Danny Bluestone, CEO of UX-driven digital transformation agency Cyber-Duck, provides an introduction to Agile.
These days, most production teams will recommend an Agile development approach.
This article explores what this means for marketers, comparing Agile with traditional production methodologies.
What’s wrong with traditional methods?
Agile evolved as a solution to the perceived disadvantages of traditional Waterfall production methods.
Under Waterfall, production follows a strict, sequential structure: ‘flowing’ through requirement gathering, design, implementation, verification (testing), deployment and maintenance.
At each stage, work is finalised and signed-off before progressing onwards. Up-front research and documentation – including marketers’ project briefs – define requirements and deliverables from the outset.
Designers and developers carefully follow this extensive plan, with working functionality built only in the final project stages.
Many marketers enjoy knowing what to expect with Waterfall. They have an idea of the cost, timeline and functionality of their final product right from the start.
But, understanding customer requirements up-front is often unrealistic. Users may be unaware of their preferences; imagining using a product is different from actually using it.
Additionally, in the fast-paced digital world in which we now live, requirements and market conditions can easily change throughout production.
The Waterfall approach is too rigid to cater to either of these scenarios. Requirements are fixed and the entire product is usually only tested just before deployment, when only small changes can be incorporated in response to user feedback.
Turning back to resolve more significant feedback can cause delays, or increase costs.
What is Agile?
Agile is an iterative approach to developing websites, apps and software, that drives rapid development through close collaboration, testing and incremental production.
Most critically, it is highly flexible, being able to respond to changing requirements.
First coined back in 2001, the core Agile Manifesto simply states a preference for:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change over following a plan.
Agile avoids extensive documentation. Instead, only high-level requirements are defined before kick-off and the entire multi-disciplinary production team (from designers, developers, quality assurance, etc.) collaborate intensively.
The whole team works in tandem on the same elements, in contrast to the Waterfall approach which isolates the work of each department with a mere handover on completion.
Together, production teams deliver incremental releases of the entire project in time-bound iterations (or ‘sprints’) every few weeks, with each sprint typically focusing on satisfying a specific business or user need (e.g. creating a login area).
Working versions of the project are available for review (or even use) at the close of each sprint.
Marketers, stakeholders, and (most importantly) customers are consulted at each step with further changes being made in response to testing, feedback and business prioritisation, before beginning a new sprint.
This ensures that teams can evaluate and respond to any change in customer requirements.
What are the benefits?
The application of Agile is diverse, often customised for the unique context of each project.
Below I’ve selected a few key benefits that may sway marketers, while exploring a few drawbacks along the way.
Agile production teams can deliver a version of your digital product with core features far more quickly than Waterfall.
With Agile, streamlining production begins right from the initial planning stages. Marketers only need a high-level wish list of features before approaching agencies (or in-house production teams) for feedback, proposals and costs.
As the exact feature list isn’t defined until the project gets under way, agencies must deviate from providing the traditional fixed quote for specific deliverables.
For instance, when we created a proposal for Cancer Research Technology, to develop Ximbio (a crowdsourced scientific marketplace) we presented a high-level, flexible vision for the entire project.
In essence we defined the vision for the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – the earliest version of a website, app or software that has the basic features needed to fulfil user goals.
Then, we divided the work necessary to deliver that MVP into sprints, and provided a quote for each one, based on the type and number of resources required.
The specific details and deliverables of each sprint were then defined and refined during production, enabling Ximbio to evolve based on user-centric research, usability testing and the client’s priorities.
Despite the complexity of the project, we launched in just three months, and then continued to iterate based on testing and feedback. Had we employed a Waterfall approach it would have taken significantly longer to get to market.
2. Gauging market interest
By postponing development of non-essential features and using Agile to bring a MVP to market quickly, marketers can rapidly gauge interest and uncover if there’s real demand for their product, without using too many resources.
The tweet scheduling tool, Buffer, provides a brilliant example. Its first MVP was nothing more than a simple landing page explaining the product.
Later, the founder added details of a paid pricing plan. This was published (and shared) without any of the tool actually built.
Through analytics, Buffer’s founder could understand whether users would be interested in the service or want to pay for it, and this proof of concept informed Buffer’s development.
Buffer’s MVP was just a landing page that explained the product. The functionality wasn’t actually built until the founder had tested paid demand.
Projects with static, clearly-defined goals and requirements thrive under Waterfall. But clearly these conditions are becoming increasingly rare in today’s fast-paced, ever changing digital environment.
Users’ needs, expectations and desires constantly evolve and in the time lapse between gathering requirements and build, Waterfall production can miss first-to-market benefits and no longer be fit for purpose.
In contrast, Agile’s flexible production process suits projects with fluid needs, requirements and goals, which operate within a changeable environment.
Post launch, Agile production teams can continue to develop incrementally, responding to changes and feedback from real users.
Against market giants Amazon, Apple and Google, Spotify famously maintains its competitive edge through a tailored Agile approach.
The team is divided into small, cross-functional ‘squads’ that operate like autonomous, flexible startups. By taking ownership over one specific ‘mission’ (e.g. improving users’ ability to search) squads drive ideas from conception and design right through to development, deployment and outcome analysis.
This end-to-end involvement means squads can closely track and flexibly work towards meeting user needs.
Regular, rigorous quality testing is at the heart of Agile. With incremental examination, features are tested as they are developed, making it easier for developers to isolate the cause and squash any bugs.
Fully tested, working software is delivered at the end of each sprint. Stakeholders review and sign off the work, before evaluating priorities and beginning further feature development, ensuring a high level of quality for the final product.
In contrast, Waterfall’s sequential process leaves all testing until the build is complete. This is obviously risky.
Teams won’t know how many defects are present, so can’t provide a concrete estimate for fixes. Consequently, delays may result or quality could be compromised in an effort to launch on time.
Agile assures the usability of your digital project, closing each development sprint with user acceptance testing.
How can you begin applying an Agile process?
Transitioning to Agile can be a dramatic shift for marketers, stakeholders, and production teams.
There are multiple frameworks that detail how production teams can incorporate the over-arching Agile principles into their workflows. For instance, Scrum has a proven governance structure and best practices that specify daily rituals, roles and responsibilities.
The depth of the procedures and techniques within Scrum’s framework means businesses with trained and certified staff (on the production and project management side) will secure more immediate benefits.
It would be a steep learning curve for an un-trained production team to attempt the Agile transition alone, or for a single project.
Furthermore, marketers who commission Agile projects must ensure all their stakeholders embrace the flexible core of Agile.
For example, they need to understand that their initial wish-list of features would likely be re-prioritised during production, in response to user feedback.
They also need to be happy with on-going, open communication with the production team, often in the form of regular, visual show-and-tell presentations, instead of lengthy reports.
Organise regular show-and-tell presentations between the production team and stakeholders to summarise, give input and sign-off work throughout sprints.
Most critically, marketers need to ensure that their approval processes are streamlined before commencing an Agile project.
Ideally, sign-off should be managed by a single person who is empowered to take decisions, heavily involved in the project and relatively available.
Without this, Agile’s ‘incremental flexibility’ could ironically hold up development with deliverables repeatedly stuck in the approval process, before work can continue.
Users’ desires are evolving, with increasingly sophisticated products and platforms released every day. Agile’s principles are tailor-made for this constantly changing digital environment.
Agile offers marketers a quick, flexible production process: defining and developing the key features of your ‘killer app’ in stages.
Quality is assured through close encounters with real users and stakeholders, ensuring production keeps pace with fluid motivations, desires and needs.
But, marketers can only seize these benefits by cultivating an Agile-ready environment within their business. After all, Agile is not a silver bullet – it can only propel your project towards success if the right conditions are met.
And when the right conditions are met, the results can be phenomenal, leading some marketers to even adapt the Agile Manifesto to improve the speed, transparency and adaptability of their own marketing activities (i.e. Agile Marketing).
To learn more about Agile Marketing, book yourself onto our one-day training course in London.