CHI 2011 was the usual mix of new faces and old friends, cool new design ideas and interesting user research. Since I’m doing a lot with Agile development these days, I talked with a number of folks about how the rollout of Agile is going in the industry and the verdict is: rocky, as usual.

The problem is that everyone is having the same issues at the same time, so even when solutions do exist they aren’t well known. Moving the industry to an effective integration of Agile development with UX and the larger product development practice is going to take a lot more education, promotion, and repetition of the basic message.

Some elements of workable Agile methods are becoming more standard. Lots of people are working in the mode where the UX work is done a sprint or two ahead of the development work. This makes space for actual design to happen, which is a necessary thing if you want a successful product.

Many people are still struggling to find a place for design. Partly this is because they never had strong processes to support design—it’s still very common that the product manager and marketing write a PRD (Product Requirements Document) with minimal input from designers and no real user-centered process. Designers are then stuck trying to layer real field research and interaction design on top of a system that was conceived without a deep understanding of users. In these organizations, there used to be slack time while development wrote specs and worked out their architecture—and this could be used to sneak some UX design into the process. With Agile, that slack time disappears. I spent a lot of time talking to people about how to get it put back in.

A lot of folks talked about issues they’re having writing user stories. It’s not really a sexy topic, but it’s core—if you can’t write well-scoped, coherent, independent user stories to capture your user needs it’s pretty hard to do Agile. Expecting the Product Owner to write a PRD and then somehow disassemble it into user stories is not the most efficient approach to this. Plus a lot of organizations expect the Product Owner to do this on their own, which makes no sense at all. It’s a much lower level of detail than project managers or marketers are used to—they need help to figure out the details at this level. Once, UX designers would have been creating wireframes, which clarified the design issues—but now this step is missing. We’ve actually got a service to coach this process, just to get teams through it.

Both of these issues (and lots of others) are solved by giving the UX designers their rightful place at the Agile table. That’s what my session at CHI was about—not only can UX be integrated with Agile, but it must be if Agile is to be successful. You can’t do Agile without a strong connection to the end user, and it’s the UX people who have the skills to maintain the connection.

I’d like to hear more about how people are doing with user stories. In a lot of ways they are where the UX rubber hits the road—if the team doesn’t have the right stories to start with, it’s going to be very painful to adjust after development starts. And if the team is new to Agile, no one on the team has any experience writing stories effectively. So let me hear stories about stories from you—the good and the bad.  What’s the state of your practice?