TITLE: Agile Moments: Stories, Tests, and Refactoring in Visual Design AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 20, 2013 12:32 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In A Place for Sharing Ideas and Stories, designers Teehan+Lax tell the story of their role in creating Medium, "a better place to read and write things that matter". The section "Forging ahead", about features added to the platform after its launch, made me think of some of the ideas we use when designing code test-first, only at a much higher level.
We reset by breaking the team up into new feature teams. Each feature team would have at least one designer, one front-end developer and a back-end developer. Some teams would take on multiple features depending on their complexity. We used one page briefs that were easy to write, easy to understand and helped guide the teams when working through their feature(s). They consisted of questions like:
This bullet list embodies several elements of agile development. For each feature, the brief acts like a story card that boils the feature down to a clear need of the user, a clear action, and, most important in my mind, a test: How will we know that this page is doing what we want it to do? In a lot of my work, this is a crucial element. As Kent Beck says, "How will I know I'm done?" The paragraph preceding the list highlights a couple of other attributes common to agile development. One, teams are working on stories in parallel on a common artifact. Two, the teams include a designer, a front-end developer, and a back-end developer. The team doesn't include a user, which can be a huge advantage for developers, but the author mentions elsewhere that nearly everyone on the team was a user:
As the internal product progressed and its features and capabilities became clearer, we would reduce the amount of ad hoc meetings and focus on getting stuff built into the product so we could actually use it. Talking about work is great at first, but usage is what breathes life into the product.
The author also stresses the value of physical co-location of the designers and developers over even well-supported electronic communication, which echoes for me the value of having a user in the room with the developers. What happens as features were enhanced or added by separate teams? "... maintaining some sort of design integrity across the entire product."
This thing was about to get full of user choices (read: complexity) in a hurry -- The product was now at a critical point in its life.
Of course, complexity and incoherence can creep into products even when they are designed and built by one team, when it works on multiple features in rapid succession. The solution for Medium sounded familiar:
We took a week off current fixes and features and focused on redesigning three pages from scratch: Home, Collection and Post. Some of it went live, some of it went away.
We hated to see some of the stuff we'd designed (and even built) not go live, but it needed to die so the product could grow through simplification.
This reminded me a lot like refactoring, even with differences from the way we refactor at the code level. As teams added features without considering the effect of the changes on the global structure of the product, they accumulated something akin to "design debt". So after a while they dedicated time to paying off the debt and bringing back to the product the sense of wholeness that had been lost. I am curious to know whether the teams ever looked back at the page briefs to verify that the redesigned pages still did what they wanted them to do. That would be the equivalent of "running the tests". We programmers really do have it nice. Lines and units of code are a bit more separable than the visual design elements of a product. This allows us to refactor all the time, if we are so inclined, not just in batch after a large set of changes. The presence of concrete tests, written as code, allows us to test the efficacy of our changes relatively easily before we move forward. While down in the trenches writing code, it's easy to forget just how liberating -- and empowering -- this combination of separability and testability are for design and redesign. It's also easy to forget sometimes that similar challenges face designers and creators across domains and disciplines. Many of the same themes run through stories the things we create, whether software in the small, software in the large, or physical artifacts. Reading Teahan+Lax's story reminded me of that, too. -----