Leaner, more agile

This week, I’m attending a few days of training in agile software development, in an Innovel course titled Lean, Agile and Scrum for Project Managers and IT Leadership.

My first exposure to agile was in Desiree Sy‘s 2005 presentation, Strategy and Tactics for Agile Design: A design case study, to the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) annual conference in Montreal, Canada. It was a popular presentation then, and UPA-conference attendees continue to be interested in agile methods now. This year, at the UPA conference in Portland, USA, a roomful of usability analysts and user-experience practitioners discussed the challenges that agile methods present to their practice. One of the panellists told the room: “Agile is a response to the classic development problem: delivering the wrong product, too late.” There was lots of uncomfortable laugher at this. Then came the second, thought-provoking sentence: “Agile shines a light on the rest of us, since we are now on the critical path.” Wow! So it’s no longer developers, but designers, usability analysts, etc, who are holding up the schedule?

An agile loadDuring this week’s training, I’m learning lots while looking for one thing in particular: how to ensure agile methods accommodate non-developer activities, from market-facing product management activities, to generative product design, to early prototype testing, to usability testing, and so on.

I’m starting to suspect that when agile methods “don’t work” for non-developers, it’s because the process is wagging the dog (or that its “rules” are being applied dogmatically). I think I’m hearing that agile isn’t a set of fixed rules—so not a religion—but a sensible and flexible method that team members can adapt to their specific project and product.

Ethics of interaction design: influencing user choices

The more choices people have, the more likely they’ll choose something utilitarian over something hedonistic.


In an experiment by Aner Sela, Jonah Berger, and Wendy Liu, 20% of 121 participants chose low-fat ice cream when given a simple choice of two, but 37% chose low-fat ice cream when given a choice of ten. In this case, low-fat is seen as more utilitarian.

You’re probably not in ice-cream retail, so you may be interested to know that this finding also holds for hardware choices. When choosing one item from a selection of printers and MP3 players, the number of choices also influences what participants will choose. Given a simpler selection, two printers and two MP3 players, participants chose the MP3 player by about 3:1. However, just as an increase in ice-cream choices resulted in more utilitarian choices, so did an increase in the number of printers or MP3 players increased. When either the number of printers or the number of MP3 players increased to six (plus two of the other), the printers to MP3 players dropped 1:1. And, yes, in this experiment, the participants regarded printers as more utilitarian, and MP3 players as more hedonistic or fun.


 But it’s never that simple, because human brains can easily be manipulated.

The same researchers, in a further study, confirmed that people who earlier made a virtuous or selfless choice can more easily justify a subsequent hedonistic choice.

Offering users a virtuous choiceIf you ask visitors to an e-commerce web site to choose which charity should receive a portion of the site’s profits, the act of choosing between charity A and charity B probably increases the likelihood of a hedonistic subsequent choice.

You can combine all of this with other research findings. For example, when given a list of choices with the prices are in descending order (the most expensive item listed first), people are willing to consider spending 19% more, according to Cai Shun and Yunjie (Calvin) Xu.

Imagine the power of persuasion, or the influence, that an informed interaction designer can have on users, online customers, voters, and so on.

Clearly, there are ethical considerations. And the industry is starting to recognise this. For the first time this year, at the UPA 2009 conference in Portland, I saw conference presenters discussing ethics in interaction design. I’m sure the discussion is only beginning.

Low-fi sketching increases user input

Here are three techniques for eliciting more feedback on your designs:

  • show users some alternatives, so more than one design.
  • show users a low-fidelity rather than high-fidelity rendering.
  • ask users to sketch their feedback.

To iterate and improve the design, you need honest feedback.  Let’s look at how and why each of these techniques might work.

Showing alternative designs signals that the design process isn’t finished. If you engage in generative design, you’ll have several designs to show to users. Users are apparently reluctant to critique a completed design, so a clear signal that the process is not yet finished encourages users to voice their views, but only somewhat.

Using a low-fidelity rendering elicits more feedback than the same design in a high-fidelity rendering. Again, users are apparently reluctant to critique something that looks finished—as a high-fidelity rendering does.


The design is the same, but it feels more difficult to criticise the one on the right.

Asking users to sketch their feedback turns out to be the single most important factor in eliciting feedback. It’s not known why, because there hasn’t been sufficient published research, but I hypothesize that it’s because this is the most indirect form of criticism.

Where’s the evidence for sketched feedback?

The evidence is unpublished and anecdotal. The problem with unpublished data is that you must be in the right place at the right time to get it, as I was during the UPA 2007 annual conference when Bill Buxton asked the room for a show of hands. Out of about 1000 attendees, several dozen said they had received more and better design-related feedback by asking users to sketch than by eliciting verbal feedback.

When you ask a user: “Tell me how to make this better,” they shrug. When you hand them a pen and paper and ask: “Sketch for me how to make this better,” users start sketching. They suddenly have lots of ideas.

My own experience agrees with this. In Perth, Australia, I took sketches from a Five Sketches™ design session to a customer site for feedback. I also brought blank paper and pens, and asked for sketches of better ideas.

Not surprisingly, the best approach is to combine all three techniques: show users several low-fidelity designs, and then ask them to sketch ways to make the designs better.

Are *five* sketches too many?

I first heard Bill Buxton talking about sketching in Texas, at the UPA 2007 annual conference. I was running around with a video camera asking people what they thought of Bill Buxton’s presentation. Everyone loved it, including his ideas on sketching and design. But almost everyone I spoke to also said Buxton’s requirement for five sketches was several sketches too many.

Buxton’s probably heard this objection a few times, because he addressed it at Mix09, last month in Nevada. He said:

Image derived from a screen capture of Mix09 videoI can hear your clients and your managers saying: “Well, Mr Buxton may have told you that you have to be able to do five different versions for every single question you’re asked—each one equally valid—but we can’t afford it because we’re already behind schedule. We don’t even have time to do one solution, and you’re telling me we have to do five?”

What are you going to say to them?

It’s a good question. Buxton also had an answer. “Doing multiples is critically important” because it’s how you saturate the design space with enough ideas to rapidly iterate to the best design solution. The challenge, says Buxton, is to balance “doing multiples” with the budget, with dollars, time, and personnel.

It comes down to technique.

Sketching is a fast, inexpensive, and therefore disposable way to capture ideas. And five really is key. In my experience, when I asked design participants for two or three sketches, they each brought “two”—actually versions of the same sketch where one had an extra squiggle or mark on the page. This is not how you saturate a design space. It has to be at least five—hence the name, Five Sketches™. The sketches have to be fast. They have to be low fidelity. The sketches have to be disposable.

Sketching is the right tool. You also need the right team, working at the right time. The right team has an understanding of generative design and knows that there’s a time to sketch, a time to iterate and analyse design ideas, and a time to code or program. (A team of three or four design participants can learn and practice everything but the programming in a half day.) In my experience, design participants—developers, QA staff, marketing staff, support staff—can sketch and produce great software and web designs as effectively as a graphic designer or industrial designer can.

Again: it comes down to technique. And since sketching is cheap, you can’t afford not to design.