UX Expansion Pack for SAFe

SAFe reminds me of a board game. The big map of the whole system with characters, locations and paths between them. There’s roles for people to play and rules governing how the game proceeds. Sprints and PIs are the turns that mark progress of play. You set it up, learn to play, and then it has potentially endless re-playability! (Did you know there is actually a game/sim of SAFe to help you learn it?)

A great tradition in the board game world is the expansion pack. You get an add-on to the core game which has complementary and consistent content. For example, Carcassonne is a timeless game with a simple core mechanic of building castles, but has a couple of expansion packs that add things like farming and trade to flesh out the game further.

In the same spirit I’d like to propose an Expansion Pack for SAFe that introduces the foundational aspects of UX. No need to throw away the core set and rule book, just add this pack and you get a fully functional UX team in your system!

UX Expansion Pack Overview

An expansion pack for Scaled Agile Framework that supplements the core system with a UX function. UX teams come in many shapes and sizes, but there are common themes that have emerged as the field matured over the last 10–20 years. This framework takes some of those best practices and plugs them into a SAFe environment.

  • Runway team that runs in sprints 1–2 PIs ahead of scrum teams
  • UX Researchers who support work across the design process
  • Design Ops function that enables design and research execution
  • Design Runway, created through roadmapped Enabler Features
  • Design strategy toolbox
  • Product Design best practices
  • Design System, a living library of UI components
  • UX vision and KPIs, the north stars for all UX work

While several of these are standard practice for a UX team, and you can find books and conferences just on individual components mentioned here, the part that intentionally adapts to the world of SAFe is the Runway Team, and their delivery of design runway through Enabler Features. UX is a vital constituent of Epic delivery and the roadmaps that chart their completion, where these Enablers need to be represented and planned. The Runway Team partners with product management and syncs with the scrum team(s) responsible for delivery in order to ensure a well aligned delivery approach. In essence, the Runway Team is setting up the scrum team for success with a well researched Feature definition and package of materials that frame what a good outcome should look like. The PI-ahead cadence of the Runway Team also creates a rhythm that parallel teams can sync up to, such as architecture, business process management, marketing, etc.

These are the key design drivers that serve and support business outcomes, but speak specifically to quality and effectiveness of the experience. Google’s HEART framework would be an example of KPIs. The design vision would likely be a prototype or mock-ups that visualize the future state of the experience, with research and journey mapping that led to it.

No UX team is complete without it’s design system, a living library of robust, re-usable UI components that live in design symbols as well as interface code. See Adele for a catalog of published design systems.

As the scrum team sprints each PI in order to deliver Features, so does the Runway Team. The difference is that the Runway Team primarily operates in the early stages of the design process doing discovery, concepting, testing and definition in preparation for the scrum delivery. The Features they deliver are Enablers, precursors to Features that deliver value in market. Key roles on the team could be staffed in different ways, depending on the size and complexity of the challenge:

  • Product management. This refers to the PMs/POs charting the course to complete Epics by creating the Feature roadmap. They work closely with the Runway Team to understand the “why” and “what” of the Feature definition through design process and they bring important business context and cross-functional alignment to the work.
  • Service design. This is could be an individual from a service design function or a hat worn by a UX Researcher or Product Designer, if the need is relatively small. The key work of this role is mapping out the experience holistically, across channels and systems, and using sources of quant and qual data to create a complete picture of how touchpoints are being created across the customer journey.
  • Product design. This could be an individual Product Designer or it could be split between any combination of visual design, interaction design, content strategy and information architecture. This role doesn’t just concern the creation of UI layouts, but requires the synthesis of a design point-of-view and articulation of a design challenge to solve, which then guides concept design work, to be tested and refined through UX Research.

The design runway stage can start with a good deal of unknowns and ambiguity. It is vital that the runway team has a toolbox of design strategy methods at hand which can be applied to bring the problem into focus and resolve hypotheses and assumption. Rapid prototyping, research synthesis, ideation and other tools from Design Thinking are essential here.

The design process is informed by customer research from start to finish, and there needs to be a repeatable process and tools for conducting the necessary types of research, ranging from explorative interviews to detailed usability testing. In larger teams, a dedicated UX Research function is helpful, but in others it may be appropriate for designers to conduct the research themselves.

The function of Design Ops is to support the design team, by enabling and accelerating their outcomes. It can take various forms, and may be more administrative on some UX teams, more process and culture on others. Design Ops ensures that the unique needs of designers are supported and operationally enabled, so that they can focus the majority of the work on design delivery itself. Ops can also bridge teams with a coordinated approach to things like inclusion and accessibility, to ensure they are implemented holistically.

Since the inception of the UX discipline, there have been ongoing efforts to identify and evolve best practices, which can be something of a moving target but form the core of design craft. This covers many things from cognitive models to layout grids, and a design team needs to identify their standards of practice which they will apply deliberately to execution.

Using this in the Transformation

I wouldn’t necessarily expect a SAFe transformation partner to understand UX and all the components of the UX function, and I don’t think that’s necessary as there should be UX experts in the company already. However, UX is a legitimate and important part of the system. The key teams, roles and functions need to be intentionally constructed and not overlooked or considered as an afterthought.

As the transformation rolls out it should include standing up and structuring Runway Teams in alignment with the release trains. The Design Runway needs a cadence of delivery which is roadmapped, planned and delivered as part of the scaled agile system. The transformation needs to ensure that the teams are included and enabled that deliver Research and Design Ops, just as it is concerned with ensuring a Dev Ops function is implemented.

Adopting the UX Expansion Pack

This expansion pack is based off experiences from an implementation where this model was successful at positioning UX teams, when their absence from the core framework left a clear gap. It’s meant for others about to adopt SAFe, or on the path of their transformation and scratching their heads about how to get UX off the sidelines. These are broad brush strokes, and not really anything new, but I suspect that speaking the same language as SAFe is half the challenge when it comes to UX integration with the system. Hope it helps.

Design leader, systems thinker, culture cultivator. I’ve built design teams at companies like Marriott, Visa, Gannett and Delta Dental Insurance.

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