UX design is still a relatively new field, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't already been broken down into a variety of philosophies and approaches. The process becomes even more nebulous when you start to talk about Agile. It's a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but the fact that it is a thought manifesto means there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to interpreting what that means. Basically, the Agile method involves working through incremental cycles rather than the more traditional approach of working your way through one sequential flow.

Is UX Design More Like Baking a Cake or Making a Stew?

Baking a cake is a scientific and methodical process. You have to have exactly the right measurements of flour, eggs, milk, butter and baking powder. You need to beat the ingredients together in a particular way, bake it at exactly the right temperature and remove it from the oven at just the right time. If you make any missteps along the way, there is no going back. You can't add in another splash of milk to thin out the batter after it has baked. You can't rewind the cooking time if the top got a little burned in the oven.

In contrast, making a stew - like a gumbo or chili - is an ongoing and much more artistic process. You start with the basic ingredients and a loose outline of where you're going - you know that they all need to end up in the same pot and cook through all the way. But the flavoring can be adjusted at any point - even after hours of simmering, tasting and testing.

If you think about UX design in these terms, which one is a better approach? Traditional approaches to design are like baking - they suggest that you need to have your entire design process tightly defined so that you can complete each step before moving onto the next, ending with a final product. Agile, on the other hand, is more like preparing a stew - you start with a general idea of what you need, test-drive it, tweak it in different places, test it out again and so on until you get to a final product that you're happy with.

Designer as Head Chef

Just like it's up to the head chef to ensure that the kitchen runs smoothly and dishes turn out well, the designer needs to take the right steps and develop the right skills to ensure that UX design is the best it can be. The benefit of Agile methodology is that it gives the designer much more freedom and room for improvement throughout the design process. But it's important to have the following skills in order to be a master of "stew-making:"

  • Working with UI products - designers need to be able to work with a variety of UI products, especially rapid comping tools like Axure, in order to mock up realistic prototypes
  • Accurate estimation skills - designers need to be able to come up with realistic estimates as to how long certain projects will take so they can deliver in a timely fashion
  • Ability to collaborate - designers need to work closely with developers in a highly collaborative fashion in order to deliver the best possible product

Making the Switch to Agile

In short, Agile gives designers a chance to sketch up a design that is just about good enough in order to have a look at it and discover what could possibly be better. To follow the analogy here - does it need more salt? Is it too acidic? Missing a hint of garlic? It's hard to tweak the nuances of a design when you end up with a static finished product. Because of this, more and more designers are picking the Agile method as the way to go in their design process.