I’m back from Agile 2011. Another week spent in one of the most beautiful parts of America, with sunny days in the 70’s—spent in windowless, air-conditioned rooms with a bunch of computer geeks. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Agile conference continues to be one of the more exciting conferences around, and not just because they have trampoline and parkour performers at the conference banquet. What I love most about it is the sheer range of topics that are covered. There were sessions for programmers covering things like unit testing multithreaded code and how to do continuous integration. There are sessions for managers and coaches on how to introduce agile to an organization. There are two “stages” focused on the User Experience (UX)—one covering the UX role and UI design, the other one how to work with customers.

But in addition to these sessions focused on Agile itself, there were others looking beyond Agile: sessions on Lean development, on organizational change, on collaboration and team dynamics. There were sessions on fear as a roadblock to change and how to deal with it and on handling conflict in teams. And the keynote focused on positive emotions and why they matter for effectiveness, innovation, and health.

That keynote was especially interesting to me in light of our Cool Project. When we studied what makes products cool, we discovered that it’s because they hook into basic human motivators: the sense of Accomplishment, the need for Connection, the formation of Identity, and the pleasure of Sensation. When we can achieve these in our lives, it creates a deep sense of joy.

But that means that a cool product delivers small moments of joy throughout the day. Since research shows that positive emotions make us more effective and creative, does that suggest that cool products actually make us better people? Does the momentary joy of connecting to my distant child through a Facebook post that I read on my iPhone before going into a meeting make me more effective in that meeting? Perhaps cool products are compelling in part because we sense that they make it easier for us to be the people we want to be.

Grandiose claims, I know. But the research is there. What if it’s true?

Other sessions, though perhaps less far-reaching in implication, had immediate practical value. The integration of UX groups continues into Agile teams continues to be explored—among many good sessions, John Innes discussed how to track UX work within an Agile team context, both to identify the most important UX work to do and to track that it’s done. I also finally made it to Jeff Patton’s session on Story Mapping, a quick and surprisingly effective way of organizing stories to reveal the connections between them.

My own session was well-attended and well-received. I decided this year to give folks a quick and dirty introduction to running a user interview—a skill that’s sorely needed on an Agile team and that participants would be able to use right away. One guy said this was the “first session where I got concrete tactics”—which I don’t believe. I attended more than one session of practical use myself.

And of course, the conversations between sessions are just as valuable as the sessions themselves. Lots of folks (still) are doing Agile but with lots of questions about whether they are “doing it right”—taking full advantage of what Agile has to offer. Others are still working on introducing Agile in their companies and are encountering resistance, expressed or tacit. And just about everybody finds that their UX teams are stretched too thin. We have a range of services to help people with all of this—watch this space or hit me up directly and I’ll give you some options.

So, another Agile conference gone by. If you were there, why don’t you share what you thought were the highlights? And if you weren’t… let me know what you’d like to see in next year’s conference. Session proposals will be due all too soon.


I promised the participants in my session that I would post references to materials I’ve found useful in the Agile space. So here goes:

Rapid Contextual Design by Karen Holtzblatt, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, and Shelley Wood – How to incorporate user feedback into any fast-turnaround process. This book doesn’t discuss Agile explicitly, but the techniques it describes fit well with Agile development.

User-Centered Agile Methods by Hugh Beyer – A short book on integrating User Experience design and methods into Agile development.

eXtreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck – Still my favorite basic text on Agile development. Yes, it’s XP-centric, but the advantage there is that it covers a lot of the development practices which are core to making Agile work, and that tend to be overlooked these days.

Agile Software Development with Scrum by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle – This is the standard Scrum reference.

In addition to the above books, here are some articles and papers that I’ve found useful:

Martin, A., Biddle, R., and Noble, J. “XP Customer Team: A Grounded Theory” in Proceedings of the Agile 2009 Conference (Agile 2009) , pp 57-64. IEEE Conference Publishing Services, 2009.

Martin, A., Biddle, R., and Noble, J. “XP Customer Practices: A Grounded Theory” in Proceedings of the Agile 2009 Conference (Agile 2009) , pp 33-40. IEEE Conference Publishing Services, 2009.

These two papers are a gold mine of information. The authors did a detailed survey and investigation of multiple Agile teams and used the results to identify common best practices for user involvement.

Morgan, D. “Covert Agile—Development at the Speed of… Government?” in Proceedings of the Agile 2009 Conference (Agile 2009) , pp 79-83. IEEE Conference Publishing Services, 2009.

A fun experience report that describes how a team used Agile, satisfied their customers (stakeholders and managers), and still failed—because they never got feedback from actual end-users. Useful if you need to make the case for doing real customer field visits.

Kollmann, J. Sharp, H., and Blandford, A. “The Importance of Identity and Vision to User Experience Designers on Agile Projects” in Proceedings of the Agile 2009 Conference (Agile 2009) , pp 11-18. IEEE Conference Publishing Services, 2009.

Makes a compelling case for having a whole-system user experience vision prior to starting Agile development. Useful if you’re arguing for doing some design or planning up front and you’re facing the “no Big Design Up Front” attitude.