Better outcomes with seamless collaboration

Over the past years, exchanging a brand experience for another became as easy as tapping a smartphone screen for customers. With products and brands losing marketing power, the only factor left for true differentiation is user experience. But how can we assure that a project outcome is actually relevant and attractive enough for its potential users? How can user experience also be customer-centric? Technical development and design mindset complement each other for sustainable business benefits.

Scrum is an agile framework that provides a structure and way-of-working to build high-value products by self-organised teams. Even though it is the responsibility of business stakeholders and product owners to communicate business value as well as a product vision, agile teams often realise that product features fail to live up to the expectations of the end-user. Features sometimes haven’t been considered or validated properly from a customer-centric perspective. Since teams tend to become overly focused on incremental improvements and their sprint goals, they are likely to lose sight of the original user needs and the greater picture.

We have experienced that even in project phases where customer perspectives are considered and validated, the outcome is not customer-centric. This is due to the findings and insights from a one-time discovery phase being implemented once, while the business value will change consistently. At ecx.io we focus on “humanising business”, to avoid user needs being overruled after a short time. With a spotlight on business value, customer perspectives and by incorporating human-centered design, we want to share three topics on how to ensure real value to end-users when creating digital products: restless reinvention, seamless collaboration, and user focus through Design Thinking.

 

Start with restless reinvention

Delivering value means that the product and services are meaningful to clients and users. This starts with having an idea, better yet, a concept. A concept is a great artifact from the discovery phase and harbors important project elements like overall solution strategy, indicators to design directions as well as technical features. Allowing the development team to understand the concept and requirements is of the utmost importance. On our way from ideation to delivery of the shippable product, we need to go through regular feedback and problem-solving loops. Otherwise, this could end up in a traditional waterfall project. This would mean slicing design and development in different phases and doing one after another instead of constantly repeating the loop. Everyone needs to be able to follow the concept throughout the project and use this as a foundation for project success, sprint by sprint.
Keeping a focus on the imposing concept with its early business requirements and problem statements is necessary, but it will not allow for future growth. The initial concept and vision will stay consistent with its essence throughout the project. Sadly, it’s a common misunderstanding to sacrifice customer experience for speed and flexibility. Nothing is further from the truth. When Agile development is done right, customers are actually a primary focus. What we should adapt and evolve, is the way we get to that vision. The way how the concept needs to be realised. Thinking iteratively with every project proceeding helps us to reinvent over and over again, rather than strictly following a plan. That’s why restless reinvention plays a major role in our projects. In order to achieve this, the concept needs frequent focus and a solid ground with all teams involved. That’s where seamless collaboration comes in.

 

The power of seamless collaboration

Traditionally, designers and developers have always worked separately and only shared touchpoints when necessary. Whilst developers might build a product without a clear view of the users’ needs, designers might miss the technical know-how to create “feasible” designs. If both don’t work closely together it is unlikely that human-centered solutions are the outcome.

By building interdisciplinary teams, we are able to increase the likelihood that a customer’s first impression will be positive and sustainable. At ecx.io we prefer to have a designer as a full-time member of a developer team. Someone who was involved in the discovery team can support the product owner and the team as a beacon for customer-centered outcomes and user needs. If a designer representing the user is part of the scrum team, chances for user-centered outcomes rise significantly. However, this is definitely easier said than done as a designer is fully committed to the goals of the team. Multiple roles with specific goals might slow things down, trigger discussions, or cause confusion. To ensure seamless collaboration between design and development, the interdisciplinary teams at ecx.io need to understand the different values of each other and how that might be a benefit. In other words: empathy for each other’s work and a deeper understanding of the value they bring to the people they serve.

In practice, we do not only merge design and development teams, but we also make use of Design Systems as a common sense to all roles. Our Design System is a place for sharing and understanding each others and for traditional ‘touchpoints’ like design validations. Every member has access to the project vision, user insights, human-centered design, and developer documentation. With that, we are creating a seamless collaboration.

 

Maintaining user focus through Enterprise Design Thinking

If you aren’t a pilot, you’ll never know what it’s like to land an airplane.

Design Thinking helps us doing the right things, whereas Scrum helps us doing things right. While we use Scrum and other Agile methods to build the solutions, Enterprise Design Thinking is a framework with tools and methods that help our teams to focus on the user and delivering valuable solutions. It brings creativity and customer-focus into the development process. According to a recent study conducted for IBM by Forrester Consulting, adopting a Design Thinking Approach can reduce the time for development and testing by nearly 33 percent.

The success of Design Thinking comes with the definition: the focus on the “why” of a problem, not on the “how” of a project delivery with the Scrum methodology. With a strong individual focus, Design Thinking generates fresh ideas that teams test with a series of user-focused exercises. Scrum then divides the planning and scope of the resulting tasks into smaller units. Better together, these two ways-of-working have their very own collaboration, as teams can make modifications based on real-time feedback from testing, iterating, and continuously improving throughout the development process. If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM offers a possible solution by defining “Hills” upfront. Hills are pillars of user-focused solutions, consolidated from real pain points and problem statements of real users. Hills can be translated into the “epics” of the Scrum methodology and be very well considered as such for later backlog creation. However, Hills are also meant to be communicated to other project-relevant groups, such as stakeholders and user groups. This is important, as interdisciplinary teams need the validation from “the outside world” that they’re still on track. Therefore, typical scrum feedback rituals and Playback presentations from Design Thinking should also include roles and stakeholders of those, for the sake of unison and understanding, and not only the people that are directly linked to the pending work. Solving complex problems requires us all to work together across differences.

Teams may find it difficult to break through the Agile rhythm when attempting to incorporate Design Thinking into an existing project for the first time. To address this issue, we have teams that conduct various types of sprints, such as design sprints, prototyping sprints and hybrid sprints. The utilisation of these sprints depends on the project phases and requirements in order to blend Design Thinking activities and objectives into the Agile sprint plan. We have successfully done so before and if you would like to learn more, take a look at our references or insights into our Enterprise Design Thinking approach.

Kevin Eersteling is a UX Designer and domain owner of Design Thinking at ecx.io — part of the IBM iX agency network. His works on easy-to-understand interfaces and involves himself with user research and Design Thinking workshops, to focus on real problems and “create according to the needs”.

Patrick Kirchenkamp is a Product Owner and Agile Project Manager at ecx.io — part of the IBM iX agency network. His job is to maximise value of digital products together with a team. Through managing international e-commerce projects, he realised how important close collaboration between design and development is for successfully fulfilling this demanding job.