Cars.com Agile Transformation Webinar Notes

I participated in my first webinar recently, sharing some learnings from the Cars.com agile transformation. The webinar was sponsored by consulting firm ThrivingOrg and focused on what we learned during a 10-week series of pilot projects undertaken by several product teams. Here are some notes I prepared:

  • Transition from waterfall to agile was difficult at first for user experience team members because most of the techniques used by classically trained user experience people came from the waterfall world. Things like wireframes, a fully designed user experience and flow, and pixel perfect Photoshop comps don’t work well within the context of two-week working sprints.
  • Our profession needs to get better at using Lean UX approaches and shifting our work product to sketches, prototypes that can be used for documentation and user testing, and more lightweight guerrilla usability testing.
  • Interactions between agile product team members are very different than in waterfall project teams. Developers and UX people are working much more closely and more often now (and that’s a good thing).
  • Dedicated team co-location is essential. Having the product manager, UX and visual designers, and developers and testers near each other fosters frequent informal collaboration and reduces the number of structured meetings you need.
  • Daily standup meetings and co-location should drive greater appreciation of the other roles on the team and the constraints they are working under.
  • Failing is good. It shows you your limits and helps teach that an agile product team rises or falls together.
  • When first transitioning to agile, start with easier to implement features or even a backlog of defects. This allows the team to learn the process first without also having to worry about designing and developing complex functionality.

If you are new to agile software development and Lean UX, these resources can get you started:

Cars.com Agile Transformation Webinar Series

Cars.com product development team members recently took part in a series of three webinars sponsored by ThrivingOrg in which we discussed the different phases of our on-going transformation from waterfall to agile software development methodologies. The three webinars focused on three different phases of our journey, which is still under way.

I took part in the Phase II webinar, in which we discussed how we implemented a set of pilot projects to help us define an agile framework that would work for Cars.com. The pilots lasted several months and helped inform how we approached the later transition of all software development to the first iteration of our agile framework. An audio recording of the webinar is available through the ThrivingOrg website.

Jeff Gothelf on Lean UX

This week I attended the UX Immersion 2012 conference. Jeff Gothelf’s featured talk looked at Lean UX and how he used it at The Ladders. Here are my notes:

On Lean UX

  • When converting from Waterfall Development to Lean UX, a great place to start is to look for stories of failure. You learn what didn’t work.
  • Lean UX doesn’t seek to answer the question “can we build this?”, but instead asks “should we build this?”.
  • Usability testing with three users helps you find the boulders, not every little flaw. Subsequent iterations can find problems in the smaller details.
  • Style guides and pattern libraries let you work faster. You have all the tools you need to solve problems. If it has pixels, it goes in the library.
  • Live style guides is a concept in which the HTML markup and CSS is attached to the product in a way that a change to the style guide changes the product.

Learnings From the Agile Transformation at The Ladders

  • UX as a shared services didn’t work because it divided people’s focus.
  • You have to put UX designers on a dedicated team to build camaraderie, focus, and trust.
  • If a UX designer must be split across two teams, make sure they have a primary team so they can prioritize work appropriately.
  • Putting a UX designer on more than two teams is a recipe for failure.
  • Solve the problem together, not in silos. Co-creation builds understanding.
  • Sketch together as a team, then everyone “owns” the solution.
  • The Ladders had many iterations on what was the right way to manage the task wall. We learned that if you cram your entire functional spec onto a board, it’s not agile.

What Lean UX Means for Designers

  • No one gets into user experience to create documents. They want to make things.
  • In fast-paced agile environments the traditional UX approach becomes a bottle neck. We need to use new tools to achieve our goals.
  • Create the lowest fidelity document possible to explain and validate whether the concept in your head is the right thing to do.
  • Don’t be afraid to sketch. All you need is a circle, a rectangle, and a triangle. This covers every interface out there.
  • Get the experience out there, not the design document. Get it in the wild to validate the concept.
  • You’ll never solve a problem with a design document, you solve them with software.
  • Unless you are building the product for yourself, your design is just a hypothesis.
  • Work in a tight integration with the rest of your product team. Designers can’t hide behind their monitors any more.
  • Pair up — Put designers together with developers when problem solving and brainstorming.
  • Pairing up also helps you build an understanding of each other’s work and limitations.

Jeff Gothelf is the author of a forthcoming book on Lean UX. You can follow him on Twitter at @jboogie

Marty Cagan and Designing Great Products

Last week I had the good fortune to spend two days learning about designing great software from Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. Cagan’s approach to creating great consumer software products comes from years of working on wildly successful ones, such as Netscape, AOL, and eBay, and is a radical change from the traditional approaches many companies still use.

Cagan’s two-day seminar presented the topics raised in his 2008 book Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love along with advice tailored directly to the audience, in this case my company, Cars.com.

One of the key aspects of Cagan’s approach is a focus on a core working relationship between the product manager, the lead engineer, and the lead interaction designer supporting a product. His method places heavy emphasis on a great user experience as a key part of making software people really want to use. He also advocates delegating product design decisions down to the product manager and empowering that person to make the right choices, while people managers and other leaders are tasked with doing what needs to be done to develop their product teams so they can be trusted to execute.

The book is a quick read and well worth the time as it opens up a new way of thinking about product management and software design.