Design Best Practices

Why Waterfall? Dated Workflows in a Modern World

Erin Prus By Erin Prus May 5, 2015

It’s the classic case of established practice. Old guard policies and red tape. Sound familiar? If you’re a forward-thinking designer who wants a more efficient workflow, the traditional way of managing projects can be frustrating, to say the least.

The reality that most of us face in the internal marketing world is one great big waterfall. This seemingly endless wave after wave continues to entrap many creative and design professionals despite our understanding of other approaches. Why?

The “waterfall” method of handing projects off from research, to development, to design, and back-and-forth, again and again, persists as a model within in-house teams and agencies for a number of reasons.

Why Waterfall… Still?

The biggest reason why waterfall sticks around: Old habits die hard. Cliched or not, the idea of incorporating new, agile practices in the design/development mix is anything but easy. You’ll have to convince your chief creative (or team) to implement a new set of tricks—to move beyond that comforting and clear beginning (planning), middle (design), and end (production and release). We know that change is scary. It’s big time: You’re asking your work comrades to break out of their established daily rhythms, the longstanding review routes, and less-than-helpful project management systems. Not easy. This effort may prove futile, and if so, you’re not alone.

While proven to revolutionize workflow and efficiency—and heralded by many top creatives—the agile philosophy of “releasing early and often” isn’t for everyone, every team or even every company. Our modern marketing world brings many complexities to the fore—extremely lean workforces, telecommuting, and hybrid positions, just to name a few— only further complicating why “nimble,” iterative approaches to projects could be difficult to digest or execute—or even problematic.

The Rise of Digital Content

The idealistic notion that we can all “go agile” and seamlessly integrate stand-up meetings, SCRUM and timed sprints into our day-to-day is pretty ambitious. However, the truth remains that digital content creation has disrupted our old, trusted workflows, and it has left the very painful exercise of designers going back-and-forth with developers, over and over, on every new project—like we’ve entered some “Groundhog Day” alternate reality.

So how do we, as interactive designers, remove these traditional barriers without pushing our colleagues into methods they aren’t ready for? Let’s imagine for a minute, tools and software that cut out the middle men and enabled you to determine your fate, your flow. You ideate, create, and review as early as you deem necessary, and you aren’t torturing the developer along the way. You own the project more fully and completely.

Don’t worry, you can still be as collaborative as you’d like, but these tools offer an opportunity to break out of the endless waterfall and stop the tug-of-war when you feel it’s necessary. So if you find yourself fighting the good fight, try approaching your team with these thoughtful changes that can make a big impact.

Better project management. Consider upgrading that waterfall-style project management tool (we won’t name any names) to one you and your team can actually benefit from. Systems like Basecamp, LeanKit, and Trello are great if you want to customize and visualize each member’s queue for planning. This is one change that can alter the landscape in a major way (with only moderate kicking and screaming).

More efficient development. We all know the power of code, but some web projects are more code-heavy than others. Give your developer pal a break once in awhile—like the next time you can manage design and it’s development on your own. Thankfully new emergent web tools allow designers to move from ideation to launch sans dev, which is pretty fabulous.

Smarter design. If you’re still comping your designs in Photoshop, it’s time to explore creating in the browser. Since 2011, the rise of responsive web design has led us to rethink our design approaches and embrace Ethan Marcotte’s idea of the fluid grid. The challenge isn’t about producing “mobile-first” or “content-first” web designs. As you dive deep into your next big web project, the challenge is to remain medium-agnostic—and think through the best “home(s)” for the digital work you’re creating. Not to mention working within the tools you’re given.

Navigating New Workflow Practices

The key to shifting workflow practices in this brave new world lies in the assessment and the approach. Every in-house or agency team is different, with unique needs, strengths and idiosyncratic tendencies. Consider where the greatest need lies and work from there. If it’s project management, consider a new tool that could reimagine the landscape for all and set more teammates at ease.

It’s your job to assess your individual role and process, too, and streamline your own situation. By checking in with your own design methods and investigating emerging tactics, you’ll discover how to work smarter and more efficiently with the group and flying solo.

So maybe becoming agile isn’t in your creative team’s immediate future—but the waterfall process has less waves. Consider that a sweet victory.

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