“Why do we fall?” Thomas Wayne once asked his whiny son Bruce. The philanthropic doctor, seeing that his son was too dense to comprehend the lesson he was attempting to impart, eventually answered for him, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Not only was Thomas trying to comfort his son, whom, through his own recklessness had just fallen down a well, Thomas was trying to encourage Bruce to learn from his mistakes, and allow them to make him stronger, wiser and better. The principles of agile development mirror the lesson of the Wayne family. It challenges us to test our assumptions, preconceptions and beliefs, let them be beaten down by the market, and then learn how to pick ourselves up and come back stronger, leaner, faster and better. It is a theory that we at Top Draw are starting to allow to guide our approach to research, design and development; and, if it’s a good enough to be the guiding principle in Batman’s life, then who are we to question it?
Agile or “lean development” as some call it, demands a commitment to iteration and refinement-based development. The application of this approach is being used from developing tangible products, start-ups, and for our purposes, the development of great user experiences for websites. By testing your assumptions, gaining feedback and making a series of pivots, you significantly reduce the amount of wasted effort from developing based on unconfirmed assumptions or beliefs.
Agile research is a process that takes a little bit of time and a lot of effort to wrap your head around. Basically an agile or lean approach to research requires you to look inward first. Testing your own expertise and listing out all of the assumptions or preconceptions you have about your market. This may seem like a pointless, time consuming and tedious task; however, I guarantee you, especially those of you working in large teams across different departments, having a concise and documented record of all of your assumptions regarding a process will inevitably lead to a few surprises.
In no way is this meant to discount or diminish the experience and knowledge that you hold about your own market. It’s also important to remember that you have made it as far as you have, in large part because those instincts, assumptions and beliefs you have about your market have been pretty close to the mark. The point of doing a stakeholder inventory of all of the presently held market assumptions is to build a priority matrix that you can use to validate against the priority matrix of your customer base.
This research methodology works particularly well within organizations that have an established brand, market and identity. The sad truth is, no matter how much we strive to provide the customer with what they want, sometimes given too much freedom, the market will identify priorities that do not mesh with the desired identity of the producer, or take up valuable real estate for something that is rarely or never used.
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s awesome, good or even useful. Remember Gagnam Style. These misfires on features, tools, or content pieces can come from either the organization, or the market. One of the major advantages of the lean model is that you are able, with your expertise, to present an idea to your colleagues, have it validated against other experts, and then see if the idea receives similar validation from the market. You also have the added benefit of focusing your market research on actual achievable goals that are in line with both your business goals, strategy and are within the realm of possibility.
Drawing this back to our original Batman-inspired metaphor, this process can beat you down. The ideas that you thought were big game changers and would revolutionize how you did business, service your market or increase conversion, can quickly be kicked to the curb like so many of Carmine Falcone’s henchmen. That’s another Batman reference in case there was any confusion.
This area of lean development is conceptually much easier to wrap your head around. The application, however, relies heavily on the previously completed research and some ongoing iteration and A/B testing. With lean development, the learning never really stops.
After you have completed your initial research for the project, you should have a well-defined priority matrix, which addresses both the priorities of the company/organization/yourself and those of the respective market. Putting aside the intangibles that a great designer brings to a project, such as aesthetic appeal, visual engagement and seamless flow, the design needs to take the validated priority matrix and essentially build out a suburb. This involves giving prime and central property to the highest identified priorities and finding ways to allow secondary and tertiary priorities to stream off of that central core.
Integration of the priority matrix into the site plan and user experience is as much an art as it is a science. Designing the ideal presentation platform for your user group is one that takes… you guessed it, validation testing.
If you are a web firm developing for a client then you need to insure that the model is true to the brand and identity of the client. For the user, you can use great tools such as heat tracking, screen shares and page analytics of the current site or similar ones, to generate assumptions on how people flow through a site. There is, however, no substitute for kicking a design rev back to a non-designer and getting them to proceed through the design to your desired conversion point. Honest feedback of difficulties and subsequent iterations or pivots in the design stage can save you massive expenditures within the development phase of the project.
The design of the Batsuit went through mutiple iterations, from the camp of Adam West to the fear-based design of Batman Begins to a function upgrade in The Dark Knight.
At this stage, your validation exercises and subsequent pivots should have paved a fairly clear road for your development team. Usage maps should now be validated for as accurate and smooth a conversion funnel as possible. The really ambitious will view development as an opportunity for validation. Designing the site with A/B testing and multiple iteration strategies will provide you insight for the most refined and pure realization of your project.
This commitment to development iterations can only be made if the digital strategy and design has followed the lean model of validation testing. Development can be one of the more costly aspects of web development, as the tradesmen and women of this field function on another plane of existence, where every action no matter how minute has to be explicitly drawn out.
Refinement in the first two phases of development eliminates wasted effort within the development cycle, which will allow the development team to build out several iterations for A/B testing and iteration refinement. This process includes a great deal of back and forth with the other Content Strategists, and Designers so that the priority matrix of the market and client, is not betrayed or ignored in the various iterations being tested.
There is so much more that goes into the logistics of implementing this type of development strategy:
- Tracking systems
- Research processes
- Stakeholder interview processes
- Representative samples
- Interdepartmental cooperation
- And on and on
But I hope that high level flyover starts to paint the picture for you.
Agile development is a commitment, no doubt. It can feel like a lot of repeated work, and for the most part that’s true. The important aspect to remember is that building from an internal assumption, or pure market demand, will inevitably result in this repetition anyway. Be it from an internal assumption that does not reflect the needs of the market, or a market driven site that doesn’t actually facilitate the conversion that you need in order to succeed. Either one of those paths will necessitate a lot more then a pivot to correct the course, and cost a lot more than a few extra iterations in the first swing at development or redevelopment.
Ultimately this entire process relies heavily on an ability to look inward and present your ambitions and vision to the world. It also requires you to be prepared to have it ripped down in front of you. What you gain from this fall is nothing short of incredible. You now have the validation to move forward with assumptions confirmed, and you won’t be burning hours building something nobody wants, or a feature nobody uses. The site will be an active component in achieving your overall corporate goals. You will build the site that your market deserves, and the one that your business, blog, organization needs… See what I did there.