Transitioning from waterfall to agile

Why tearing down the agency wall works with client projects

We here at Whistle Studios are all about a more intuitive way of completing projects: a modified Agile/Lean UX process. Quick and highly collaborative, sprinkling aspects of both Agile and Lean UX into our projects has offered a more efficient way of working—both with clients and with our own team members. Our approach, which handpicks certain aspects of each process, is based on constant communication, which we’ve found keeps everyone on-task, helps minimize errors, and allows for near-immediate improvements. Here’s why we love it—and why we think it’s awesome for getting projects done with flare.

Open, startup mentality

Agile methodology is a more intuitive way of approaching projects; “lean” comes from The Lean Startup, a tome by Eric Ries for keeping startup companies creating without getting too bogged down with business plans. Both approaches have very defined methods and processes. Lately, we’ve been cherry-picking aspects of each to form a process we describe as “Agile/Lean UX.” It’s flexible based on the needs of a client or of a project and we’ve had great success incorporating aspects (read: not necessarily the whole shebang) of each method into our work.

Well informed is well prepared

These methods are designed to incorporate communications early and often and utilize constant feedback constructively. They let you keep an eye on what’s happening on your project as near to real-time as you can get to your agency team without being in the same room. When your boss asks, ”Where are we with the new website/app/etc.?” you always have an informed, intelligent answer, which makes you look good and makes your boss happy.

Focus on outcome, not on output

Agile/Lean UX is a bit more open-ended than the traditional process. With this method, the process is the deliverable. Instead of focusing on the specific, initially requested output, we focus on the outcome—which is refined through that aforementioned constant communication and feedback—and let that define the eventual output.

The purpose of early and frequent check-ins is to keep a project flexible enough to improve when needed or possible. Thus, early sharing tends to be relatively primitive in nature, but is essential to making decisions quickly and anticipating any potential problems. For example, a quick wireframe design might not look like much to someone used to polished presentations at every milestone, so keeping in mind the notion of frequent iterations and ongoing improvements is crucial.

What you’ve always done doesn’t always work

Pretty much everyone in the working world is familiar with the waterfall process, whether they can name it or not. Typically, there’s a project to complete—a website redesign, a new app, an online ad campaign—in a set amount of time. A client states their expectations and due dates; the agency then scurries off to work out the perfect version of this new project on time and on budget. There are only a few milestones during which to share the development of the project, and everyone’s praying it’s all exactly what the client had in mind. If not, scope creep sets in and everyone is stressed and unhappy.

What you should be doing instead

Agile/Lean UX is the exact opposite of that. A client doesn’t necessarily request a specific number of directions or creative concepts and revisions for their money—instead, through regular communications and feedback, they get near-immediate insights into the work being done and plenty of opportunities for course correction. And whether the final product requires one concept or several, the client is confident that the agency team is working on the best possible solution.

Using aspects of our modified Agile/Lean UX with clients has allowed us to deliver a better product than what was first requested; in-house, we use it to keep better track of what we’re working on, how projects went—and what we can do better in future.

Keeping it all in line and on point

If you’re reading this now and wishing your current project didn’t follow the waterfall status quo, you’re probably ready to try this method (or something similar.) There are, however, some things to keep in mind. Even for folks who feel ready to give Agile/Lean UX a try, abandoning the typical deliverable schedule can feel a bit scary—that’s where scrum comes in. Scrums serve many purposes—troubleshooting, sharing, and perhaps most of all, a chance for the client to see just how (and on what) the agency is working.

An ideal scrum

A 15-minute meeting or phone call between client and agency where three simple questions are asked and answered:

  1. What have you been working on?
  2. What are you working on next?
  3. Is there anything blocking your work from getting done?

In a best case scenario, these happen 1-2 times a week (more for an internal team) and are truly limited time- and scope-wise. If any issues arise, another conversation can take place as part of a “parking lot,” a separate conversation that doesn’t require all scrum participants.

While constant phone calls may seem daunting at first, they provide the potential for so much input and really help to improve the total scope of the project. Oh, and the 15-minute time goal is a way to keep everyone on-task and productive.

Don’t let the best become the enemy of the good

Another thing to keep in mind when giving this method a go is the concept of “good enough.” Waiting until something is perfect design-wise can truly be a waste of time—it takes longer to get your project out in front of people and while it could seem great to you, that’s not a guarantee once it’s released. Better to be okay with “good enough”—and realize that the work is never truly done, even once your app hits the iTunes store or your new website goes live.

Want to learn more about Whistle Studios and how we work?

Check out another blog post on tearing down the agency wall.