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How to make SAFe and UX design work together?

If your organization is developing new digital services or products, you probably use some agile development method. Scrum is the most widely used agile framework in software development. It is a fast and self-directed method for development work that adapts to different situations and is designed for the operational needs in a single development team.

If your organization is larger, its products and services are more complex, and digital development is done by several teams, you need some coordination across the parallel scrum teams

In some organizations this has been resolved in a way that individual development teams work by the scrum model, and a waterfall approach is applied to the management of larger entities. In this case, some of the benefits of agile development may not be realized at the company level. The most widely used model for agile development across an entire organization is Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, where the all-encompassing development effort is coordinated across agile teams using lean methods.

We decided to put together and share here the best practices that we have found to work when service designers, UX/UI designers, and user researchers work within the agile operating model of a larger organization.

Nowadays, a company that plans and develops new services or products most likely also employs service designers, UX designers, and user researchers, since the importance of design and customer focus for business is widely recognized (we have previously written about the ROI of customer experience and design). 

We have been doing design work and leading design teams in large companies for a long time. However, we have often heard from designers or user researchers that it is difficult for them to fit their own work into the agile development cadence. They often claim to have poor visibility into the future or their responsibilities alongside or between product owners and developers is unclear. They often don't have time to gather feedback from users or they hear the development team or project manager complaining if they work with more than one development team.

According to the findings from McKinsey's major design study, companies that use design most effectively increase their revenue and shareholder value almost twice compared to their peer companies. The study involved 300 listed companies over a period of 5 years from multiple countries and industries, from consumer goods to medical technology and banking services. These benefits will not be achieved if the design work is not appropriately integrated into the agile operating model used in the company.

We decided to put together and share here the best practices that we have found to work when service designers, UX/UI designers, and user researchers work within the agile operating model of a larger organization.

We focus here on SAFe because it is the most used agile framework for large organizations. SAFe was launched in 2011 and it was not until its version 5 in 2020 that design was included, wrapped under the title Design Thinking. However, even after that, SAFe has been repeatedly criticized for ignoring user-centricity.

We hope that the following tips will give you some tools or at least inspiration to develop your organization's way of working!

Examples of measurable key results in design environment:

  1. If there is a DesignOps person in your design team, (s)he should familiarize herself with the agile framework used in your company, be it SAFe or something else. Integrating design work in a smart way with the work of product owners and developers requires knowledge of the framework they are using. The roles and responsibilities in SAFe, phases of product development and the big picture of the agile framework should therefore be well understood and embraced by the person responsible for the development of design operations, so that she can shape the design activities to become an effective part of the whole.
  2. SAFe, like other agile models and product development processes, is built around repeatable routines. Applying this same principle, design work should be systematized throughout the organization. If individual designers or design projects follow different approaches, cooperation with developers and product owners who may be following a unified agile framework can become difficult.
  3. Design should be integrated into all processes within the company's product development, taking into account the different phases of the products’ life cycle to an appropriate extent. SAFe does not offer one straightforward guideline for this, but the operating methods in question must be built alongside it, and SAFe's agile model is connected to support already systematized design activities. If the steering of the design work is left to the SAFe framework, we end up in a situation where the need for design work is assessed retrospectively at the beginning of the PI periods or when the sprints are already underway. This leads to a reactive model where the design work cannot be managed, planned or anticipated.
  4. Designers should cooperate with product owners to find out the customer and user needs. In different organizational cultures, this division of responsibility or ownership is often resolved in different ways, but a jointly agreed operating model and the use of relevant user research methods ensure that the organization gets the basis of its work with user stories that sufficiently and comprehensively describe the users' needs. Design should be included in the customer interface and identifying user needs even before the product development process starts.
  5. User experience design activities must be included in backlogs. These tasks should be prioritized according to their importance and effectiveness. If design work is not covered in backlogs, it is rarely taken into account early enough or with sufficient intensity.
  6. In order to maximize the effectiveness of design work, designers must be guaranteed the opportunity to do their work with relevant other teams and roles. At the SAFe team level, the UX Designer must cooperate closely and daily with the development teams implementing new features. A user researcher or usability tester can support this work as needed, but often an individual development team does not need its own full-time user researcher in the long term. Information architecture design should be integrated into the agile development train (Agile Release Train, ART). Likewise, a user research plan should be created, maintained and implemented during the Planning Interval (PI) phase of agile development trains. At the SAFe portfolio level, the portfolio team should include a UX strategist/architect or a lead designer working across the portfolio.
  7. In an orthodox SAFe implementation there are no project managers or program managers, but progress is made to the rhythm of product management governance. A Release Train Engineer is like a Scrum master on a larger scale and not a delivery manager. If these roles have not been mutually agreed upon across the organization, design activities may easily drift towards some kind of agile waterfall model. Priorities and practices conflict if the requirements for designers' work come simultaneously from the project manager working by the legacy cadence and from the product managers working in a more agile way.
  8. Applying the SAFe framework does not eliminate the need for human-centered design. User research, information architecture design, design prototyping, user testing and collecting user feedback are still useful and necessary!

Alpha Design Partners' DesignOps experts will help you when you want to integrate design with your organization's agile development model.

Please contact us if you want to talk more about how to make this happen!

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