Why I spent my weekend talking Agile and User Experience

Posted on December 6, 2010.
A little dotmocracy

“What are you going to do this weekend?”

“I’m going to hang out in the Financial District with a bunch of folks from various disciplines and locations to discuss the intersection of Agile and User Experience.”

“All weekend? Um, that sounds like fun.”

As it turns out, it was a lot more than fun.

Jeff Patton speaks!

More than 20 people gathered this past weekend at Pivotal Labs’ temporary NYC offices to conduct the next installment of the Agile UX Retreat. With previous retreats taking place in San Francisco, Grad Rapids and an impromptu one in Orlando during Agile 2010, this one brought the ever-growing crew to New York. And I was fortunate enough to get an invitation.

Lane Halley, Johanna Kollman, and Tim McCoy

In true agile, self-organizing fashion there was little up-front agenda presented. Instead the participants gathered together, provided their desired topics and discussions, the group voted and formed an agenda surprisingly fast. The first evening consisted of a night for newbies. Us first-timers were encouraged to get to know the returning participants, share a bit about ourselves and to start building relationships with the (instantly evident) tightly knit crew. Folks came in from San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, London, Brooklyn and Michigan (to name a few) emphasizing the dedication the participants had to pursuing the topic of Agile and User Experience. Friday night’s discussions focused on the tactical facilitated by a “fishbowl conversation.” This was a new facilitation technique for me and involved providing 4 chairs at the front of the room. Only 3 chairs can be filled at a time and the participants in the chair have a conversation with each other. A seed question is proposed and the conversation begins there. As other participants in the room feel the desire to join the conversation, they simply walk up and sit down. At this point someone from the panel has to step down. One chair must always stay empty.

Not a PC in sight

In this way the conversation grows organically and weaves a meandering path through each participant’s viewpoints and topics of interest. We covered tactics, philosophies and the broader arena of organizational change. We got to know our fellow participants without the need of roles or titles – simply through their opinions and arguments. It was refreshing, engaging and rewarding.

Heated discussion with Alan Cooper, Anders Ramsay, Chris and Craig

Day two provided opportunities for discussions and talks. As before, topics were proposed, voted and prioritized. Some folks had prepared talks (like me), others simply had ideas they wanted to share and discuss. It was a long day filled with tactics, philosophies and theories about how to drive change through organizations from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

Janice Fraser talks about Lean UX

At the end of the second day we held a retrospective to see what went well, what went poorly and any outstanding questions. My main point of contention was the fact we had seemingly few points of contention. The constructive conflict that should drive folks struggling to rationalize new philosophies in existing structures and organizations was missing. In its place was a room full of nodding heads (and waving hands J  ). I was concerned we were all preaching to choir and not doing enough to move the discussion forward. Interestingly, everyone agreed with my point that we were very much in agreement but many disagreed that this was a bad thing. Instead, several folks called this general agreement a sign that the group had become unified and could now begin pushing its message beyond the retreat’s boundaries.

Sometimes shit got deep

Which led nicely into the third and final day’s discussion topic: getting the message out. But what exactly was the message? And who should we target with it? This was part of the third day’s conversation and the general consensus was that promoting organizational change to create cultures that support collaboration, conversation, fail early/fail fast product design philosophies should be a primary focus for the group. Proving, ultimately, that this approach delivers better products, faster, to happier customers resulting in engaged, invested employees who are trusted by their managers. And what better way to do this then to hold a conference? The room focused on early stage planning for such an event and I look forward to continued efforts to bring it to life next year.

Anders hearing from Marcy Swenson

I took away many things from the weekend, not the least of them were new friendships with folks I’ve admired for a long time. What surprised me the most though (and perhaps this is a little bit self-serving) was the group’s reaction to the work we’ve been doing at TheLadders in the Agile and UX space. We’ve been evolving and iterating our process for 2 years now and it’s easy to stay in our isolated world without the context of the broader software industry. This weekend (coupled with the other outreach efforts I’ve been involved in like Agile 2010 and Agile Day NYC) gave me that context and helped me see that TheLadders is at the forefront of a lot of this thinking. We’re trying new and better ways to make products – with great results! Perhaps most enlightening though was my realization that we’ve successfully created the culture that allows us to try these new methods without the fear of failure. We’ve created a culture of innovation. That became clear to me and if that was the only positive outcome of the weekend it still would’ve been worth it. Thankfully there was so much more and I look forward to the next convening of the Agile UX Retreat.

The whole crew


Many thanks to Ian McFarland, Anders Ramsay and Lane Halley for putting the weekend event together.

8 thoughts on “Why I spent my weekend talking Agile and User Experience

  1. Jeff, thanks for this write-up. It was great to have you there, and hear what interesting work you’re doing. Can’t wait to get together again, this time in Austin 🙂

    1. Always good to see you too Johanna. I feel so worldly when I tell folks all the different cities we’ve met in so far this year. At the very least I will indeed see you in Austin next March and likely more than that. 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing this experience Jeff, it sounds like an amazing opportunity to connect and share experiences, ideas, and more importantly listen to and learn from others. I would love to see something like this in Southern California (LA, San Diego).

    1. I feel like there was a lot of momentum out of this event. I wasn’t at the first two but the general acknowledgment that we were all on a similar page seemed to spur folks to action.

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