WATCH: The role of UX in an agile team

Government and industry practitioners addressed the challenges of bringing good user experience (UX) to the public sector during a recent AGL Live panel discussion.

The event was hosted by AGL as part of a series that brings government innovators together to share ideas on modernizing and improving public sector IT and culture.

Panelists included:

The discussion included the most pressing issues facing the public sector UX community, such as:

  • How does UX fit into agile processes?
  • How can government recognize and hire good UX talent?
  • How can firms compete successfully for agile dev and design contracts?
  • How can we remove the walls between users and dev teams?

Watch the video here and review key takeaways below:

Highlights from the discussion:

6:05: User experience design is the practice of understanding the needs of humans and the problems they are trying to solve. Sometimes in agile government, this mission gets buried as people rush to complete sprints and fulfill “user” stories — without a lot of discipline or vision on behalf of actual users.

9:11: You can create a culture within your agile team that recognizes UX to be everyone’s responsibility. You may or may not have a designated “UX person” — but anyone who is representing and advocating for the needs of users can be, in a sense, a designer.

10:17: This article on the evolution of UX process methodology explains how the waterfall-ish nature of UX makes it difficult to fit into an agile process. But agile teams can have better success with UX if they recognize that some activities (like usability testing) fit nicely into an agile cadence while and other activities (like assessing user goals and needs) work better as an up-front activity.

10:55: Instead of asking, “How can we fit UX into agile?” it’s perhaps more helpful to ask, “How can agile serve user experience?”

15:42: From a consultant’s perspective, UX practice can be the “collaboration glue” within a government organization — helping departments talk to each other and having empathy for the people who are working internally to get good services created for users.

19:23: When hiring people for a UX role, smart agencies look for people who can make connections between their own talents and the business problem that is being solved. A good UX-er should have diverse abilities and an empathetic mindset.

20:44: Here’s an article that shows how great UX-ers are “product generalists” — not confined to a specific skill set.

22:13: When searching for UX talent, first look inside your own organization for people (regardless of their role) who have worked closely with users. The beauty of UX is being able to understand what the user wants while fully understanding the technical and business constraints.

25:11: Look for people that work well with others. Producing a design is only 20-30% of the job — the rest is being in front of people, working and researching with users, and collaborating with folks to implement solutions.

26:42: For governments seeking UX talent, it’s important to weave design elements into the requirements and make UX a priority. Watch for teams that actually think about what the users are experiencing.

29:18: A story about UX and FLASH.

31:36: Building UX capacity iteratively within government is important. Training, workshops, and tools can help government teams who want to implement UX but aren’t ready to hire full-time UX staff. This prepares the agency to make better UX hiring decisions later.

34:45: A story about an organization that held “design thinking” workshops and how it helped them.

36:32: Everybody is part of UX. It’s everybody’s role. Everybody’s job impacts the user experience.

38:17: Vendors can help spread innovation by connecting people (especially contracting officers) with others who have seen success in a particular effort. Contracting officers are more likely to try new things if they see that someone else has already done it successfully.

41:19: Learn about two specific things vendors can write into their proposals to show their UX chops and win more contracts.

42:58: The U.S. Digital Service Playbook is a great resource for understanding how UX fits into your projects.

44:18: A story about creatively removing walls between users and development teams at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

45:13: A story about getting users right into the process to help state and county election departments deliver better services.

46:58: A story about failing fast in a project where 10 websites were taken apart and put back together. How to work from simple prototypes and get them in front of people immediately, taking baby steps toward success.

49:26: Advice on how vendors can embrace the “fail-fast” mentality without letting their customers down. (Hint: Agencies prefer to see a “half-baked idea” early in the project over a “big reveal” later on.)

51:27: Advice on setting up weekly sessions where sketches and ideas are presented regularly, in order to elicit continuous feedback. Having it on the calendar gives people the expectation that they will see the designs develop iteratively over time.

52:33: Advice on how to bring tools from service design and UX into an agile setting. How to develop a common understanding and language with an agile team.

54:37: Contracts should use SOOs (Statement of Objective) rather than SOWs (Statement of Work). Talking about your goals enables more creativity and better approaches. It opens up opportunities for training, mentoring, and other activities that can build agency capacity.

Register for AGL Live 11/8: Managing Agile Contracts in Government

About the Author:

AGL served the government innovation community from 2014 - 2020. It has now broadened its mission and community to form a new organization, Technologists for the Public Good. Learn more and get involved at

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