metal pourer with spout right over the handle: example of bad design
PHOTO: Simon Berry

“Our company is trying to get away from Big Design Up Front. Why doesn’t UX get fast feedback and iterate?” the conference attendee asked. Considering a multi-step process, he asked why UX doesn’t design step 1, deliver that, design step 2, deliver that, etc.

Imagine your company is setting up a new workflow for a customer to register and sign up for your system. The customer will need to complete a process where they create an account (or at least choose a password), select the level of service wanted, enter payment details, review the order, then complete it and get a confirmation message.

Developers could break this into five chunks, or perhaps even more, smaller chunks. If UX designed each step and delivered it in blocks to engineering, when would UX test the entire workflow, emulating the customer’s full process? And when user testing reveals flaws in the full workflow, does engineering want to rebuild what it already coded because it got things piecemeal?

When the Smallest Unit Is the Workflow

Engineering can break their work into smaller bits because they know how the story ends. They can think about all five steps when building step one because they have documentation and wireframes, possibly also UX prototypes and other UX deliverables that tell them the story of the entire process or feature.

When UX gets a project, they don’t know how the story ends; they have to write the ending. UX has vision, ideas, pain points and innovation concepts. UX might have research and data on what customers need and where they have been experiencing frustration or confusion. UX has a puzzle to solve and they won’t know if they have a great solution until they see it all put together.

That means that for larger or newer features or products, UX can’t break their work into small pieces and deliver each piece one by one. In this case, the smallest possible piece for a larger feature is the user’s workflow or process. If UX designs and tests something smaller than the full process, they run the risk that they’re not getting the big picture of the true user experience.

If the project is something smaller than a full user process, of course UX can be nimble, and would need less time. Not everything UX does requires a giant runway, but product, project and engineering must be prepared for when a feature calls for that. This is another reason to include UX early on in portfolio and project planning. Nobody should feel surprised later by what UX experts require for this project.

Related Article: The Danger of Designing for Only One User

Individual Workflow Steps Require the Big Picture

The viral video below is a perfect example of what happens when you do unit testing, but not integration testing. The video shows an automatic soap dispenser installed right above a power outlet. These two things are great separately. Maybe they were tested individually and worked great in the tests. However, the video shows that as someone goes to plug a cord into the power outlet he’s covered with liquid soap as the dispenser “sees” the presence of his hand.

The video is an example of why UX designs and tests complete workflows rather than separate pieces in isolation. Engineering and UX have their own flavors of the same approach.

For a larger feature, consider that UX’s “smallest unit” to build and test is the user’s complete workflow or process. UX must consider the full user experience. If the user story requires a change to one of the steps of a process, UX might be making isolated changes, but should then test the full process to ensure that the problems or debt have been resolved.

Related Article: User Experience Design Is a Specialty: Treat it as Such

Fast Feedback and Iterating

Budgets and timelines are what blocks UX from getting fast feedback and iterating. UX practitioners always want that feedback to improve interfaces and design what works best for customers.

There’s a Grand Canyon between, “Our work is fantastic so we didn’t bother testing that,” and “Of course we wanted to test that, but nobody is letting us.” UX specialists around the world are often sadly chanting the second.

Related Article: Find the Gaps in Your User Experiences

Sometimes You Want (Big) Design Up Front

What’s the opposite of Big Design Up Front? Not designing up front? Having nothing vetted and ready for engineering when they’re ready to kick off their project? Passing small pieces to engineering that they might need to change when UX finally tests the full user workflow?

Sometimes you won’t be able to get away from “Big Design Up Front.” UX needs time to cycle through its process. Remember your Agile manifesto principles: give motivated individuals the trust and resources they need to do their jobs. Trust UX to work how they need to. They will get this done and the customer will be thrilled.

Don’t turn elements of UX’s approach into some ugly-named bucket of shame. Don’t decide that any time UX needs a runway ahead of time for a larger project, this is some terrible thing that companies must stop doing. Nobody is demonizing, “Big Spike Up Front,” and trying to remove important spikes.

UX will always go as fast as they can, but a great UX specialist will do everything they can to avoid sacrificing the quality of the work being done. In the fast versus good battle, UX will always pick good over fast … and you should too.