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Waterfall? Is that still a thing? A review of the 2 methodologies

As design professionals, we’re fully aware of the debate surrounding the two most popular methodologies: Waterfall design and Agile UX design. While Waterfall software development is an “old” debate, the debate around Waterfall design is still very real and often centers around which development methodology is better than the other or which one to use with a particular project.  

Waterfall design is the traditional method of organizing UX design processes and usually takes a linear approach. It's most suitable for well-documented projects with definite timelines and clearly mapped deliverables. 

On the other hand, Agile is a type of Rapid Application Development. It's a newer version of Waterfall design that's more flexible and takes on an iterative process. We examine these two robust methodologies and what sets them apart. 

Understanding Waterfall Design Methodology

The Waterfall methodology is by far the most hands-off approach, with goals and expected outcomes usually mapped out before a project begins. It’s less flexible and requires the completion of deliverables before progressing to the next phase. 

As a linear form of project management, Waterfall is more suitable for projects with predetermined goals and outcomes. The sequence of events for this methodology can be summarized as follows:

  • Compiling and outlining all the requirements

  • Design 

  • Coding and unit testing 

  • System testing

  • Conducting user acceptance testing (UAT)

  • Identifying and solving any arising issues

  • Presenting the final outcome 

Each sequence of events represents a different phase of the UX design process, and each stage typically completes before another can begin. The customer must review and approve the requirements between phases before the design begins.

Core Principles of Waterfall Design Methodology 

Below are the best practices and benefits of Waterfall:

  • Requirements must be gathered upfront: Before a project commences, developers and clients work together to simplify the design process by agreeing on the expected outcome. This way, the full scope of the project is clearly set forth, and the progress is worked out. 

  • Sequential order of operations: Work is done in phases, each commencing when the previous one ends. The structured workflow supports collaboration.

  • Doesn't require client or stakeholder involvement. They can give their feedback, reviews, and approvals but other than that, the team works independently, ensuring quick delivery of the end product.

  • Employs a straightforward testing process at the end of development. 

On the flip side, Waterfall also tends to have limitations, such as being unsuitable for larger projects. This model requires clear requirements from the onset; otherwise, it could be ineffective in the long run.  Also, once completed, it can be challenging and costly to rectify mistakes made in earlier phases.

Understanding Agile UX Design 

Waterfall design generally takes on a more rigid structure, and most UX design professionals consider it too limiting and somewhat utopian. That necessitated the need to develop a more flexible alternative, and that's where Agile design methodology comes into play, being the most fluid approach. 

Although a UX design process can take a long time to complete and technological changes are inevitable during that period, Agile encourages changes to be made even in the later stages of project development. It also takes into account customer feedback throughout the entire process. 

With Agile design methodology, the team is expected to work concurrently on different project stages and meet short-term deadlines. In such a scenario, the project is handled mainly by the entire team instead of a project manager, thus promoting greater accountability and productivity.

Core Principles of Agile UX

Agile core principles can be summarized as follows:

  • Encourages independence of teams and collaboration with little to no oversight. 

  • It focuses on having the necessary tools and products shipped whenever needed instead of comprehensive documentation of requirements that may change with time. 

  • Supports customer involvement and collaboration as opposed to contract negotiation. Agile focuses more on working closely with the client through each project phase. 

  • The agile framework emphasizes positive responses to changes throughout the project life cycle instead of following a strict plan.  

Despite its flexibility, Agile is one of the most expensive models, requiring a robust team of experts. This is one of its notable disadvantages. In addition, the project can easily backfire unless a definite outcome is set in place.

Which Projects Can You Use With Agile?

Agile emphasizes creativity and innovation, where a project allows room for adjustment.  It's more of a “quick-fix” solution where bugs can be tolerated to a certain extent. 

Examples of such projects you can accomplish with Agile include entertainment portals like mobile games or mobile apps for everyday use. 

These projects aren't as critical as designing a 50+ storey building and in case of a hitch, there'd be no catastrophe.  

So Between Waterfall and Agile UX Design, Which One Should You Use?

Existing organizational processes should influence your decision on the best methodology since each project has unique needs. Consider the size, duration, and complexity of your project. Once you understand its context, choosing the best methodology becomes easier.

You should also determine if the project you're working on is best suited for Agile or Waterfall. For example, use Waterfall if you're working with external vendors or organizations where it's impossible to maintain a high degree of collaboration. 

Smaller, well-defined projects with fixed time and budget are also best organized with Waterfall, like those where the client is not actively involved. 

On the other hand, the Agile methodology should be employed where your company is entirely responsible for all the processes and where requirements are bound to change along the way. This approach also applies to larger, complex projects that need to be clearly defined or where the client is fully involved. 

Ultimately, the application of either of the two largely depends on the project at hand and the direction it's meant to take.

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