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Agile team structure and the role of the designer

As organisations recognise the advantages that agile can deliver, we’re increasingly seeing agile and its derivatives as the delivery project management tool of choice. This is especially true in the commercial world of digital product development, where the promises of early working software and a flexible, scalable process that enables an adaptive approach to product development is very attractive.

The world of digital product and service development is one where customer experience is critical to business success. Despite this, the role of experience design has been somewhat underrepresented on agile projects to date. Agile project managers apply project patterns and team structures that are applicable for software delivery projects.

  • But when the focus shifts to be more experience-centric, those patterns need some adjustment.

We’re here to inject design back into experience-centric agile projects.

So let’s have a look at the typical agile team and the role design plays in an experience-centric project. Rather than trying to inject designers into the team, we’ll look at a couple of different project requirements and cross-match them with the applicable skill sets, to help agile project managers get the right people for the job. We’ll explore options including “design pairing” to increase efficiency, quality, collaboration, and knowledge sharing, and then finish this section with a look at how to avoid some of the pitfalls of cross-functional teams.

Siloed functions vs. cross-functional teams

Most organisational structures are made up of functional silos, and lines of reporting follow functional expertise and authority. In general, there are only two opportunities for cross-functional collaboration. One is at the very top, where the heads of each functional division collaborate on the strategic direction for the organisation. The other is on projects, where expertise from each functional area is required to contribute to project success. However, even within projects, prior to the advent of agile, each phase was assigned to separate functional group of specialists and generally executed and delivered in sequence.

One problem with this approach is it can introduce functional bias. This is where a functional team, undertaking their functional project phase, pulls the project in a particular direction relevant to their area of expertise, without considering other functional areas. The subsequent function receives the outputs from the previous phase, and with limited appreciation for the previous functional expertise, then pulls the project in a different direction, adding alternative bias toward their own functional area (4.5).


4.5. Potential functional bias on a sequential project.

The best way to avoid this situation is for cross-functional teams to collaborate to create a solution. Agile uses the cross-functional team approach primarily because it offers many advantages, including:

  • Efficiency: A collocated team comprising functional experts collaborating to reach a common goal will succeed far more quickly than a team separated by function, acting in a sequential manner.
  • Knowledge sharing: The communication, team learning, and knowledge sharing process is much more efficient in a cross-functional team. Furthermore, members of the cross-functional team then cross-pollinate knowledge and communication with their original functional group.
  • Innovation: By bringing together people from diverse backgrounds you’re providing the stimulus for multidisciplinary thinking, a potential catalyst for increased creativity and innovation.
  • Holistic success: A cross-functional team is more focused on a common directive rather than siloed functional success.

However, bringing a bunch of people together from different backgrounds, disciplines, and areas of expertise and just expecting them to get on with it, get on well, and be successful is a tall order. A cross-functional team needs both a strong leader (not manager) and members of the team to be self-directed. To be self-directed, roles and responsibilities need to be clear and individuals and the team need to be empowered to make the right decisions at the right time. They also need to share a common directive or vision.

The typical agile project team

In most books about agile you’ll find an amorphous description of the agile project team. This is because agile is less prescriptive about who does what and is more concerned with getting the job done. In his book The Agile Samurai, Jonathan Rasmusson suggests that “roles blur on agile projects and they are going to be expected to wear many hats...there are people who know what needs to be built...and people who can build it...agile is less concerned about who plays what role and more worried about the right roles being played.”1

It’s much less about roles and much more about activities and the appropriate skills to do the activities. This means that a developer can write tests or undertake analysis of a user story with a product owner without other team members getting territorial. In common practise though, for reasons of efficiency, individuals stick to the activities that they have expertise in. But when a blockage in the delivery pipeline occurs, team members can apply themselves to other functional activities with which they are not traditionally involved.

The role of the experience designer on an agile project

  • The responsibility of an experience designer (or design pair) on an agile team is to create the design vision and drive the design direction for the experience that a customer will have when engaging with a product, service, or whole system.

So what do all these cross-functions and blurred roles mean for design and designers? Well, in the same way that a developer still writes code, and analysts still analyse information, designers still design. It just means that potentially, where time and skills allow, designers can also do other activities and other team members can get involved in some aspects of design. But don’t let this put you off. This doesn’t diffuse quality or undermine the expertise of the designer; we still have a very important job to do. Let’s look at that in a bit more detail.

The responsibility of an experience designer on an agile team is to work alongside the product owner and business analysts to create the design vision and design direction for the customer experience and define what will be built. The designer also works alongside the developers and testers to figure out how it can be built. You have the whole team or specific members or functions within a team who can input to design and help with problem solving.

Once the design vision is drafted, designers are then responsible, again with other team members, for the design detail. With a design vision in place, the details can emerge throughout the life cycle of the design development. However, and this is where we diverge from some more purist views of agile, design detail should not be emergent without a design vision to hold it all together. It is absolutely essential that time is spent before development of the experience layer on thinking holistically about the design vision.

  • Create a design vision that will provide focus for the rest of the design activities and guide design detail as it emerges.

Skills VS. roles: tips for project managers

There are a number of distinct skill sets that come under the umbrella of design; non-designers might be forgiven for thinking that all designers do every sort of design. However, that is not the case and a project manager who makes that assumption will be in as much trouble as one who believes that all developers know how to code in Java.

The best way to avoid problems and make sure that the team have the correct competencies and capabilities is to think about the skills needed rather than thinking about the roles. What’s the difference? “The designer” is a role, but there are many different areas that a designer might specialise in (4.6).


4.6. Experience design skills.

You can see from the word cloud that a broad range of skills is available, and even if you don’t necessarily understand what each of those skills involves, you can probably appreciate that it’s hard to find all of those skills in a single designer. Some of the skills listed above are not exclusive to designers either. Talk to all the people on the team to see who has skills and experience in particular areas (4.7).


4.7 Agile team roles.

Generalists vs. specialists

Which is better: generalists or specialists? The answer depends on the breadth and depth of the problem. The deeper the problem goes into a specific area, the more it requires specific skills and the more you’re likely to need a specialist in that area.

A specialist is someone who concentrates primarily on a particular subject, activity, or field, and his expertise is based on years of experience dedicated to that particular cause. A generalist is a person who has competencies in one or more fields.

In his book Ten Faces of Innovation, IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley describes “T-shaped individuals,” who he says, “enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but...also have depth in at least one area of expertise.”

Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters, provides the following definition: “User experience design takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products. It integrates interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, visual interface design, user assistance design, and user-centred design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions. User experience design defines a product’s form, behaviour, and content.” And he goes on to suggest that “a UX designer is, by definition, one example of a T-shaped person.”

Whether you decide to plug for a specialist, a generalist, or a T-shaped person the key is to match that person’s skills with the understanding of your project’s requirements. If you have limited understanding or limited budget, then the safest option is to find a generalist and set his expectations. A good generalist will let you know if additional expertise in a particular area is needed and will even help you build a case to justify the additional resource if necessary.

Give up control to gain control

Designers are used to controlling all the aspects of a design, from the start of the design phase to the end. Since the dotcom era, some of the more enlightened organisations have recognised that it is not enough to do design in a vacuum. Instead, they recognise and embrace the notion of customer-centred design: the idea that the design should be focused on the customer’s wants, needs, and context of use. If the process is truly customer-centred, then customers should be involved throughout the design development. From the outset, where you spend time understanding the customers’ world: who the customers are, what they do and how they do it, to getting them involved in collaborative design or user testing throughout the process.

So the point here is while it’s good to understand the users of the system and their context, it’s equally essential to add the business and technology concerns into the mix too. Now we’re not expecting that on top of being experts in design that designers should also become business experts and technology experts. We are, however, advocating that designers collaborate with business representatives and developers throughout the project life cycle. This collaboration, together with the continued application of user-centred design methods will help to ensure that any designs deliver business value, provide an engaging and desirable experience for the customers, and are feasible from a technology point of view.

It’s not enough to just engage with these different stakeholder groups at the onset of the project; you need to be in constant consultation with them throughout the project. As you know, things change frequently in design, and so too they change frequently in business and technology. The design needs to be continuously recalibrated to reflect the fluid nature of the age in which we live.

Avoiding pitfalls: tribal behaviour

Projects would be great if it weren’t for the people, right? Team dynamics can make or break any situation and all the benefits of collocation definitely ring true when the team members play nicely together. However, for teams to work well together, the individual team members must all contribute to or buy into the vision and feel that they are making a worthwhile contribution that is valued by the other team members.

Having a collocated team can help to break down tribal behaviours associated with functional groups, as the functional group identity is not preeminent in a cross-functional team. However, to avoid tribal behaviour it is important that each of the functions is represented and not disadvantaged. DK Matai, writing about digital tribes, says:

“The predominant characteristic of tribes throughout time is the need to share and to communicate ideas, thoughts, observations and views.”2

Tribal behaviours can still occur where team members are in a functional minority and escape back to their home tribe whenever they can for a sense of belonging. Or the opposite can occur when team members are in a functional majority and form a clique to the exclusion of some of the minority functional team members.

While team dynamics are ultimately the responsibility of the project manager, it’s obviously the individual team members who contribute to the dynamic. Be mindful of tribal behaviours and avoid reverting to tribe when things don’t quite go your way.

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