Which is better: Agile or Waterfall? If you have yet to spend time in a business or development environment, you might not even know what these are. If you have, you may be familiar with how one (or both) of them work from personal experience, but you likely need to know which one is better.
That’s fine; that’s why we’re here!
Truthfully, the question isn’t necessarily which one is better. It’s more like, which one is better for your team and your project? So let’s dig into the topic and help you decide on a project methodology.
What Are Agile and Waterfall?
Agile and Waterfall are known as “project management methodologies.” In other words, they’re frameworks you can use to structure the development process.
When designing a new website or building a web app, you likely have all sorts of goals to meet along the development path.
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You should work on developing a Minimum Viable Product, or you should make something more robust and ready to be released. You have milestones to meet along the way; building the back-end framework, creating the wireframe of a design, roughing it in, adding CSS to make it look good, and so on.
How do you measure and benchmark your progress? How do you pick which milestones to work towards, and in what order? That’s where Agile and Waterfall come in.
Agile and Waterfall are two different project management methods in a whole project management ecosystem. Of course, there are others out there as well – Scrum, Kanban, Lean, and others are all popular in different spheres – but Agile and Waterfall are two of the most popular.
That’s why we’re comparing them today.
If you want an analysis of any others, let us know!
What Is the Waterfall Methodology?
In the world of project management, there are a lot of different methodologies, but few have stood the test of time as Waterfall has.
The Waterfall method has been around for at least 70 years. The actual name “Waterfall” wasn’t used until the 1970s, but descriptions of the methodology – in more or less the same form – stretch at least as far back as 1956.
The structure of the Waterfall method is similar to that of a waterfall in real life.
Gravity only works in one direction; water flows from high points to low points, pooling at flat areas. Waterfall as a project management method works the same way; you start at one point in the design, complete that phase, then cascade to the next, work on that until it’s done, and repeat.
The original Waterfall method looked something like this:
- System Requirements. The first phase involves outlining the design document for the website or app and the system requirements (both front-end and back-end) that it will need.
- Analysis. This step thoroughly details business rules, values, models, and schema to design your website.
- Design. This step is the construction of the back-end and front-end wireframes for the website. No code is written yet, but theory, frameworks, wireframes, and “theorycrafting” occur here.
- Coding. Using the design documents produced and refined in previous phases, your development team works on coding the website.
- Testing. Once the website is entirely developed, systematic and iterative testing seeks out bugs and problems, referring back to the dev team to be solved.
- Operations. Once the website has been tested and reasonably considered finished, it is migrated and installed for operations.
In the case of a web app, it goes live and can be used by customers.
The Waterfall is a suitable method when you do a lot of planning and theorizing before writing a single line of code, but it’s less responsive (or less agile) and more resistant to changes along the way. For example, a change in scope or a new feature request can be complicated to implement later in the process.
What Is the Agile Methodology?
Agile methodology was initially developed and popularized in 2001, starting with the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.
This manifesto, written by over a dozen prominent project managers, co-signed by many more, and translated into numerous languages over the last two decades, created an entirely new way of managing projects.
Before this point, most developers structured their projects with Waterfall-style processes.
Long lead times and rigid structures caused companies to develop websites and release them months or years after their demand surged and faded. As a result, a new method was necessary, facilitating responsiveness to the market and abrupt changes in scope as needed.
Agile was created to consolidate and give an overarching structure to the concept of a more rapid-feedback, faster-turnaround development paradigm.
Agile is focused on rapid response, evolutionary design, and an overall ethos of getting something made.
With Waterfall, it can be months of planning before a single line of code is written. With Agile, code can be written on the first day, with the full scope of the project not emerging for months. If you’re looking to outsource any IT, be sure to ask potential vendors about their approach.
In many ways, the two frameworks are opposites. For example, waterfall prioritizes structure and planning, while Agile prizes production with the planning and structure created as necessary.
When comparing the two, you can think of how students might write their term papers. For example, some people methodically research, outline, and compile all of their sources before writing, while others start writing a draft right away and fill in the gaps later with their final draft.
What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Waterfall and Agile?
Both of these methodologies are effective at producing software, including web apps. Neither is inherently better than the other; they’re just different approaches to reaching the same destinations.
It can be helpful to look at the pros and cons of each method to determine which one works best for your team.
The Pros and Cons of Waterfall
The Waterfall is a rigid, structured, and linear development process. It goes in phases, each with a defined set of goals you must complete before the next step begins.
One of the most significant benefits of the Waterfall method is its rigid structure. Every project under Waterfall is managed the same way, with the same deliverables. Everyone familiar with Waterfall knows how it goes. People working on the planning phase understand what they should be doing, what kind of deliverables they need to produce, and what they need to have ready for the next stage.
As such, Waterfall is often most beneficial for businesses that produce many different projects semi-simultaneously. The planners work on a project, and when they give that project to the designers, they can start work on a second project while the designers work on the first.
When the designers are done and pass the project on to the coders, they take on the next project from the planners, who start a third.
The waterfall method is also a strong methodology for investors, stakeholders, and the teams involved in the project. Each phase has tangible deliverables, timelines, and milestones to reach. That means it’s easy to hold teams accountable, report progress with specific milestones to stakeholders, and keep the entire project on a dedicated timeline.
On the other hand, Waterfall could be better. If it were perfect, no one would have needed to invent Agile, right?
The Waterfall method is challenging in the initial phases when determining the project’s scope, requirements, and general shape. It requires a lot of solid analysis from talented developers and designers before anything else can happen; this can be very challenging, particularly in fast-moving and rapidly evolving markets.
Even worse, Waterfall can’t readily adapt to change. If your website is designed to solve a problem, but you’re only halfway through the process when a competitor debuts, you may only be able to iterate and increase the scope of your project by scrapping it and starting from scratch. This can be very expensive for your budget and your timeline.
Waterfall also puts coding in the back half of the process. Since many of the people most likely to be working on a web app will be developers and coders, they may feel useless for a long time before their phase comes up.
The Pros and Cons of Agile
In many ways, Agile is a response to the drawbacks of Waterfall. It makes sense, then, that the benefits of Agile are solutions to the problems of Waterfall.
The core framework of Agile is creating a Minimum Viable Product, then iterating on it through rapid, small-scale feature development, testing, feedback, and repetition. Short planning cycles and rapid development mean potential users get the opportunity to give feedback immediately and tangibly affect the project’s direction.
In particular, this means less wasted time and money if changes need to be made. Agile is predicated on the feedback loop, and the only thing that can halt its progress is complete disinterest; even disinterest is valuable knowledge to the development process.
Agile is also suitable for projects that are meant to be ongoing or where the “end goal” is either unknown or doesn’t exist. When you look around at modern web apps, you see many that add new features every few months, expanding and improving constantly. This phenomenon is Agile at work.
Agile is all about flexibility, responsiveness, and fast turnaround on improvements.
On the other hand, Agile isn’t perfect. Its flexibility makes it difficult to plan for an end goal because the factors influencing the end state are variable. Creating an overarching plan with no destination is challenging, and milestones tend to be set only days or weeks before they’re achieved.
Since Agile is a lot less coherent and rigid, it’s harder to report to stakeholders or even see a bird’s-eye view of the overall app’s progress. As a result, in many cases, an Agile project feels like spinning its wheels until it either suddenly comes together or is abruptly canceled.
Similar Project Management Methodologies
We briefly mentioned some other project methodologies in this post, like Scrum and Kanban.
For the sake of completeness and to help you compare Agile and Waterfall to them, here’s a brief breakdown of each:
- Scrum: Scrum is a lightweight methodology that breaks large projects into many tasks sorted into a backlog. Those tasks are then divided into sprints for a team to tackle in daily increments. The project is developed piece by piece, and feedback from new sprints is added to the sprint backlog.
- Kanban: Kanban sorts project tasks into columns, such as “In Progress,” “Done,” “Validate,” “Testing,” and so on. As jobs move through these columns, they are either pushed up the pipeline or moved back to be reworked by the team.
- Lean: The Lean methodology is one of the simplest on this list. You identify value, create a map and flow of that value, let customers pull value from that new feature, and then seek to perfect that new feature. It’s been simplified further by some to “purpose, process, and people”; what is the purpose, how can we get it done, and how are people receiving it?
- RAD: Rad is very similar to Scrum in that it can readily accept new changes and improvements to a project without turning it off-balance. The primary difference is that RAD is designed for small teams, with a greater focus on quickly establishing a prototype.
- FDD: Feature-Driven Development (FDD) is related to Scrum but is focused on features instead of delivery. Features are rolled out much more rapidly than in Scrum, which could take much more time to roll out a new feature.
As you can see, there is some overlap and similarities between Agile and Waterfall methods. Some of these are designed for massive teams, and others for small teams. Some focus on rolling out new features as quickly as possible to a prototype, while others focus on polishing a completed product.
Which Methodology is Best for Web Development Projects?
If you’re choosing between a Waterfall and an Agile structure (or one of the many spinoff variants of either), it all comes down to your business and your team.
Waterfall often works better if your team comprises narrow specialists (like planners, designers, coders, and testers). Each team can leverage its specialization while trusting each other group to be equally expert in their fields.
- If your team is made up of generalists, or multi-specialty experts, Agile can often be better. The unit can work together on each phase, and there’s no transition time from one to the next.
- If your project has stakeholders that fund it and demand progress updates regularly, Waterfall is generally the way to go. A tangible plan with defined, concrete milestones is much easier to report on and can give much more satisfactory reports to stakeholders. Agile tends to fall flat because everything seems like a mess until it coheres together.
- If your market is very fast-moving or rapidly evolving, Agile is the better option. If you need to be the first to market, or if an MVP will prove more beneficial than a more comprehensive but slower web project, Agile helps you be the first one there.
In short, Waterfall is better for more evergreen, long-term, structured, and high-value projects. Agile is usually better for projects in rapidly-changing markets, where frequent iterations and improvements are more important than a single full-featured release.
So, which one is better? That’s your call to make.
The truth is often somewhere in the middle.
Our process, for example, is similar in structure to Waterfall but involves frequent feedback and adjustments to ensure our clients are satisfied, much like Agile. If it sounds interesting to you, please schedule a call with me! I’d love to hear about your web design project and discuss which process makes the most sense for your goals.
Tim Woda is the CEO and founder of White Peak Marketing. He has been on the founding team of five successful start-ups and his digital marketing campaigns have acquired more than 800 million customers for his start-ups and White Peak’s client companies. Tim has been featured by The New York Times, Fox News, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and more. Under Tim’s direction, White Peak was selected as one of America’s Top Digital Marketing Agencies for 2021 by MarTech Outlook magazine.