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Dual-Track Agile Design

Kathy Davies
Kathy Davies
Posted on Nov 10, 2021

Like many product teams across Trimble today, SketchUp is focused on designing and building connected, scalable solutions.

And if you’ve spent any time as a product designer working in an agile environment, you already know that integrating design thinking and user-centered design practices can quickly become daunting - particularly when you’re laser focused on developing in two-week sprints, trying to maintain development velocity, all while trying to meet your team and organizational goals.

This is where Dual-Track Agile Design can help!

A brainchild of Marty Cagan - author of Inspired - together with Jeff Patton, the lean agile expert - Dual-Track Agile Design provides a framework for product teams to ensure that user-centered design practices are successfully integrated into your organizations agile development process (“Dual-Track Agile," Silicon Valley Product Group, 17 September 2012).

SketchUp’s product teams have been working on adopting Dual-Track Agile Design over the last year and half - and while it’s still very much a ‘work in progress’, we’re definitely starting to realize the benefits of adopting this framework - learning, adjusting and continuously improving our processes and practices.

What is Dual-Track Agile Design Anyway?

Before we dive into a definition of what Dual-Track Agile Design is, it’s important to understand some key concepts of agile development:

  • Product Team - A cross-functional and self-organized group of people that have the necessary skills to produce a working, tested increment of a product, and often includes skills such as design, development, testing, and delivery.

    At SketchUp, we have several product teams, and they vary in size and team construct based on the product needs, with each team having a Product Manager who effectively ‘owns’ the product being developed.

  • Agile Development - Agile is a term used to describe approaches to software development emphasizing incremental delivery, team collaboration, continual planning, and continual learning

    There are many different flavors of agile out there. At SketchUp, we prescribe to the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) - which allows us to implement agile practices such as incremental delivery, team collaboration, continual planning and learning at an enterprise scale. We prescribe to 12-week Product Increments (PI) and two-week sprints.

  • Design Thinking - A human-centered approach to innovation - anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas.

    This approach really challenges product teams at SketchUp to seek to truly understand their user - challenging their own internal assumptions, and redefining problems in an attempt to identify alternative solutions.

  • User-Centered Design - An iterative design process in which designers and other key stakeholders focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.

    This process consists of six key phases: Discover - Define - Prototype - Design - Deliver - Evaluate - where the ultimate goal for our product teams is to design and develop something useful and usable for their users.

    UX Process

  • Product Triad - Successful products are the results of many factors and at SketchUp we believe having product team alignment and engagement is a key factor to our success.

    From the point of identifying the features we’re going to build through to being involved in customer discovery, design, prototype validation, and user testing - our Product Management (PM), Development and UX Design team members are joined at the hip. We are no longer building features we ‘think’ our customer will like - we are building features we know they are going to love.

Now that we have some of the core definitions out of the way - what the heck is Dual-Track Agile Design any way?

Dual-Track Agile Design is an agile development methodology in which product teams break their daily work into two tracks:

Dual-Track Agile

It all starts with an idea - an idea for a product feature that is going to help solve our customers problems. In the Discovery track, product teams at SketchUp are focused on fast learning and validation of ideas - while in the Delivery track - the focus is on development velocity, quality, and shippable product.

As a product designer, we spend our two week sprints dividing our time between both the Discovery and Delivery tracks - ensuring our developers have what they need to build the product while we validate ideas and solutions - sharing out key learnings along the way.

Ideally, features in the Discovery track are scheduled at least one to two PI’s ahead of when development is due to start working on them.

Benefits of Dual-Track Agile Design

There are numerous benefits of adopting the Dual-Track Agile design approach to product development - the largest of which is being able to answer design questions before execution.

By planning design deliverables as being either on the “Discovery” or “Delivery” track, product designers are allocated time in the schedule to understand whether the idea or problem the product team is trying to solve is the right one - and to validate their ideas with customers before development is slated to begin working on them. Huge win!

Another key benefit is the transparency of UX work in the product team’s backlog - ahead of planning, the product triad is encouraged to review their roadmaps and identify features needing ‘Discovery’ work and schedule them ahead of development - providing the team with a clear understanding of design goals and targets.

A cumulative result of these two benefits is better preparedness at PI planning. Product teams are able to more accurately estimate the effort involved with a given feature as the features being brought into PI planning have been validated, tested, and documented in preparation for the ‘Delivery’ track - leading to increased development velocity and reduced rework for product teams.

What’s not to love?!

Challenges of Adopting Dual-Track Agile Design

Change is hard! At SketchUp, we’ll be the first ones to admit that we’re still a work in progress, but we quickly identified some key challenges your organization might need to overcome too in order to have success with Dual-Track Agile Design.

The first challenge is gaining top-down support for integrating this framework into your existing agile development practices. Gaining key stakeholder support to make this shift, and then working with product and development managers, together with your scrum masters and Release Train Engineers will ensure a smooth transition to helping product teams break their work into ‘Discovery’ and ‘Delivery’ tracks.

The second key challenge was identifying features early enough to schedule them in the ‘Delivery’ track - which requires your organization to begin developing a short-to-mid-term roadmap of features that can be pulled into a backlog. This might be something you’re already doing - bonus! - but it was something we had to adjust and begin doing a better job of.

Tips to Getting Started

Here are some quick tips on how to get started with your own Dual-Track Agile Design journey.

It should go without saying - but we don’t recommend adopting Dual-Track Agile Design unless your organization has already tackled the shift to agile development. While the core principles at the art of this framework (User-Centered Design and Design Thinking) are applicable to all product teams at Trimble, this framework is really intended for teams who are transitioning to or have already adopted agile development methodologies.

Ensure the entire product team in the product development process - ensuring PM, development and QA, and design are all included in PI planning, discovery research, design iteration, and prototype testing. Having the entire team aware of the ideas or features being worked on and why is key to the product’s success.

Finally - don’t be afraid to experiment! Learning, adjusting and continuously improving processes and practices is agile at its core - and the same applies for Dual-Track Agile Design. What worked at SketchUp may not work for your product team or organization - but the only way to find out is to try it!

Curious to learn more? Check out these great resources: