard, pretty good. How did they do it? Huge leap forward in functionality, and the program did what Lotus users WANTED to do. It was intuitive to users. Granted, you had to be familiar with a spreadsheet, but once Excel got rolling, it took off like gangbusters.

Frankly, I think it was Excel that launched the entire Office empire and wiped out Lotus 1-2-3, Freelance, Word Perfect and a host of other wanna-bes. (In the day, I found Freelance much better than Powerpoint and did not like Powerpoint, so it wasn’t Powerpoint that won the day).

As for Word, brilliant move, they had a Word Perfect emulation mode. You could use Word but have it look and act like Word Perfect! How brilliant is that? One wonders about copyright infringement, but this is a study on making software intuitive for users.

Last I checked, Microsoft Office took over the market.

Summary

There’s a slew of other examples in history. When not mandated by government decree (i.e., having to meet compliance laws or similar), those programs that have succeeded did so because they matched the natural inclinations of the customer, or did it better than anyone else.

Naysayers will point out that AutoCAD succeeded due to great marketing, because the product wasn’t all that great. I will agree. The product was good enough and the rest was won on marketing.

There are three pillars to going viral: great product, great marketing and great support. Great marketing is perhaps the strongest pillar and can overcome un-great products, but start with GREAT products and great marketing will take you viral like those success stories you’ve seen. Can you say iPod, iPhone or iPad?

If you want to achieve viral growth, create a product that is intuitive for CUSTOMERS to use.

Good hunting!