Agile Web Development: a Complete Guide

If you want to build a website or app, you may have heard ‘Agile web development’ cited by software engineers as the ultimate in speed, flexibility and customer satisfaction.

But what is ‘Agile’ and why do we, as developers, like it so much?

This seems like a simple question, but the information out there often gives a vague, brief or incomplete answer. Let’s face it, ‘Agile’ is thrown around a lot these days, often as shorthand for ‘working to shorter, frequent deadlines rather than one big final one’.

And whilst that’s not incorrect per se (one of the major advantages of an Agile approach is smaller, iterative and more adaptable ‘sprints’), it is slightly reductive. Agile, as a software development methodology, is an entire way of looking at the development process. To understand how powerful it is, you need to look at it in its entirety.

That’s why we’ve created this 101 guide to all things Agile, so that you can get an in-depth look at how Agile works for web development.

We’ll cover:

  • The definition of ‘Agile’ development philosophy and the ideology behind it
  • How Agile differs from traditional Waterfall methodology
  • Specific Agile methodologies, including Scrum
  • The benefits of an Agile approach to software development
  • How to structure Agile teams for best results

What is Agile Web Development? 

Let’s start at square one. Namely, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which has its origins as far back as 2001.

First conceived in a Utah ski resort (fun but irrelevant fact), the Agile manifesto was, in its authors’ words, driven by “the need for an alternative to documentation driven, heavyweight software development processes.”

So, first thing to know about Agile: it’s a way of making the development process more efficient and more adaptable, and improving outcomes for clients as a result.

How does Agile do this? In short, it’s all about rearranging the fundamental building blocks of the software development process into something more continuous.

Waterfall Methodology vs Agile: What You Need to Know

Traditionally, software development was separated into several distinct phases, each being 100% completed before moving onto the next stage. This is known as Waterfall development (or sometimes ‘Waterfall design’), and follows this step-by-step process:

The fundamental principle of Agile is these stages should run concurrently, feeding into each other to form an iterative process, breaking the development process down into shorter ‘sprints’. These can last up to four weeks and focus on a specific task or feature, rather than tackling the product as a whole.

This means:

  • Development and testing run concurrently during sprints, so that improvements can be implemented quickly.
  • It’s easy to release a basic product and gradually add features post release.
  • Feedback and bug reports post go-live can be incorporated into rapid release schedules to improve user satisfaction.
  • Clients are more in the loop about how their software product is developing, so can offer feedback accordingly.

Philosophy vs methodology: Agile vs Scrum (and other options)

You might have seen references to ‘Scrum’ methodology or browsed articles which suggested a binary choice between Agile, Scrum, Kanban and a host of other project management terms.

We’re here to simplify it for you.

Think of Agile as an overall philosophy for your web development activities. Iterative design and testing. Working in sprints. Increased transparency between client and developer.

Then, think of Scrum as a tool or methodology to help you achieve this. Scrum is just one of several development methodologies that help deliver an Agile approach.

Scrum is the most dominant Agile methodology out there at the moment, so if someone’s talking ‘Agile’ they may well be inferring Scrum methodology as default. Here’s how it stacks up against other ways of doing things, for a side by side comparison.

  • Scrum: Scrum is based around the idea that some problems are impossible to define upfront, and that development teams should remain adaptable to changes in scope and approach as a result. It’s a lightweight, iterative and adaptable approach that emphasizes close collaboration between small, hyper-communicative teams.
  • Scaled scrum: As Scrum relies on small teams to work, bigger organizations with large-headcount software teams in house can struggle to implement it. As a result, there are various Scrum modifications available for large enterprises, including DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery), LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) and X-SCALE.
  • Extreme programming (XP): A more extreme and prescriptive form of Agile development that insists on two key technical practices. These are pair programming (two developers per computer to reduce errors and increase communication) and test-driven development (writing automated tests before starting coding).
  • Kanban: A flexible way of visualizing and planning Agile development tasks which can be paired well with other methodologies. Kanban teams use a visual management board (for example Trello) divided into columns representing the state of different tasks.

So, it’s not a case of ‘Agile vs scrum’ or ‘Agile vs kanban’ or any other either/or comparison. You decide on an Agile approach, then make the decision between Scrum, XP, or any other toolset that will help you deliver it.

Bear in mind that you can mix and match various parts of different methodologies to make one that works for you. In reality, many organizations find that sticking purely to one approach doesn’t quite work for them.

For example, many organizations would be hesitant to implement a full XP approach, but get good results using test-driven development combined with other Agile methodologies.

The Benefits of Agile Web Development

Why is the software development world so crazy about Agile?

You might have picked up some of the benefits of an Agile approach already. Constant, iterative testing for every project stage means stronger features, fewer bugs and less chance for errors to snowball and add significant time onto the end of the process. Faster, cleaner development plus reduced chance of project overruns equals happier customers.

Here’s a bit more detail about why exactly Agile can be so beneficial – for developers and clients alike!

1. Increased client input

Working in one to four-week sprints means that clients can check in on progress much more easily. Clients have greater transparency into the project and how it’s shaping up, which means:

  • There’s more opportunity for client feedback, resulting in higher satisfaction
  • There’s more flexibility to adapt to changing (or misidentified) requirements
  • Potential errors can be identified quickly
  • You can have a more positive, symbiotic and collaborative relationship with your clients, resulting in software that better fits their needs.

2. Faster (and more predictable) delivery

The productivity hack of breaking down one big task into several smaller ones is universal. Agile web development benefits from this approach too.

It’s easier to calculate that you need six two-week sprints to build and test each feature for a functioning MVP, than it is to look at the project as a whole and estimate a delivery date.

This allows clients to start building a strategy around the product, and to have everything ready for its release (marketing campaigns planned, sales teams primed, etc), whilst being faster than Waterfall at releasing new features.

3. Lower costs

No-one likes project delays. Partly because they’re damaging strategically – and partly because they cost a lot. If you’re paying developers by the day, the cost of overrunning adds up fast.

Because Agile teams test as they are building the product rather than afterwards, potential roadblocks are picked up and dealt with earlier in the process. Optimizing the product during development means significantly less time is lost figuring out what’s going wrong during a mass testing phase. Less developer time = less money spent.

4. Reduced risk of project failure, increased chance of client satisfaction

A cumulative effect of short sprints, regular client check ins and iterative testing? It’s much more likely your product will work as designed, and that you and your client will be aligned on project requirements.

Overall, this means that your work is significantly more likely to meet your client’s expectations. In Agile, there’s plenty of room to iron out misunderstandings, errors and mistakes early on in the process so they don’t cause any breakdowns later on.

Agile Team Structure

Agile scrum teams are structured to maximize the speed and flexibility offered by the Agile methodology.

To reiterate a point we made above: Scrum is not the only way of implementing Agile, and there may well be other Agile-based team structures that work for you. Equally, when talking Agile for web development at least, Scrum is the dominant methodology, and what most will think of when you refer to an ‘Agile development team’.

Teams are small, self-managing and hierarchically flat, although the product owner has final say over prioritization. Everyone’s input is valued equally. This helps with speed, flexibility and also innovation – good ideas can come from anyone, after all.

Agile teams are typically no larger than nine people (though most cap out at seven) and include:

  • A product owner: product owners define and oversee Agile projects. They are the go-to source of knowledge on business and user requirements, and organize workloads to deliver maximum value for clients.
  • A scrum master: scrum masters support product owners in managing work and removing backlogs, ensure Agile best practices are followed and remove productivity blockers for developers.
  • Developers: developers build the product as envisaged by the product owner. As well as coders, architects, writers, designers, and other specialized roles are considered ‘developers’ here. Developers are autonomous and self managing – within an Agile team, each member manages their own workload based on their expertise.
  • A subject matter expert: subject matter experts don’t necessarily have any technical expertise, but know the target industry inside out. For example, an Agile team working on a legal tech project might have a lawyer on hand to consult on the ins and outs of particular features or processes.

Should I Scale My Own Agile Team? 

If you’re starting out from scratch, we can’t recommend Agile enough as an approach to software development.

And, if you are still using traditional methodologies like Waterfall, chances are you’ll need to move to Agile sooner rather than later to keep up with the speed of development needed to thrive in today’s market.

Whether building from scratch or restructuring, however, building a modern software development team takes time, as talented developers with Agile experience are in high demand. You’ll also have to commit resources in the long term – in-demand skills don’t come cheap!

If you have an Agile project that you need to start ASAP – or you don’t see any strategic benefit from in-housing software development, why not outsource to a software development agency like Tivix?

We offer:

  • Immediate access to a global network of talent – we can scale a team of the best in the business as soon as you bring us onboard
  • Expertise in Agile methodology, as well as all major web development technologies, including Django, Ruby on Rails and
  • Over a decade’s worth of experience in Agile web development, with big-name projects for Tesla, the UN and Solarcity to name a few

We’d love to hear more about your project! Get in touch today to see what our Agile web development services could do for you.