No Handoff brings Agile to Design and Discovery

Is the Waterfall method washing away your carefully crafted designs? Bring new Agile patterns to Design and Discovery with the No Handoff method.

Though software development has embraced Agile, far too many of us still encounter waterfall or waterfall-adjacent processes in our design work. In the waterfall process we carefully think about and craft a visual solution, then we throw it over the fence and hope the next team is there to catch it.

This process is riddled with issues. One of the most pressing is that we know the least amount that we possibly can at the beginning of the process, making our designs less able to meet real user needs. Software is too complex for waterfall methods. Such designs are as likely to introduce issues as they are to solve them. We need a more nimble Agile design patterns.

Putting Design Thinking and Dual-track together in no-handoff projects

Design Thinking, Prototyping, and Dual-Track agile can help us do better work and avoid project handoff.

As a UX designer I know first hand that we need more iterative and collaborative techniques in our field. Incorporating knowledge from the widest possible sources into discovery and design leads to stronger, more resilient products. Design Thinking is brilliant at helping us improve and iterate through the discovery process, but doesn’t integrate that thinking into the build process. On it’s own its not enough to avoid project handoff.

Dual-Track on the other hand is the game-changing agile process for design and discovery to work hand in hand with development. In dual track processes design and development work in parallel and feed into each other’s workflows. However, like most agile methods, it simply assumes a clear plan and validated backlog but sheds no light on how to get there.

Prototyping from the very beginning brings teams together around a shared functional product, and establishes a shared language that everyone can understand. One pattern that works is to begin each project with a prototype sprint. This early sprint involves the entire team from the earliest stages of the project, and uses the prototype to display and harnesses Design Thinking to unleash the creativity of the entire team.

When you’ve completed the prototype sprint shift gears into Dual-track development, building directly on the prototype the team has worked on in the first step. This pattern will continue to focus the powers of the entire team into a shared product and build on the communication methods established in the prototype sprint.

No Handoff offers practical ways to bring Agile to the design process and reach our ultimate goal: great products built by collaborative teams with no project handoff.

The Prototype Sprint

All no-handoff projects begin with a prototype sprint. There is a primer here that goes into much further detail, but in short the prototype is a working front-end wireframe, not a mockup or a sketch. Team’s pick their favorite front end framework and run with it, capturing project goals in the only shared language the web has — the website itself. The prototype isnt throwaway code, its foundational, rapidly evolving, and will be refined at each subsequent stage. By involving all disciplines from the start it ensures that code and design goals are not at cross-purposes, as well as setting the pattern for shared communication moving forward.

In some no-handoff projects it can make sense to generate a companion vision document during the initial prototype sprint. But in most of my projects the prototype is the vision. Ive often seen a product vision relegated to the useless artifacts bin before the project even gets off the ground, but when the prototype itself is the vision it’s never out of step with the product direction and goals.

The sprint is complete when the prototype and accompanying artifacts are approved by the full team (including the client), and the prototype is deemed ready for initial usability and accessibility testing. It also produces an initial validated backlog. As backlog items get completed during the next phase of dual-track development the prototype gains in fidelity. Reaching this done increment can take as little as one day for a seasoned team with a responsive client but typically lasts about one week, no more than two. Going over the two week time frame can be a red flag. It may mean there are other team or communication issues to be dealt with first.

Shifting to dual-track

The prototype sprint is a great start to a project. The next step is to shift to a dual-track workflow where UI/UX works a half or whole sprint ahead of development doing discovery and visually updating the prototype to reflect new insights. Here is my detailed review of dual track agile from the designer’s perspective.

In a dual-track process the prototype organically develops, fed by UX research and emerging functional needs. UI/UX and development support one another’s workflows, and project handoff is a thing of the past. Dual-track recognizes that design and programming are different, but also how intertwined and inseparable they are.

Far from limiting creativity, this higher level of structure actually free you to take more risks. Moving ahead of the known data is appropriate because the risk is mitigated by the rapid feedback cycle. The product can’t move ahead in the wrong direction very far without quickly getting results back from user experience testing and correcting course. That benefit goes the other way too… UX cant move too far off course without a rapid reality check as development delivers the next working iteration for user testing.

Focus on the 80% of functionality that servers 80% of users and makes up 80% of the site’s success. Take calculated risks. And remember that you’ll get better as a team!

Design Thinking during a prototype sprint welcomes a wider swathe of people into the discovery tent. It can bring clarity to the sometimes opaque creative process which can feel — in the words of astute internet comment-leaver Fubar –“like a sausage factory hidden within an ancient temple of magic.”

With dual-track the mystery of the build process gives way to the light of frequent communication and incremental updates. Both UI and development will be consistently informed by user experience, and results are communicated within the framework of the working prototype itself — the shared language of the web. This clarity will lead to more (and better quality) communication across every aspect of the project.

Bring these patterns together with a no-handoff project and never throw your work over the fence again.

Further Resources:

Dual Track Agile: Why Messy Leads to Innovation
What is Design Thinking and why is it so popular?
The No-Handoff Manifesto
Design Thinking in 3 steps: How to build a culture of innovation
Design Thinking Origin Story