Bridging the Gap Between Agile and UX

Bridging the Gap Between Agile and UX

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As a lead solution architect at Nokia, I am fortunate enough to have a dedicated user experience resource on my team. I know of many teams who cannot say this and wish that they could. However, the vocabulary between these two disciplines(agile and UX) can cause friction and confusion. Let me explain.

From the perspective of an outsider, agile can be scary. It introduces a new vocabulary and way of doing things that is not obvious. We talk about sprints and story points or unit-free measures of effort.

We argue about what “ready” and “done” mean. We have standups where literally everyone stands up. We have Scrum Masters who are both servants and leaders. We use techniques with strange names such as “Kanban” and talk about limiting “WIP.”

User experience has an equally opaque vocabulary.

UX professionals talk about wireframes and high-res and low-res prototypes. They talk about evaluation methods such as usability testing, contextual inquiry and heuristic review. They distinguish between disciplines within UX such as information architects, interaction designers and graphic designers.

There is a certain irony that a field that is founded on simplicity and usefulness for the end user can be so opaque. I sometimes feel that this opaqueness makes UX off-putting and sound expensive to management. This can be an obvious obstacle to inclusion and product improvement.

So how can UX and agile teams break down the barriers and work together?

I believe the solution to this communication problem is to remember the Agile Manifesto. In particular, we are going to value individuals and interactions, collaboration and working software.

We need to convert these values to actions by taking a “show me how it works” approach. Agile teams need to welcome UX professionals as sustaining, long-term members. Show them how the team works by throwing them into the pool and letting them contribute.

Thinking About the Integration of UX and Agile

Having the same UX team members over time builds familiarity, trust and (hopefully), consistency into the product. As a team, you will have to decide how to incorporate UX, as this has an impact on your definitions of “ready” and “done.”

For example, does the UX person know enough about how the end user wants a capability to work in order to provide an effective design? If they don’t, is a story “ready?” As with many issues in agile, the team needs to decide how deal with this, and there will not be one answer that fits all teams.

UX professionals have a challenge to scale their deliverables to what the team needs. For example, providing a “complete” design early in development is probably misguided because we are likely to be wrong about customer and end user needs at that point.

Further, if development teams are using new technology, some capabilities that the UX expert asks for may not be possible or may be prohibitively expensive in terms of cost or time. This becomes a major issue if the entire design pivots on capabilities that cannot be implemented.

Depending on the needs and dynamics of the team, the UX professional may provide the designs to the team. Alternatively, they may act in a coaching role by overseeing and guiding design work that developers might do.

For example, if a development team has produced tables and forms for many other capabilities in a product, designing another table or form for a new capability might be something that could be left to a developer. This assumes the developer is interested in this kind of design work and has the benefit of growing the team’s skills.


I’ve found that the most effective UX professionals learn to speak a balanced combination of “techie,” “business” and “end user.” This makes them credible and relatable to many types of audiences.

The bottom line to this new partnership is integration, communication and delivery. Of these, delivery is the most important. Customers and end users want capabilities that meet their needs in easy, compelling, potentially fun ways. How those capabilities got there could be magic. Behind the scenes, delivery is facilitated by integration and communication.

We break down the barriers of strange vocabularies and foreign practices by putting these values into action every day. When we do this, we live the last point of the Agile Manifesto: We value change. We change how we communicate and collaborate with each other.

And that’s exciting.


Scott Lively is a ScrumMaster, lead solution architect and user experience professional at Nokia.

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