Article Review: Adapting Usability Investigations for Agile User-centered Design

Sy, Desiree. 2007. “Adapting Usability Investigations for Agile User-centered Design.” Journal of Usability Studies 2 (3) (May): 112-132.


Autodesk ( develops popular software that although many people may not have used, most people know of their flagship product—AutoCAD 3D rendering software. Because of the complex nature of the software and the steep learning curve to learn how to use it, Autodesk has invested in many avenues for creating a better user experience. From traditional usability testing to avant-garde applications and uses of social media, Autodesk realizes that the key to their continuing success is to continue providing end-to-end customer experiences (Gilbane Group 2011).

Adapting Usability for Agile UCD
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This research article uses the Case Study method and explains how the Autodesk user experience (UX) team developed and implemented new research methodologies. The company has been in existence since 1982 and used the traditional “waterfall” development process. Looking to remain competitive for an increasingly complex software, the UX team wanted to develop their design process by incorporating current Agile methods.

This article discusses the other more popular methodologies UX practitioners use and explains why these other methods are not adequate for Autodesk’s UX requirements. I will only be discussing the methods addressed in this article, namely, agile, waterfall, and scrum.

The most traditional development lifecycle is waterfall.  This process contains the phases “Analysis,” “Design,” “coding,” and “QA” (quality assurance).  These four phases are one cycle that constitutes a “full release.”

Waterfall did not work well for the Autodesk UX designers because of the time of the design schedule. The process’s primary investigations used contextual inquiry and formative testing and the developers would often begin coding before the design specifications were finished. Furthermore, trying to complete a design specification well in advance (to combat the coding being started before the designers were finished) meant that many out-of-date specifications would be tested (because the designers would be trying to anticipate future features).

Agile is Flexible

However, Agile development incorporates aspects of these other methodologies by using what works from the others to speed up the development lifecycle. Agile is an eclectic process and its flexibility is its primary strength. For instance, there are two processes that play an important role within the Agile framework. The first is an “iterative” development process, which means, “to step through one design version after another” (Nielsen 1993). The other is Scrum, which is a short stand-up meeting. These meetings become more important within an Agile framework.

There are two methods that carry over from waterfall to Agile:

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Formative testing

Formative usability is always done before the design has been finalized. However, it is also iterative (Tullis and Albert 2008).

Essentially, Agile takes the similar iterative techniques as the contextual and formative frameworks and adapts them to Agile’s more rapid methodology. This is quite a change because contextual inquiry methodologies can be very time consuming (Garrett 2010).

What is Agile

You do not necessarily test full workflows in Agile (as opposed to waterfall) but test in chunks, which allows for more contextual information that can be used during the development of the current release With waterfall, that information would not be used until the next release, which means it often becomes out-of-date and therefore a waste of time.

Some of the processes Agile draws on include the following:

  • Designing in chunks
  • Using personas
  • Using different types of usability investigations
  • Each cycle is a mini-release
  • Document-light
  • Agile timing challenge
  • Designing a step ahead

Limitations of Agile

Agile user-centered design (UCD) presents particular challenges in protocol design for usability investigations, because of two considerations:

  1. The progressively incremental character of both implementation and design.
  2. The fixed number of usability investigations that fit within the time frame of a cycle.

Application of research to Technical Communications

There is ample opportunity for technical communicators to contribute to a product’s UX implementation or to a UX team’s development process. As the author points out, Agile UCD brings together multiple disciplines into one room for the benefit of the customer. In my previous article review Theory of Education for Technical Communications, I also looked at the field of UX and how it relates to technical communications. What I have found, in the least, is that having knowledge of the traditional UX methodologies will help someone not familiar with UX processes understand how the development works. Furthermore, even non-UX practitioners (such as technical writers) can benefit from understanding traditional and current methodologies as UCD and technical writing continues to converge.



Beck, Kent, and Mike Beedle. 2001. “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.”

Garrett, Jesse James. 2010. The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond (2nd Edition). 2nd ed. New Riders Press.

Gilbane Group. 2011. “MindTouch Case Studies & Customers | Collaboration and Product Help – MindTouch, Inc.”

Highsmith, J., and A. Cockburn. 2001. “Agile software development: the business of innovation.” Computer 34 (9) (September): 120-127.

McInerney, Paul, and Frank Maurer. 2005. “UCD in agile projects: dream team or odd couple?” interactions 12 (6) (November): 19–23.

Nielsen, Jakob. 1993. “Iterative user-interface design.” IEEE Computer 26 (11) (November): 32-41.

Sharp, Helen, Robert Biddle, Phil Gray, Lynn Miller, and Jeff Patton. 2006. “Agile development: opportunity or fad?” In CHI  ’06 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, 32–35. CHI EA  ’06. New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Sy, Desiree. 2007. “Adapting Usability Investigations for Agile User-centered Design.” Journal of Usability Studies 2 (3) (May): 112-132.

Tullis, Thomas, and William Albert. 2008. Measuring the User Experience: Collecting, Analyzing, and Presenting Usability Metrics. 1st ed. Morgan Kaufmann.

Vijayan, A T. 2011. “Agile Developer Notes: Scrum Roles and Responsibilities”. Blog. Agile Developer Notes.

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Filed under Article Reviews, Technical Writing, User experience

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