• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #2: The Death of the Mockup Factory

Today, virtually every software organization has embraced Agile development principles and practices. Many improvements in efficiency, quality, and delivery have resulted. Yet, Agile is not perfect. It’s not the conclusive stage in the evolution of development strategies above which no replacement process can be conceived. Like all corporate religions (remember Six Sigma?), it too eventually will be replaced by the new new thing.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like about Agile. Practices, such as Jeff Gothelf’s and Josh Seiden’s Agile-compatible Lean UX methods, are welcome improvements. My point is that no process is perfect, and while adjustments can and have been made to enhance Agile, something better will eventually come along to take its place.

Business practices are usually replaced because they are force-fit into situations where they don’t make sense. As a long-time practitioner of Human-Centered Design (and more recently, Design Thinking and Design Sprints), I know that textbook, multi-step processes are not always pragmatic given the composition and culture of an enterprise and the speed and pressures forced upon it by a global economy. The right people are not involved or cannot commit the requisite time, the data is overwhelming or ignored, the full process takes too long or is rushed – there are innumerable reasons why well-intentioned processes fail.

In Agile implementations that I have experienced, the emphasis on early and continuous delivery of valuable software neglects the time required for design iteration. Agile principles put satisfying the customer front and center and welcome changes to requirements late in the development cycle, but while requirements may be changeable, changes to the experience design are often vehemently resisted. Given the pressures on developers to maintain velocity and complete all stories by the end of a two-week sprint, it’s understandable that they would not welcome a last-minute insight by the experience designer that changes the interaction model, workflow, or UI design. While changes are unlikely to be proposed when incrementally adding a simple feature to the software, they will almost certainly materialize when building complex features or designing a completely new product.

As a result of this resistance to redesign, many experience design groups devolve into mockup factories – one-and-done designers – in order to feed the Agile machine and keep it running at full speed. If a designer wants to make a change after a mockup has been handed off to development – whether as a result of additional research, usability testing, or just an “Ah-Ha!” breakthrough in her understanding of the design problem – she is often faulted for not delivering the perfected design the first time.

This has got to change. No one functional group is to blame for the mockup factory, yet the mockup factory must die. Of course, we cannot iterate indefinitely. Products do need to ship. But we must find ways to accommodate creative inspiration and design breakthroughs in our product architectures, development processes, and corporate cultures. Innovation requires iteration, inspiration, dogged determination, deep analysis, collaboration, and continuous discovery – all of which cannot be planned for in a sprint roadmap. And in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace in which start-ups can disrupt established players, companies must innovate or die. Institutional resistance to change is no longer an option.

Creative teams are poised to drive this innovation if only we can find ways to turn ‘em loose.


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