How to Incorporate User Research Into Your Agile Development Process

Jenna Rodrigues
February 17, 2022

We like agile development. We also like user research. But they don’t always get along.

The agile process breaks down work into bite-size chunks based on individual features. User research often focuses on the “big picture” experience that may span multiple functionalities and doesn’t fit nicely into a two-week sprint. The agile methodology aims to produce a tangible output at the end of each sprint. User research establishes a holistic direction to guide how all the functionalities come together.

That’s why agile and user research can be at odds. But we like to have our cake and eat it too. After all, if you develop a product without user input, you’ll likely end up with a sub-optimal user experience that requires rework — increasing costs and delaying launch.

So how can we get agile and user research to play nicely together?

Why User Research in Agile is Challenging

Here are the main reasons why incorporating user research into an agile development process can be challenging:

• User research spans the timeframe of multiple sprints. It’s often not possible to complete an entire study within the duration of a single sprint, leaving backlog items unaddressed as the team moves on to the next set of features.

• User research explores many questions that span the entire user journey. The extent of the insights often goes beyond what an agile team can address with the development span of a single feature.

• After the team receives feedback from the users, the sprint is already over. If the research findings aren’t properly funneled back into the backlog, they could go unaddressed after the research is complete.

• User research doesn’t produce tangible artifacts, and it’s not always apparent what developers should do with the learnings. For example, they may have trouble translating user feedback into features.

The discrepancy in timing and the different nature of the deliverables makes it hard to incorporate user research into an agile environment. Often, results from user research are overlooked because they don’t fit into the development framework.

How To Incorporate User Research Into Agile Development

Well, being agile is the name of the game! That applies to adapting user research to fit the development process too. First, be clear on your research goals. Then, you can apply the same user research methods but adjust the time frame to fit the agile process. Here’s how:

Run Early-Stage Design Tests

You don’t need to present users with finished assets to get feedback. Conduct directional testing with paper or clickable prototypes, wireframes, and flat visuals to generate actionable insights early in the project. It can help you find out where people would click, how they would react to a layout, or what they perceive along the user journey.

Narrow down the study’s objective so you can set up scenarios to get the answers you need. Explain to users that they’re looking at a work-in-progress asset to prevent the discussion from digressing into a direction that doesn’t contribute to the goal of the research session (e.g., commenting on the visual design of a wireframe.)

Have Participants At the Ready

It’s often a struggle to gather enough user research participants within the timeframe of a sprint using traditional recruiting methods. You can use a sourcing platform to recruit testers from a global pool of users and get your study underway in hours using remote testing technologies.

Alternatively, you can build a small pool of participants and have them on standby when you start a project. For example, you can recruit testers from your email list, via social media, or using a pop-up form on your website or app. Focus on asking a few of the most pressing questions at one time to avoid wearing out these users.

Take Advantage of “Sprint Zero”

After the product requirements are defined, the development team will need time to set up the project (e.g., preparing a basic framework and environment.) This period offers an opportunity for the UX team to get ahead by conducting initial discovery sessions and planning out how they can weave user research into future sprints.

Identify the most appropriate user research methods for the project, such as user interviews, contextual interviews, and usability testing, and set up the framework to support these efforts during subsequent sprints. For example, you can line up research participants and create a workflow to make sure the insights are added to the backlog.

Keep It Simple and Repeatable

Simplify and democratize the user research workflow so team members can jump in to facilitate the process whenever necessary. You can scale up your company’s research capabilities by enabling non-practitioners to run tests with repeatable user research templates.

These templates should cover the most common questions at various stages of the product development process. Include a framework to make it easy for any team member to “plug and play” and get a testing session up and running quickly. You can also leverage UX platforms that offer preloaded templates and automated workflows to streamline this process.

Prioritize the Most Impactful Questions

Be mindful of what’s feasible within the timeframe of a sprint and recognize that it’s simply not possible to address everything in one go. This limitation can be a blessing in disguise — use it as an opportunity to help you focus on answering questions that will have the greatest impact on your business.

Instead of measuring output (e.g., building a product feature,) focus on the outcomes (e.g., improving revenue and driving conversions) by asking questions tied to your business’s key performance indicators (KPIs). This can streamline the research process and help the development team focus on what matters most.

Record Research Insights in the Backlog

Add user research efforts to the backlog as a standalone item or user story to ensure that the insights are incorporated into the product in subsequent sprints. Break down the research results into bite-size chunks and include corresponding tasks or features in the backlog to translate the insights into tangible outputs.

A research backlog item will contain multiple tasks, and it should remain open across multiple sprints until all the tasks are completed. This concept can be hard for some stakeholders to grasp, so you should reinforce the goal of delivering outcomes (i.e., KPIs) instead of outputs (i.e., features) through user research.

Yes, User Research and Agile Development Can Get Along!

One of the advantages of the agile methodology is the ability to respond to changes. User research practitioners must adopt this mindset so they can add the most value to the development process. Instead of conducting one large-scale user research study at kickoff, focus on continuous discovery and learning throughout the project to ensure that the insights support the product’s evolution.

Teams that can make user research and agile development work together in every sprint are more successful in creating user-centric products. That’s why here at Camber, we incorporate user research and feedback throughout our entire process, from product strategy and design to prototyping and digital product development. We leverage insights from user research to refine our strategy and make sure we’re building a product that your customers will love.

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