Stop throwing your designs over the fence!

Is the Waterfall method washing away your carefully crafted designs? Harness Design Thinking and Dual-track agile and stop project handoff for good.

Though software development has embraced agile, far too many of us still encounter waterfall or waterfall-adjacent processes in our design work. In the waterfall process we carefully think about and craft a visual solution, then throw it over the fence and hope the next team is there to catch it.

Dont let the waterfall wash away your designs

This process is riddled with issues. One of the most pressing is that we know the least amount that we possibly can at the beginning of the process, making our designs less able to meet real user needs.

Software is too complex for waterfall methods. Such designs are as likely to introduce issues as they are to solve them. The need for a more nimble agile process is clear, but how to get there? We need Design Thinking and Dual-track agile.

Design Thinking and Dual-Track agile can help us avoid project handoff and create better design. Bring them both together with a no-handoff project and never throw your work over the fence again…because you’ve gotten rid of the fence altogether!

This article is not an in-depth review of design thinking and dual-track, as there is a lot of information written separately about each already (get started here, here, or here). Instead I will look at how combining them helps design and development join forces and eliminate project handoff. Yay!

The Breakdown

Design Thinking, to me, is essentially agile for the discovery process. As a UX designer I know first hand that we need more iterative and collaborative techniques in our field, we need to broaden the design tent and capture outside-the-design-track thinking. Incorporating knowledge from the widest possible sources into discovery and design leads to stronger, more resilient products. Design Thinking is brilliant at helping us grow the tent and improve the discovery process, but doesn’t integrate that thinking into the build process. On it’s own its not enough to avoid project handoff.

Dual-track and design thinking can untangle the madness

Dual-Track on the other hand is the game-changing agile process for design and discovery to work hand in hand with development. In dual track processes design and development work in parallel and feed into each other’s workflows. However, like most agile methods, it simply assumes a clear plan and validated backlog but sheds no light on how to get there.

What if Design Thinking and Dual-Track had a baby? What would it look like? I’ve been wrestling with that question to find a solution with my own teams. The result in the no-handoff method.

In addition to a Really Great Name, no-handoff offers practical ways to apply the benefits of Design Thinking and Dual-Track and reach our ultimate goal: collaborative teams with no project handoff.

Design Thinking and Dual-track offer solutions

In my work one thing has stood out to me: how much of the challenge of design and development working together comes down to communication. Communication is hard, and agile processes requires much more of it!

Whether we work in an agency, an in-house team, or freelance, the higher communication demands of an agile workflow are often barriers to change. But the fallback waterfall-esque methods we often see will box the design process in, separate and weaken its usefulness, and leave us all swimming upstream. Often we default to waterfall, not because its so awesome, but because it seems the only way over the fence is to chuck your work and hope it get’s caught.

No-handoff is an agile method created with the sole purpose of integrating design and development. No-handoff projects combine Dual-track agile and Design Thinking in practical ways you can use right now. Basically, take down the fence and there is no more mystery.

Putting Design Thinking and Dual-track together in no-handoff projects

How do we bring better communication and transparency to design and development? In no-handoff projects we tackle that issue in two ways:

  1. Begin with a prototype sprint. This initial discovery sprint involves the entire team from the earliest stages of the project and harnesses Design Thinking to unleash the creativity of the entire team.
  2. When you’ve completed the prototype sprint shift gears into Dual-track development. This method will continue to focus the powers of the entire team into a shared product and build on the communication methods established in the prototype sprint.

Both steps demystify and democratize the respective fields of design and development.

Start with the prototype

All no-handoff projects begin with a prototype sprint. There is a primer here that goes into much further detail, but in short the prototype is a working front-end wireframe, not a mockup or a sketch. Team’s pick their favorite front end framework and run with it, capturing project goals in the only shared language of the web — a website itself. The prototype isnt throwaway code, its foundational, and will be refined at each subsequent stage. By involving all disciplines from the start it ensures that code and design goals are not at cross-purposes, as well as setting the pattern for shared communication moving forward.

In some no-handoff projects it can make sense to generate a companion vision document during the initial prototype sprint. But in most of my projects the prototype is the vision. Ive often experienced a product vision becoming out of date and quickly relegated to the useless artifacts bin, but when the prototype itself is the vision it’s ofcourse never out of step with the product direction and goals.

The sprint is complete when the prototype and accompanying artifacts are approved by the full team (including the client), and the prototype is deemed ready for initial usability and accessibility testing. It also produces an initial validated backlog. As backlog items get completed during the next phase of dual-track development the prototype gains in fidelity. Reaching this done increment can take as little as one day for a seasoned team with a responsive client but typically lasts about one week, no more than two. Going over the two week time frame can be a red flag. It may mean there are other team or communication issues to be dealt with first.

Shifting to dual-track

The prototype sprint is a great start to a project. The next step is to shift to a dual-track workflow where UI/UX works a half or whole sprint ahead of development doing discovery and visually updating the prototype to reflect new insights. Here is my detailed review of dual track agile from the designer’s perspective.

In a dual-track process the prototype organically develops, fed by UX research and emerging functional needs. UI/UX and development support one another’s workflows, and project handoff is a thing of the past. Dual-track recognizes that design and programming are different, but also how intertwined and inseparable they are.

One unified team process

Far from limiting creativity, this higher level of structure actually free you to take more risks. Moving ahead of the known data is appropriate because the risk is mitigated by the rapid feedback cycle. The product can’t move ahead in the wrong direction very far without quickly getting results back from user experience testing and correcting course. That benefit goes the other way too… UX cant move too far off course without a rapid reality check as development delivers the next working iteration for user testing.

Focus on the 80% of functionality that servers 80% of users and makes up 80% of the site’s success. Take calculated risks. And remember that you’ll get better as a team!

Design Thinking during a prototype sprint welcomes a wider swathe of people into the discovery tent. It can bring clarity to the sometimes opaque creative process which can feel — in the words of astute internet comment-leaver Fubar –“like a sausage factory hidden within an ancient temple of magic.”

With dual-track the mystery of the build process gives way to the light of frequent communication and incremental updates. Both UI and development will be consistently informed by user experience, and results are communicated within the framework of the working prototype itself — the shared language of the web. This clarity itself will lead to more (and better quality) communication across every aspect of the project.

Bring them both together with a no-handoff project and never throw your work over the fence again.

Further Resources:

Dual Track Agile: Why Messy Leads to Innovation
What is Design Thinking and why is it so popular?
The No-Handoff Manifesto
Design Thinking in 3 steps: How to build a culture of innovation
Design Thinking Origin Story