Human Centered Design: Generative and Evaluative User Research at the Speed of Agile

Using a human centered design (HCD) approach to produce government digital services involves getting to know your users (obviously!), but in the race to develop an Agile MVP, timing of initial user research is tricky!

When you complete a transaction at your favorite eCommerce store or do your taxes online using commercial tax preparation software, how often did you say to yourself, “Wow, that was easy!”? Or even better, you were able to complete whatever task you needed to–such as depositing a check using your banking app–quickly without making any errors. These types of digital user experiences did not happen by accident; they were all designed by commercial companies using the Human Centered Design (HCD) process, which is grounded in the theory that including real, representative users in the design process will produce better outcomes.

Fortunately, the Federal government is learning from these commercial software best practices and using HCD to design highly-usable (and useful) government digital services. In fact, in late 2018 the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, otherwise known as 21st Century IDEA, was signed into law aimed squarely at improving government digital service experiences. The end result is that citizens and government employees (doing important work on behalf of citizens) will be able to receive government services as quickly and efficiently as commercial digital services. Finally, usability is being recognized as a pillar of quality in the software development for government digital services.

To meet these user experience goals using the HCD process, the first step is getting to know who you are designing for. This is often known as ‘generative’ user research and provides a critical foundation for successful Agile design and development.

Historically, those in the HCD field have put an emphasis on conducting generative user research with representative users to help to define the problems they will be designing solutions to solve. Designers need to understand how people do their jobs or seek information in order to design a usable and useful user experience. This is where generative user research shines–but it does take time! Our typical generative research process includes recruiting representative users, conducting interviews and/or contextual inquiries, and creating research-based personas and customer journey maps.

Way back when, in the waterfall days, this type of generative user research might have happened during a “requirements gathering” phase. In today’s Agile world, many focus on a rapid “Sprint Zero” discovery period. What we have found is that we have a considerably more productive “Sprint Zero” when we spend a couple of weeks (typically 3-4 weeks) conducting generative research. The result of this pre-Sprint Zero research is that the team has a solid foundation of knowledge about user needs going into Sprint Zero. Sprint Zero then becomes considerably more focused on prioritizing product solutions and components that will provide the highest business value to the government AND the highest value to the end user. This research has a major influence on the product roadmap.

Once the delivery team begins sprinting, the low-level user research, user experience (UX) design, and development begins in earnest. The challenge now becomes infusing the HCD process into the low-level discovery, design, and development process…without user research and UX design coming a delivery bottleneck. We have found that it is most effective to use short-cycles of highly-focused generative research to inform UX prototypes and weave in ongoing usability feedback collection and testing, otherwise known as “evaluative” research.

To address the bottleneck issue, we utilize a Multi-Track Agile methodology. In its simplest form, we have UX researchers and designers working in advance of the development team, often 1-2 sprints ahead. This allows for development items to be considered “ready for development” when the appropriate amount of research and UX design have been completed. Periodically, when enough features have been designed and/or developed, we conduct formal usability testing and move any identified areas for improvement to the product backlog.

Using these methods, you can effectively infuse HCD processes (UX research and design) into your Agile software development life cycle. The key is committing to usability as a pillar of product quality and adapting to project realities, testing out processes and adjusting as necessary.

Key Take-Aways:

  • Commit to usability as a pillar of product quality (along with delivery business value and timely delivery of defect-free code) and utilize HCD methods to ensure usability
  • Always conduct generative user research when starting a new project.  Use findings to drive the product roadmap and you will feel confident moving into Sprint Zero
  • Utilize Multi-Track Agile methods to infuse UX research and design into sprint-level delivery, conducting evaluative (usability) research on an ongoing basis

Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick brings over 23 years of experience leading User Experience (UX) and Human Centered Design (HCD) digital service transformations throughout the Federal and Commercial sectors. As Vice President, User Experience, Sean is primarily responsible for leading and growing Collabralink’s UX and HCD practice across the Collabralink portfolio of projects and accounts.
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