Agile web design

How can an Agile approach be applied to a web design project and what benefits and challenges does it bring and at what cost, if any?

Agile is a well-established software development methodology that provides a flexible approach that can adapt as the requirements of a project change during its course. Agile advocates early delivery and continuous improvement and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Agile is not a new idea at all. Its origins in software development can be traced back as far as 1957 and although it sounds fancy, Agile pretty much boils down to "iteration" in its simplest form. Essentially, Agile involves completing a larger task in smaller steps and being able to respond and adapt to the outcome of those previous steps.

If you watched a person or group of people be those children or adults completing a task, whatever that may be, you are probably watching an agile-like process in action, just without the whiteboard and important sounding project manager!

Agile is a methodology more frequently applied to software development, but it also provides many advantages for web design projects, which aren't really that far removed from software development itself. For example, let's pretend you are keen to launch a brand new business. You have a new product and you want to launch a website as quickly as possible, so you engage the services of a web design agency such as ourselves.

We can either take the approach of putting the project through as a rush job, with added cost but a shorter timescale. Or we could instead switch to a more standard project timescale but with an Agile approach.  By going with the latter, rather than waiting the entire project duration until launch, we can structure the project with regular deployments (perhaps weekly), that add new content or functionality to the website.

Agile web design thereby provides a much faster time to market than even a rush job can provide, with the flexibility to adapt and adjust the requirements based on visitor/customer feedback and usage data.  Not to mention without the levels of stress and urgency that can come with a rush job, both of which are conditions that can make it difficult for all parties to perform at their best.

Whilst an Agile web design project would add some additional time and therefore cost for testing and deployment, as at each stage we need to deploy something of production-grade quality, the cost would not be so great as a rush job, which can necessitate additional time over and above normal office hours to meet a particularly ambitious deadline.

But the benefits far outweigh the additional cost, as being able to adapt the project requirements and solutions based on actual feedback and usage data is often invaluable, and these insights ultimately produce a superior end result than a traditional waterfall type methodology would yield.

An Agile web design approach necessitates a little-and-often approach to deployment, so rather than waiting until the end of the project and launching the site in one go, Agile means smaller and more regular deployments. It’s therefore more efficient to lay an Agile project’s foundations with as much automation built in as possible. From automating deployment to different environments right through to automated testing and enabling these automations themselves to be adaptive and able to easily accommodate change.

All things considered, an Agile approach has many benefits for web design projects with few disadvantages. Perhaps it's only redesign projects where it's not as well-suited, where it's often  not possible to deploy early for such projects when doing so may remove vital functionality/content that the existing website contains. But that's not to say it shouldn't still be considered as it may be possible to gradually phase out an existing website by replacing sections of it one-by-one. Even if the project required a later deployment to replace all the existing functionality/content in one go, it would then be possible to switch to an Agile approach for further phases of design and development.

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Michael Walsh by Michael Walsh