Jun 02, 2014

How we became an Agile Agency and won with clients

Taking A Creative Agency Agile
Different agile platforms are the latest and greatest in project management ideation, and there exists a wealth of knowledge and training on how to transform your business via their use … which is great if you’re a software development company. But what if you’re not?

What if you work in a creative digital agency where development is only half the battle? How do you incorporate agile principles into a process that only very loosely fits within the confines of the original agile manifesto? To become an agile agency, LEAP decided to attack this problem by using Agile Modules from which we can pick and choose to suit our needs on any individual project.

In this first in a series, I’ll walk you through the first step in the process —changing our research and discovery phase by not only altering our process, but also training our Account Managers in a new way of thinking about features and functions: User Stories.

What are User Stories?

Put most simply, User Stories explain what different people would want your software to actually do. A user story is meant to live on a single index card, and is always framed in the following format:

As __________ user I want ____________ feature, so that ________________.

Keep in mind that User Stories are NOT use cases, and they should not go into exhaustive detail in terms of the requirements of the system. Nor are User Stories formal documents; they are set of guidelines for the project and are meant to form an overall strategy, not be a rigid structure. Ultimately, they take the lengthy systems requirements dictated by waterfall methodology and break them down into small, digestible chunks.

When Should You Construct the User Stories? 

You should write your User Stories during the discovery phase, with the client as a part of the features and functionality discussion. Involving the client is extremely important for several reasons. First and foremost, you want the client to feel as involved in the project as possible from the very beginning. Creating the User Stories in tandem with the client is a great way to not only introduce them to the project team and get their buy in on the project from the start, but also to tap into their intricate knowledge of their audience and product. Write as many User Stories as you can in a brainstorming meeting with the client, the Account Manager, Creative Director, and a representative of the Technology team to ensure that all perspectives are met, as well as the project manager to ensure that the scope of the project is maintained. 

When brainstorming with the client, there are several things to keep in mind to produce maximum value. First, you need to educate your client briefly on the process involved. They by no means need to master the concept, but they should understand the basic principles, and try to avoid some of the basic pitfalls of User Stories. For example, any story to which a specific user cannot be tied should be thrown out. You cannot simply say, “As a user, I want X, so that Y.” The user needs to be a specific group, demographic, audience, etc. Additionally, any stories that do not provide specific value to the software—as well as those that cannot be tested with defined success criteria—should be thrown out. Laying out the basics in advance will save you a great deal of time during the brainstorm, and ensure that everyone’s time is well spent. 

Why Should You Write User Stories? 

By now, you may be saying, “This seems like far too great a hassle to really have any value. What’s the point in doing all this work up front?” As I already mentioned, you are also increasing client engagement in the initial phases, adding a sense of ownership that will hopefully resonate throughout the remainder of the project. That involvement, however, is only the beginning of the value of User Stories. Despite the fact that you spend a much greater amount of time at the front end of the project, you will recoup those hours many times over as the project moves forward. Defining the features and target audiences in a clear and quantifiable manner is invaluable to the success of the project itself, and will allow you to start many facets of the project simultaneously.

User Stories also guide the creative team without restricting them, and allow them to come up with innovative ways to accomplish particular goals rather than a rigid set of requirements. With a complete set of User Stories, a creative team can craft a sitemap and wireframes that not only encompass all the features of the site, but that are designed to optimize UX. They are extremely powerful in the hands of a capable design team.

But who REALLY Benefits?

Technology is the department that reaps the biggest benefit from the creation of User Stories. Once User Stories are finalized, development can begin to set up the code layout and user profiles in the architecture of the site, after the completion of the discovery phase. By creating User Stories, they can always work simultaneously with creative, and have a lot of the system architecture coded by the time development actually begins. Doing the legwork up front will allow you to be faster to market, and provide quicker turn around times for your clients. 

Technology can also take a list of User Stories which corresponds to a particular feature list, and provide a much more accurate assessment of the number of hours it will take to develop a particular system. More accurate estimates will lead to quicker development and help expedite the delivery process, increasing the ROI of the project, as well as client satisfaction. Also consider the benefit of having a list of User Stories for an offshore or remote development team. You could hand an offshore team a set of designs, a style guide, and a list of User Stories along with the sitemap, and they would have a very clear picture of what the end product should accomplish. 

Why Does It Matter?

User Stories are a tremendous asset and, when crafted correctly, set your project up for success from the outset. They don’t have to be used exclusively for large development projects, either. User Stories can be crafted for something as simple as a landing page. They merely state the intended use of the page from the perspective of the audience members.

Adopting these practices as an agile agency can help your creative marketing agency not only become more efficient, but also produce better quality work, and increase user engagement. Ultimately, we are all striving to provide more value for our clients, and User Stories allow us to do so in a lean, and efficient manner. User Stories, however, are only a small piece of the process to becoming an agile agency. In the next post, we will discuss using design iterations and incremental development to streamline your creative process. Stay tuned! 

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