Waterfall vs. Agile Design Process

Both versions offer up iteration, but Agile offers up continued discovery. Both processes have their own pros and cons when developing work in a traditional agency or creative interactive environment.

It’s about ditching the big reveal. (Well, kind of...)

Well, Agile is more than that, but that’s essentially the mind shift. Traditional process often follows a workflow where an agency is first briefed by the client, then the creative team goes off and works independently for a while. A meeting is called to present final ideas, and if all goes well, the work aligns with the original vison of the client. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. While many groups still present this way, the big reveal is ditched while working in Agile.

    At a base level, Agile is a different way of working with the client. Working in Agile is meant to be a process where the client and the agency learn together from day one. Rather than coming up with an idea for the final creative from the start, Agile allows you to refine ideas and craft the end product as you go. The goal is to have the client become part of the problem-solving team on the project. 

    With the client on the team, small decisions can be made quickly and you get faster feedback. The faster the feedback, the faster the process. Instead of waiting for days for client approval, decision making happens within the team. Your staff works to show prototypes or live variations on a working site and clients can make a decision on the spot. 

The not-so-new model.

Agile methodologies have been around for a while, used in the software industry for over twenty years now. What is new is that creative agencies are slowly beginning to embrace Agile methodologies as well. 

    If you are a “digital” agency you might be using Agile for most of your development work already. However, more traditional agencies have been slower to adapt. Due to the nature of long-established workflows and people being comfortable with how things have always worked, it’s not always easy to implement Agile. Fixed prices, scopes-of-work and time frames are pretty typical approaches to how an agency works. A big commercial production, or a larger storytelling campaign where agencies fight with a client’s procurement department, aren’t the most conducive to Agile methodologies.

    Although they haven’t taken the leap to full-on Agile, most agencies have at least worked in an Agile-like manner. There has been a shift to working with smaller teams, and in the integrated production model it’s common to have dedicated teams from different disciplines (design, UX, producer, creative technologist) committed throughout the length of a project. Agency pitches are also very similar to Agile. How many times have we gathered pitch teams together to work collaboratively on a project? There are daily and weekly catch-ups and reviews, a sense of team commitment, and a final sprint to get through the creative pitch process.

    When you are working on large development projects, Agile can make a lot of sense. Instead of having separate design and development stages, where things may be approved that may hinder the next stage, now designers and developers work together during the duration of the project. In many cases, working with Agile versus waterfall still amounts to the same number of hours, but each discipline stays active from beginning to end with this approach. With UX in sooner, the project can get into code faster. With design in later, the design can be refined to meet the challenges that arise in code. 

    Clients are also getting on board with Agile ways of working. They get to see prototypes sooner and have the opportunity to look at working models which results in them feeling more engaged with the creative process. Working this way allows them to gain a greater understanding of an agency’s process as well as the technology. They also get to know the agency team (who is actually doing the work) and can liaise with them directly.

    However, working this way does require a high level of client trust with the agency, as the project outcome can morph dramatically as it goes through different iterations. The client also has a higher stake in the game, so must commit to being part of the process. Some may be wary of working in an environment where a project’s requirements continually evolve, but quick feedback to questions and show-and-tells are essential. 

    For clients to work this way, they need to shift away from some seemingly natural ways of working. Creative (as aesthetics) becomes secondary to functionality and technical execution. On the plus side, the faster you can get to technically executing, the sooner the team learns what you can and can’t do.

Working in an Agile environment allows for faster testing of software and
allows for prototypes to be tested earlier.

Under a waterfall model, there’s a risk that a completed design could have a  functionality that would be impossible at the coding stage. When both designers and developers work together, it is easier for them to come up with alternate solutions.

    As clients take a more active role in the Agile process, problems of design not working out on the development end don’t look like giant mistakes. Instead, the client can see how things evolve.

Agile works on the development side as well as for creative projects.

Running true Agile requires agencies and clients to use similar methodologies in their marketing efforts. Both sides would need to have a continually evolving backlog and a rolling budget. As the marketing and the work is launched, it would be constantly evaluated and adapted to reflect both metrics and audience feedback. 

    This marks a significant shift in thinking and requires a great deal of trust on both sides. Agile marketing in th–e true sense is similar to an AOR (account-of-record) experience. As AOR accounts are disappearing, it may make for fewer Agile marketing-like experiences.

    Instead of going full Agile, many agencies are utilizing a hybrid model. During the up-front stage, the process is more waterfall-like for discovery and for setting a larger scope. After that the work is iterative for the rest of the project to final deployment. However, as previously mentioned, working Agile-like by using design thinking or iterative processes at the discovery phases can be integral to developing new thinking. I think for me, an argument can be made to adopt Agile thinking principles where we can, but not to worry too much about the rituals if they don’t fit in with your practices.

    At the same time, many agencies see real value in working under the rituals and discipline mandated by an Agile framework (like sprints and scrums). As you move forward in utilizing Agile, ensure that your team gets as close as they can with a client. Focus on prioritizing the work, look to deliver often, reflect on what you learn, and use iteration to build on your creative ideas.   

    For those of us on the creative side who have worked on dedicated client teams, working in Agile is going to feel pretty familiar. When we work in cross-functional teams, it’s easy to talk to a team member and ask them their opinion or for advice. It’s not necessary to go though ten layers of hierarchy to talk to someone just to get a quick answer or thought.

    The biggest cultural shift is not working to polish something before sharing it with the team. In fact, it’s encouraged to share to improve. With this type of thinking we are more open to adapting our work and changing it after deployment to make it right. By watching to see what the consumer’s reaction is, it’s possible to respond with new content and creative in order to build on the communication and create momentum.