Incorporating Strong Center Design Into an Agile Project

Strong Center Design is an approach we developed at Sphere of Influence to unify software design where every feature and design choice enhances a product’s impact by creating a single, powerful impression. Our approach is an alternative to random design choices that lead to a mish-mash of competing centers.

One of the challenges we overcame was integrating Strong Center Design with an Agile culture where it is a matter of ritual to prioritize features and design choices on an iterative and incremental basis. To integrate Strong Center Design with Agile, we considered five distinct approaches and examined the weaknesses of each one.

1. Design up-front
Insert a dedicated design step (much bigger than a sprint-zero) before launching the first Agile sprint. A good analogy is the ‘pre-production’ step used when filming Hollywood movies.
Weakness: Has all the same pitfalls of waterfall (phase-gate) development.

2. Design in each sprint
Do a little design at the beginning of every sprint.
Weakness: There is never enough time to develop a good design without delaying developers. Either design or productivity suffers.

3. JIT design a few sprints ahead of development
Two separate parallel workflows in each sprint: one for design (about two sprints ahead) and the other for development. Use Kanban signals to trigger JIT design work before it is needed by the next sprint.
Weakness: Not ideal because the further ahead design gets, the less Agile the process becomes. A design team can also end up supporting several different sprints at the same time – the next design sprint and the current development sprint.

4. Dedicated design sprints
Sprints oscillate between design-focus and development-focus.
Weakness: Everyone is tasked to work design during design sprints even if they lack the skill or desire to work on the design. The reverse is true for development sprints.

5. Designer and developer partnerships
Known in academia as ‘fused innovation’, this pairs a design professional with one or more developers.
Weakness: Federating designers contradicts the objective to achieve wholeness in the design. It is difficult to implement with a distributed team.

To make Strong Center Design compatible with Agile, we discovered a hybrid approach worked best, formed from two of the options.

First, do a little design up-front. Don’t design the entire product, but take some time to establish a strong conceptual center something we call the North Star. The North Star creates a unified focus that everyone can agree on. The North Star also fleshes out the design language plus any design principles that will shape the product. Do this work up-front before the first sprint.

Once development starts, we found the best way to achieve Strong Center Design is to replace the typical Product Owner role in Agile with a designer to lead the team. This is the most controversial aspect of our approach, as many people regard consensus-based (i.e. collaborative) prioritization as a core tenant of Agile. However, relying on consensus to prioritize design choices tends to optimize a single part of the product at the expense of the whole.

While not perfect, this blend succeeds in giving us the best of both worlds. We get a design driven product with a single unified identity. It also gives us the production efficiency of Agile.

2 replies
  1. Philip Usatine says:

    This is similar to approaches we used at Scripps Networks (Food Network, Travel Channel, …). Create the North Star up front, but allow design iteration ongoing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a reasonable compromise. However, not sure I agree with the Designer replacing Product Owner. Ultimately, a good product manager / product owner has a broader vision than any individual designer, and is focused on roi and tradeoffs that a designer typically is not / would not be. Those roi / tradeoff decisions appropriately drive compromises in design, and need to be considerations in the discussion at every point in the project.

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  2. Thad Scheer
    Thad Scheer says:

    Sadly, the PO role is totally phony, at least on most Agile projects. POs tend to be glorified consensus wranglers who don’t actually “own” anything, nor are they qualified to be in charge. However, a good Product Manager is a completely different beast. I like working with talented Product Managers.

    Whether the person in charge of the product has the title Product Manager or a Product Designer is irrelevant. In either case, the person needs to be talented in the art of design and in the understanding of the product’s reason for existing in the big picture. To use a movie analogy: Somebody needs to be the Producer; i.e. the person in charge of keeping everything organized, orderly, efficient, and funded. Somebody also needs to be the Director; i.e., the creative talent in charge of what the product will be – from the broad brush strokes down to the most delicate details. It is a bad idea to abdicate the creative responsibilities to any type of consensus-based elicitation process; or to split those responsibilities across two or more individuals.

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