Hire or Not To Hire an UX Expert?

The concept of agile usability engineering is revered for bringing user experience (UX) activities to an agile environment. Both Agile and UX communities are increasingly warming up to the idea of working alongside to develop great applications fast. However, much work remains to be done and many challenges need to be overcome before the two teams can effectively work together. Determining just who is in-charge of user-centric design (UCD) in Agile- UX is one such challenge. And a critical one at that.

The big question

The precept of Agile- UX, which is a project management principle supported by UCD methods and best-practices and used for the development of software based on Agile values and philosophies, remains undefined officially. Hence its implementation is subjected to the individual givings and misgivings of decision-makers.

Because of this, UCD implementation follows one of the following two paths:

  • Inclusion of usability expert(s) – Methods from UCD are used extensively and one or more experts are brought in the team to ensure robust implementation and therefore, better results.
  • Exclusion of expert(s) – All methods of Agile is followed to the word. No experts are included because developers are responsible for implementing UCD and managing it themselves.

It is the second path in fact, that is more popular in reality. Association with usability expert(s) when implementing UCD is preached in theory; however, it is discouraged in practice. So the question is which path should you choose? Should you bring in an expert? Or leave developers in charge?

Who should really be in charge of UCD in Agile- UX?

Literature from the very-many experiments conducted on agile usability engineering, especially Agile- UX, presents three options – (1) A single usability expert in the development team, (2) A group of experts in the team or a parallel team of experts and (3) Product owners as usability experts.

Developers and leaders who argue against intervening experts will tell you that Agile and UCD are inherently similar concepts and therefore UCD need not be included up-front. The argument, though rational, is not prudent.

Sure, the two share characteristics such as customer focus, iterative development, test-driven development, visibility, collaboration and underlying principle, which are similar. And you may feel that having a UCD expert intervene will require unwarranted effort, plus the design will only change as your project progresses. However, ignoring UCD (not accounting for holistic user experience) will increase your risk of delivering products that are inconsistent, confusing for end-users and unsuccessful, even tragic for you.

You cannot go wrong with usability expert(s)

What is the one thing end-users care about the most? Responsiveness. Applications that are not highly responsive, lead to unsatisfactory user experience and subsequent product failure. A usability expert in your design team will ensure the team gets a clear visual representation of the vision of your product and benefits from higher understanding of the project. The expert will:

  • Enable rapid testing and validation of spikes before coding
  • Provide usability by covertness
  • Improve basics for estimation
  • Interact and engage with users as you would with customers, and make informed decisions about design requirements

It is not uncommon for developers to solicit opinions from users about how they would like the interface to be, and then work blindly on those suggestions. The problem with this approach is – seldom do users really know what they want. You can go ahead and create interfaces as demanded only to find users don't like it as much as you (even they) thought they would. An expert on the other hand, knows how to penetrate the information, conduct research and arrive at a design that works highly efficiently.

  • And finally, mitigate other key risks associated with your project

So, the answer to the big question is – yes, you should bring one or more experts and choose the path of including UCD methods and expert opinions when designing for Agile- UX.