Towards a More User-Centred Agile Development

  • Silvia BordinEmail author
Open Access
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing book series (LNBIP, volume 251)


The integration of user-centred design and Agile development is becoming increasingly common in companies and appears promising. However, it may also present some critical points, or communication breakdowns, which manifest in working practices. A solution is likely to be found in a supportive organisational context: in this sense, communication breakdowns can become focal points to drive action and decision for establishing an organisational environment acknowledging the value of user involvement and actively endorsing it also with the customer.

Expected graduation year: 2017.

Supervisor: prof. Antonella De Angeli, Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science, University of Trento, Italy.


1 Motivation

This research proposal aims at addressing the growing interest in the integration of Agile methodologies with user-centred design (UCD), with the goal of achieving a more holistic software engineering approach [14]. In fact, available literature gathers a rich collection of experience reports highlighting several points in common between the two, but also several calls for a more systematic convergence of them.

On the one hand, in fact, Agile methodologies do not explicitly address usability or user experience (UX) aspects in their understanding of the development process, although valuing customer satisfaction [17]. Yet, a carefully designed UX can provide an advantage over competing products [9], giving “positive effects on both system success and user satisfaction” [10]. On the other hand, UCD does not explicitly address how implementation should be performed, despite needing to ensure that no “design drift” [14] occurs. Agile methodologies, popularised by their intrinsic embracing of change and constant involvement of the customer in the process [7], appear as a suitable match to this.

2 Related Work

User-centred design (UCD) is an umbrella term used to denote a set of techniques, methods, procedures that places the user at the centre of an iterative design process [13]. Since the benefits of involving users in systems design are widely acknowledged [1, 10], several attempts at integrating UCD with Agile have emerged in recent years [9, 14], leveraging on the large common ground that the two approaches seem to share. However, literature also highlights some divergences between them, or communication breakdowns [3], i.e. examples of disruptions due to the sudden ineffectiveness of existing working practices:
  • in UCD, user involvement can range from informative, to consultative, to participative [8]; in Agile, the emphasis is put on the customer instead, who acts as a representative of users, but whose meaningfulness in this sense is often questioned (e.g. [17]);

  • the role of documentation may be interpreted differently: Agile methodologies encourage mostly face-to-face communication [2], while UCD also relies on artefacts to record design rationales [15];

  • there are different opinions about whether UCD and Agile should proceed in parallel (e.g. [18]) or should be merged into the same process (e.g. [11]), and to the amount of design to be performed before implementation [11].

3 Methodology

The research process has combined theoretical grounding and action research, performed in two main field studies. The first field study concerned a social innovation R&D project where UCD and Agile were both adopted and where the author served as interaction designer. This context provided several insights about critical aspects, or communication breakdowns [3], that may hamper the integration of the two approaches [4]; a subsequent literature review confirmed that such breakdowns had already emerged previously, but had not been systematised yet. The second field study, performed in a software and interaction design company, allowed to further reinforce and extend the framework defined by identified breakdowns, turning these into focal points for driving decision in companies, facilitating communication between designers and developers, and supporting the management in the construction of a favourable context for a fruitful integration of UCD and Agile [5].

During both studies, data were collected from a number of sources, in particular through interview studies, ethnographically-inspired personal observations [12], and investigation of artefacts used to support working practices. These qualitative data were then thematically analysed [16] and resulting findings were supplemented with a more top-down stream of research, i.e. a literature review.

4 Results

The two case studies described above have led to the identification and validation of a framework constituted by the following four communication breakdowns [4, 5].

User involvement. Its perception may vary both between designers and developers, and between the company and the customer: in any case, involved parties should explicitly share the same understanding of its extent.

Documentation. In co-located teams, besides tracing history and design rationales, documentation can help balance the power relationship with the customer, shielding the company from unsustainable changes in requirements.

Synchronisation. If the team is not co-located, or has to incorporate a large amount of feedback, balancing the paces of design and development can be tricky, as it is not always possible or sufficient to rely on face-to-face communication.

Task ownership. While it is advisable that the whole team shares a common language, the responsibility over design tasks should be clear and endorsed by the management, in order to fully support the added value that UCD can provide to the product.

5 Future Agenda

A third field study is under way in an IT company with no UX expert, but needing to design and develop a software interface in a few months. Weekly workshops are being run drawing inspiration from design thinking [6]; the development team is exposed to tools deriving from both UCD and Agile (e.g. personas, use-case diagrams, backlogs) in order to sharpen their understanding of the intended user and subsequently of the functionalities to offer, while keeping in mind the issues represented by identified communication breakdowns. The goal is to assist the working process of the team to assess whether and how their understanding of the user evolves and whether the introduction of mentioned tools may have an observable impact on the quality of the resulting interface.

6 Publication Plan

Envisioned venues for future publications span between the human-computer interaction and the software engineering communities; given the industry-oriented nature of present work, particular interest is paid to conferences bringing together researchers and practitioners. Targeted venues include HCSE 2016 (International Working Conference on Human-Centred Software Engineering), XP 2017, CSCW 2017 (Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing) and its European homologous ECSCW 2017. Thesis defense is foreseen for summer 2017.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Information Engineering and Computer ScienceUniversity of TrentoTrentoItaly

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