Agile User Interface Design

Posted on Tuesday 20th March 2012


This posts discusses a user-centric, iterative, and collaborative design process for Kanban and Scrum teams.

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The role of design still puzzles many Scrum and Kanban teams I work with. When should the design activities take place? Who should carry them out? How are design decisions best captured? This blog tries to answer the questions by introducing my preferred design approach.

User-centric, iterative, and collaborative

The image above depicts the design process I employ. It’s user-centric, iterative, and collaborative. The process starts with capturing the design concept in form of a rough mock-up. Then the detailed design for one or more user stories is created and implemented as a throwaway prototype or as shippable software. The result is exposed to the users to understand if the design contributes to a great user experience. If it does, the design is refined, and the design for the next stories is created; if it does not, the design concept is reworked.

High-level Design

To get started, develop your design concept. The concept should sketch your key design ideas and communicate the essence of what you believe the product should look like. This includes the shapes and the colours you intend to use. Keep the overall product vision in mind together with the desired user experience: the kind of product being developed and the reason why people might want to use it. Focus on the critical aspects and don’t worry about the details right now.

For instance, the high-level design below shows how the structure, shapes and colours of our new homepage together with a photo of a bald guy with a beard and sticky notes.

High-level website design

Capture your design concept as a mock-up. Consider using a paper sketch similar to the one shown above. Paper sketches require less effort than wire-frames or other mock-ups; they are usually good enough to communicate the design idea. Make your sketch visible and put it on the product backlog board as shown below.

High-level design on the product backlog board

You may also want to explore the anticipated interaction of a user with the product, and to capture it as an interaction diagram or workflow. Put the resulting artefact on the board’s model area. (You can find out more about the backlog board in my blog post “The Product Backlog Board“.)

Detailed Design

With your design concept in place, create the design for each user stories you want to implement. This is best done as part of the product backlog grooming work. Developing the detailed design should hence be a collaborative exercise that involves the developers and testers. This allows you to leverage the team’s collective creativity and to quickly discover which design options are difficult and expensive to implement.

Sketch the user story-specific design on a paper card and attach it to the story card, as the image below illustrates. The design depicts the details of one of the boxes on the homepage:

Detailed design for a story

Then implement the design either as a throwaway prototype or as shippable software, and expose the result to the users. Note that paper prototypes are often sufficient to test your initial design ideas. Resist the temptation to create a perfect design straight away: An unpolished implementation tends to generate more valuable user feedback than a super slick design.


Leveraging the user feedback to validate your design ideas does not mean that you don’t require a vision of what the product should look like. The opposite is true. You have to innovate for your users and cannot expect to be told what the product should look like.

Take the redesign of our website for example: Our customers, the organisations that pay for our training or consulting services, are important users of our website. Most of our customers are mid-sized to large enterprises. Having worked for large companies myself, I know that bigger organisations often prefer a more conservative look. But we wanted to create a website that that looks cool and that we like, not a boring corporate design. The challenge is hence to synthesise the wants and needs of the users and your own vision and ideas into a great design.

Synthesising needs and vision

Use the feedback to experiment and discover which design ideas don’t work and which do. Don’t be a slave to the feedback, but don’t cling to your ideas either. Analyse the feedback with an open mind and decide what to do: take it on board or discard it. Then either rework your design concept or adjust it, and create the detailed design for the next story.


Creating the design iteratively, taking advantage of the team’s collective creativity, and leveraging user feedback to validate design ideas maximises our chances of developing a product that with a great user experience, a product that users love. Happy designing and please let me know if my thoughts are helpful. I look forward to your comments!

18 comments on “Agile User Interface Design

  1. […] user interface design ideas are often best captured in form of paper sketches. […]

  2. […] If a story is constrained by a user interface sketch, for instance, it must be clear what the resulting product increment should roughly look like. […]

  3. […] The critical aspects of product and user interface design are best described visually as sketches or screenshots of mock-ups and prototypes.  […]

  4. […] The same is true for the product and user interface design: Focus only on the most critical aspects, and discard the rest for now. […]

  5. […] I employ user stories, constraint cards, design sketches, and workflow diagrams […]

  6. […] design sketches that capture the product or user interface design […]

  7. Synesthesia says:

    […] Agile User Interface Design […]

  8. Erin Parker says:

    Fantastic article, but the third sentence, “Who should carries them out?” cracks me up. Attention to detail! :)

  9. […] describe usability requirements visually, for instance in form of sketches, mock-ups, and screen shots […]

  10. […] The same is true for the user interface design […]

  11. […] and the product functionality include scenarios, storyboards, epics, constraint stories, and design sketches / mock-ups […]

  12. […] user interface design and complex user interactions are better described by other techniques including design sketches, mock-ups […]

  13. […] Agile User Interface Design User Stories | Topics User stories are short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system. They typically follow a simple template: As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>. User stories are often written on index cards or sticky notes, stored in a shoe box, and arranged on walls or tables to facilitate planning and discussion. As such, they strongly shift the focus from writing about features to discussing them. The Easy Way to Writing Good User Stories Many development shops have opted to writing user stories over traditional feature/requirement documents; however, almost all of them struggle when writing their first batch of user stories . This is not at all uncommon, just like riding a bike, it does take a little bit of practice (but once you get it – you get it). Writing user stories is dead simple if you follow these simple steps: […]

  14. […] personas, user stories, scenarios, design sketches […]

  15. Noemi says:

    Being new to agile methodology, I really learn a lot from the topis that you discuss. Reading your posts will be my new past time :)

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