History of Scrum & UX

Scrum and user experience design (UX design) have much in common. Both are ultimately about trying to build valuable products, albeit with a different focus on how to do so. However, when UX design was adopted in organisations in the early years, there was tension and conflict between this new discipline and the teams already forming and building products.

Scrum has been used since the 1990s and has been widely used for over 15 years. UX design is a newer discipline many organisations adopted long after Scrum and Agile.

Teams developing products using Scrum work in Sprints of 1 month or less. Many forms of UX design work take over a month to complete and would not fit automatically into Sprints. UX professionals resisted being forced to work this way and would not become part of Scrum Teams.

The result was that many organisations adopted a “bolt-on” approach to UX design whereby a separate team was created to handle this work and used as a central resource to support product development across the organisation.

UX professionals were, therefore, then outside of the day-to-day product development work, and collaboration was reduced as a result. Misunderstandings and delays typically followed. Developers inside a Scrum Team incorrectly saw UX as another distraction they had to deal with that threatened to slow down the development of the product. UX design was typically running ahead or behind the rest of product development.

Whilst UX design was a new discipline, Developers and management did not fully understand or value it. In its early adoption, it was seen as “nice to have” rather than an essential part of developing a product.

When time or budgets ran short, it was among the first things to be dropped. As UX designers were outside the Scrum Team, they had limited opportunity to influence Product Owners to prioritise their work. The product suffered as a result.

UX design work would result in increased learning about what customers wanted. This would lead to regular changes to product requirements and scope, resulting in changes to plans, dates and deliveries. Many organisations were/are still hesitant to such change. Many people would still instead deliver the wrong thing on time and budget and meet their commitment rather than give the right thing even if that impacted budget and time. As humans, we inherently struggle with uncertainty and change. Agile & Scrum have started to change how people view these things, but for most organisations, a significant culture shift is still required to support this. UX design further compounded the need for regular learning and change. As a result, it was resisted in many organisations that were still approaching product development with a more traditional mindset.

It did not need to be this way. Many organisations recognised the massive impact successful UX design could have on their products and found ways to integrate it into their product development processes. Scrum & UX design can live and work together to the mutual advantage of the customers they serve and the products they create. We will explore how Scrum and UX design can live together and help create higher-value products that customers use and love.

UX Design Failures at a UK Retailer

Earlier in my career, a prominent UK-based retailer hired me to help them build an innovative new product. After a long absence, the retailer was expanding back into Europe but was keen to limit costs and was only taking small retail units with limited space for displaying and storing stock. They had an idea to place digital clothing rails within the store instead of traditional physical rails. The digital clothing rails would be large touchscreen devices that people could use to view inventory, and when they saw something they wanted, they could complete a purchase on a nearby tablet computer. The item would then be delivered from a warehouse to the store or the customer’s address the following day. The technology to create something like this was cutting-edge, but the idea seemed reasonable, so senior management authorised the investment.

We assembled a Scrum Team to build this new product and set about solving the challenging software and hardware integration issues. The project took far longer than initially expected and went significantly over budget. Worse still, it was a near-total failure once it was launched.

Although the product worked strictly as intended and was wonderfully innovative, customers were not ready for it and did not want to use it once it was placed in the store. It was such a departure from the traditional shopping experience that people would only do it if guided by a staff member, leading to unsustainable extra costs. Casual customers would wander in, marvel at the giant screens, and leave without purchasing.

The project ultimately failed. This costly failure could have been avoided if we had carried out some basic user experience research early in the initiative. If we had talked to customers and carried out some low-cost experiments, we would have discovered that people were not ready for this product yet. We could have saved millions of pounds by not building the product. This was a real learning moment for me and where I fully understood the vital importance of user experience design.