Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
March 15, 2022 · 13 min read

Agile and UX: How to make user research and Agile development work together (with free research plan template)

🎁 Bonus Material: Free User Research Plan Template

Agile and UX: How to make user research and Agile development work together

A great user experience (UX) is one of the largest drivers of growth, revenue, and customer happiness. Yet, for some reason, user research is still one of the first things dropped when budgets get squeezed and timelines are tight.

Most project managers get stuck chasing milestones and short-term goals instead of using research to uncover user insights and design better apps, sites, and products.

While at the same time, the people hired to learn what your users want–the UX researchers and user experience designers–get stuck testing products they weren’t involved in designing or hastily trying to fit their work into an existing roadmap.

Neither of them is seeing the actual benefits of user research. But what if there was a better way?

In this guide, we’re going to cover everything involved in running a successful user research project, including how to create a user research plan, what user research methods to use, and how product and UX teams can collaborate.

Even if your company doesn’t have dedicated user researchers, this guide will help you learn how to integrate agile and UX properly.

What is user research? Why should project managers care about it?

User research is a systematic approach to understanding your user’s goals, needs, motivations, and behaviors through both qualitative and quantitative approaches.

User research aims to create the best possible experience and product by listening and learning from your actual users. A user researcher might conduct user interviews, analyze product usage data and heat maps, or use a combination of other research methods to learn what users really want.

What is user research? Why should project managers care about it?

As an Agile project manager, this should all sound pretty familiar.

Every good Agile team knows can’t build a great product in a vacuum. Instead, regular user feedback is essential to making smart product decisions and planning effective sprints.

However, although UX and Agile development teams share the same user-centric DNA, they often work independently. And as you might expect, this can cause all sorts of problems.

User researchers might be testing your current product without knowing what new features or changes are in the pipeline. While the rigid structure of most Agile teams could mean you’re planning sprints and prioritizing features without the critical insights that dedicated user research uncovers.

Or maybe you’re on a small team and don’t have anyone dedicated to user research and design. So, you’re stuck in an endless loop of tiny improvements without the space to step back and look at the bigger picture.

On the other hand, bringing more research into your development process has major benefits. Specifically, it:

  1. Saves your development team time and effort working on the wrong features
  2. Gives your customers a better experience by iterating before you ship
  3. Helps you innovate more quickly by understanding what users really want

One of the best things you can do as an Agile project manager is to make more space–through planning and schedules–for everyone at your company to be as informed and user-focused as possible.

Agile UX: How to fit user research into Agile software development

User research can happen as a dedicated project or become integrated into your ongoing development process. While both approaches have their pros and cons, integrating user research can be much more difficult.

Agile software development and UX design have plenty in common. Yet, they’re still separate enough to create friction when you try to do them simultaneously.

Development teams are under pressure to consistently ship software, fix bugs, and prioritize new and exciting features. But, as Senior UX Specialist Page Laubheimer writes, the typical two-week sprint cycle of Agile and Scrum can put a significant burden on UX researchers and designers:

“As a result [of Agile’s pace], designers are under enormous pressure to create, test, refine, and deliver their output unrealistically fast, and with little of the context and big-picture thinking that suits consistent user-centered designs.”

Most development teams just accept that as part of the process. It’s not perfect. But it’s how you ship software. Yet, here’s the truth that sentiment misses:

Your customers only see and care about the user experience. Not your perfectly planned and executed sprints, scrums, and release schedules.

So how do you bring Agile and UX teams together?

Part of it comes down to cultural changes.

You need leadership and stakeholders who value user research (beyond just A/B testing) and want to work research into earlier phases of development. This also means UX leaders who will speak up and point out problems or improvements your development team might be missing.

However, a larger piece of the puzzle is adding more agility to Agile.

The original Agile manifesto was developed to help teams become more flexible and deal with uncertainty. Unfortunately, many Agile teams miss the spirit of the framework and treat it more like a rigid structure to follow.

Development without UX vs. with UX
Source: www.toptal.com

But once you accept that every project has levels of complexity and uncertainty, you’ll begin to figure out how to manage tasks and project schedules while giving researchers time to get ahead and validate your plans.

For example, rather than a separate UX team that ‘consults’ on sprints or checks work that’s been done, researchers and designers could be working a sprint ahead, using prototypes and wireframes to test assumptions and feed their learnings back into development.

It’s this kind of collaboration that breeds more informed teams and better products.

The 6 steps to running an Agile user research project

UX designers have a specific research process they follow. However, we’re going to look at how to integrate that process into your development framework properly.

Step 1: Explore your product and define your research questions

Every research project starts with a question.

It can be tempting just to ask, ‘do users like our latest release?’ However, it’s better to take a step back and instead ask questions like:

As McKinsey writes in The Business Value of Design report:

“Companies must embrace design holistically and early in the process rather than seeing it as a small tool that fits in later.”

These questions will help you form your research questions–the specific features, workflows, or experiences you want to explore. Here are a few examples:

Each question gives you a specific part of your product to explore. However, it also helps define the best user research methods to use. For example, the first question is best suited to usability tests or interviews, while the second requires an A/B or multivariate test.

Using A/B Testing in Planio

We’ve put together a list of 11 of the best user research methods to use below.

Step 2: Fill out your research plan and get stakeholder signoff

With a few research questions to focus on, it’s time to fill out your research plan.

A research plan covers your project’s goals, scope, timing, and deliverables. It’s essential for keeping yourself organized but also for getting stakeholder signoff.

Project stakeholders have a vested interest in your product and can be a great way to validate research questions. Make sure you share your research plan with them early on, so they’re on the same page with the focus, scope, and deliverables.

It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers right away. Fill out your research plan as you go through the following steps and use it to keep stakeholders updated on your progress.

Step 3: Prepare any research logistics

Every project plan requires attention to detail. And that’s no different when it comes to a user research project. Here are a few of the critical logistical questions you’ll want to answer:

  1. Method: Based on your questions, what is the best user research method to use? (We’ve listed the top 11 methods below!)
  2. Schedule: When will the research take place? How long will it go on for? If this is ongoing research, how will it fit into your Agile process?
  3. Location: Where will the research take place? This could be a physical location or an online tool like Zoom or Planio Meet.
  4. Resources: What resources do you need? This could be technical support or team members.
  5. Participants: Who is eligible to take part in this research? How will you capture consent and compensate them (if applicable?)
  6. Data: How will you capture user data? Where will it be stored? How will you create reports that are easy to understand and act on?
  7. Deliverables: What are your success criteria for this project?

Work out these specifics with your team and add them to your research plan.

Step 4: Brief observers on how to act and what to look for

Many research methods benefit from an extra set of eyes. However, the more people involved, the higher the chance someone will bias your results.

Typically, there are two approaches to testing:

  1. Moderated testing is when you or another researcher is present during the test to answer questions, guide the participant, or dig deeper.
  2. Unmoderated testing is when a participant is left on their own to carry out the task.

Again, your approach will depend on the user research methods you’re using. However, if you include a moderator/researcher, make sure they understand what’s expected of them, have a script or notes to follow, and guidance on what to do if something goes wrong or participants become hostile.

Step 5: Run your research session

Now, it’s time to start collecting data.

How you run your research session will come down to the question you’re asking and the methods you’ve chosen. For example, if you’re using a survey, you’ll want to send it to users or put up an invitation banner to find participants on your site or app.

If you’re using something qualitative like analytics or heat mapping, you’ll want to implement any software and start tracking data.

User research is like a cheat sheet for your company. Instead of guessing, you ask real people and really understand your product in the real world.

Step 6: Prepare a research findings report and share it across the company

User research is only valuable if you can easily share and act on your findings.

An easy way to create a research findings report is to start with your original research plan, remove any unneeded details, and add new sections for results and findings.

Here’s what information you should include in a research findings report:

Finally, you’ll want to share your report with anyone who can benefit from the findings. This could mean running through it during a sprint retrospective or sharing information during an all-hands meeting.

However, meetings aren’t always the best scenario for sharing research findings. Instead, as we wrote in our guide to writing project lessons learned, wiki pages or issues are a great place to store and organize company knowledge for easy access whenever you need it.

Lessons learned documented in a Planio issue

In Planio, you can use our wiki feature and cloud storage to store and structure your findings.

Each wiki entry can include links to projects, tasks, and even repository files (for more context) as well as all relevant data (such as your original research plan and findings).

How to create a user research plan (free template)

A research plan documents the focus of your research, the methods you’ll use, and the questions you’ll ask, as well as specifics around user profiles, timeline, location, resources, and goals.

To help you bring all this together, we’ve created a free user research template that product and UX teams can use. You can download it for free here.

Your research plan can include all of the sections below or only what applies to your situation. It’s always better to err on the side of being more prepared for a research session but use your judgment.

Section What it covers
Background & team
  • What product, feature, flow, or experience are you examining?
  • What teams are involved, and who is leading the research efforts?
Research goals
  • Why are you conducting user research?
Research questions
  • What specific questions are you trying to answer?
  • Or, what assumptions do you want to validate?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • What specific deliverables are you hoping to come out of this with?
User research methods
  • What research methods are you using?
  • Are there any specific user tasks, metrics, or usability goals to be aware of?
User personas
  • Who are you going to talk to/conduct research on?
Screening questions/recruitment plan (if applicable)
  • How are you going to make sure you’re talking to/researching qualified subjects?
  • When will the research take place?
  • For how long?
  • Where will the research take place? If you’re conducting it remotely, add a link to the meeting space and tool.
Test setup
  • What equipment or other preparations do you need?
Researcher script (if applicable)
  • What questions are you going to ask?
Guidelines for observers (if applicable)
  • How should any observers act so that they don’t interrupt or bias the research?

11 User research methods to start using today

At the heart of every great research project is using the right method.

User research methods are either quantitative or qualitative. That’s a fancy way of saying they either focus on ‘what’ your users do through data and numbers (quantitative) or ‘why’ your users do it (qualitative).

Combining the two is a good idea to get a complete picture of how your users interact with your product.

While there are tons of different research methods, we’ve put together a short primer on 11 of our favorite ones here:

11 User research methods to start using today

1. Surveys

If you can get in front of 100+ active users, a survey is a great tool to understand wider user trends and behaviors.

Writing surveys is an art form in itself. What you ask and how you ask it will depend on your goals, the feature you’re working on, and your audience.

However, for high-level feedback (especially if you’re unsure whether your product or feature has hit product-market fit), Slack’s Director of Research, Matt Gallivan, suggests asking these three questions:

  1. How would you feel if you could no longer use this product? Very disappointed, somewhat disappointed, not disappointed?
  2. Compared to other ways you do X [i.e., some function of your product], is using this product to do X generally: much better, somewhat better, neither better nor worse, somewhat worse, much worse?
  3. The last time you did X, what product or tool did you use to do it, and why? (Leave this one open-ended)

Together, these questions help you measure user affection for your product and relative utility as well as their behaviors. As Matt explains:

“It’s hard to imagine a scenario where you’ll attain PMF if people don’t feel some degree of affection for your product, don’t find it useful, and don’t use it.”

You can use tools like SurveyMonkey, TypeForm, or Google Forms to put together simple (or complex) surveys.

2. User interviews

Talking to individual users is an excellent approach for digging into specific questions or being more interested in qualitative research.

We wrote a full guide on how to run great user interviews (both remotely and in person). However, there are a few best practices to consider:

  1. Remember that an interview is not a conversation. It’s a structured interview with a clear goal and process. Make sure you plan and prepare as much as possible.
  2. Get familiar with how conversations flow. Your interviewee might treat this as a conversation. Learn how you push people to the answers you want without being too aggressive.
  3. Master the ‘follow up’ question to get deeper answers. Ask for clarification, re-ask questions, and do everything you can to go beyond the initial response.

Pro tip: Pair your user interviews with a competitive analysis to understand how you stack up against your direct competitors.

User research is only valuable if you can easily share and act on your findings.

3. Stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder interviews are one-on-one conversations with people who have a vested interest in your project. This could be a project lead, executive, or manager.

These interviews are slightly less formal than a user interview, and the goal is different. Instead of learning how a user interacts with your product or feature, you’re looking for information on business goals, parameters and limitations, and any assumptions you’re working with.

4. Usability tests

Usability tests are a flexible research methodology you can apply to most use cases. During a usability test, a qualified participant interacts with your website, app, prototype, or another product while you observe their actions and sometimes ask questions.

Usability tests are often moderated so you can find out what a user is thinking. However, it’s important not to guide them too much.

The goal is to watch their instinctual workflows and find areas of confusion. For example, you might ask a participant to sign up and set up an account with your app to see if your onboarding flow is as clear as possible.

Today, most usability tests happen remotely over a product like Zoom or a more specialized user research tool like User Testing or UserZoom.

Pro tip: Write down each step a user takes to complete a task (also known as task analysis). This helps you identify exactly where the experience breaks down or becomes convoluted.

5. Contextual inquiry

A contextual inquiry is essentially a usability test done in the product’s natural environment. Depending on your product, locations could range from someone’s home to a classroom or medical office.

A contextual inquiry can also look at how different product settings change a user’s experience. For example, how does a sales rep use their CRM while out on a sales call? Is it different from when they’re back at the office?

Depending on the feedback you’re after, you can simply watch a participant using your product or prototype or ask them to complete specific tasks.

6. Diary study

Diary studies help you understand long-term user behaviors by asking them to track their daily usage and experiences. While you don’t get to observe how users are using your product directly, you get insight into how your product fits into their daily lives.

A diary study should ask participants to track:

  1. What time of day do they engage with your product?
  2. What are their primary tasks?
  3. What motivates them to perform specific tasks?
  4. What are their usual workflows for long-term tasks?
  5. Where are they getting frustrated?

As a bonus, participants might give more honest answers as they don’t feel like you’re peering over their shoulder.

7. Web analytics with benchmarking

Analytics are the most common form of quantitative research data. By tracking what your users do–where they go, what content flows they go through, when they decide to leave–you can start to craft experiences and products they’re more likely to use.

Pro tip: Include analytics benchmarking to track usability and experience over time.

8. A/B or multivariate testing

A/B testing is when you create two different versions of the same element (usually a web page or product flow) to compare how they impact your metrics. A simple example is testing the copy on a CTA button. You could create two live versions–Sign up vs. Join–and see which one gets the most clicks.

Multivariate testing is similar but involves testing multiple elements at once. For example, you might change the color, type, and placement of your CTA as well as the copy.

A/B tests are a great way to make better decisions. However, they’re often abused by teams who don’t run them long enough or use low sample sizes to justify design choices.

9. Heatmaps and eye-tracking tests

Analytics data can go beyond just clicks and bounce rates. Modern tools let you track other user actions from where they move their cursor to how their eyes ‘read’ your page or app. Here are a few options:

Heatmaps are visual representations of how users interact with your product. They overlay the most (hot) and least (cold) trafficked areas of your interface or site to make sure you’re not putting important information in a ‘dead zone.’ Most heat maps rely on mouse movement for tracking.

Eye-tracking uses special software to see precisely where a participant looks on a screen when performing a task. This might seem a little creepy, but it provides powerful insight into where to place CTAs, organize content, and create better flows.

Heatmaps and eye-tracking tests
An example heatmap from Digital.gov

10. Card sorting

Card sorting is a user research method that helps you understand how people categorize information or content. During a card sorting session, you provide participants with a list of different content types and ask them to group them into categories that make sense.

This might seem simple, but it’s a powerful way to learn how users think about your industry and market. You can look at the terminology they use and feel comfortable with. Or how they logically group concepts together.

11. Heuristic evaluation

A heuristic evaluation is when a group of experts analyzes your product against agreed-upon design principles. Think of it like putting your product through a design gauntlet.

While much of design is subjective, there are a few key questions to ask:

For more design heuristics, check out this list from the Nielsen Norman Group.

Research helps you stand out from the crowd

Open any tech publication and you’ll find an article celebrating some company or entrepreneur who ‘followed their gut.’ But while it’s possible to build an amazing product without research, why make things harder than they already are?

User research is like a cheat sheet for your company. Instead of guessing and hoping for the best, you get to ask real people what they like or don’t like and see how they use your product in the real world.