Sketching ideas.
Sketching ideas. (source: Juhan Sonin on Flickr).

As the trend of software development bends inevitably toward continuous improvement, continuous learning, and agility, so too must design practice bend and change to be most effective for the digital world. The process models UX inherited from its precursors—graphic design, industrial design, and architecture—are front-loaded and heavy, meant for outputs that are physical products and objects. But these process models collapse when it is no longer possible to figure out everything in advance, as is the case with creating complex software applications. Lean UX is a call to work iteratively, to streamline design and eliminate waste, to collaborate on cross-functional teams and, most importantly, to maintain a customer-centric perspective in our decision-making.

“We saw this emergence of Agile as the sensible process to deal with this malleable, infinitely changeable material, [that is software], where you don’t have to measure twice, cut once. You can measure once, cut once, measure once, cut once, measure once, cut once, forever,” says Josh Seiden, designer, strategist, and co-author of Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams. “When [Agile] became the spinning engine at the center of software production, all the other pieces of software production [and their] process models started to conflict. People started asking, ‘What is the process model that we can use that will work with these Agile methods, that won’t give up the value that we bring as designers, and, in fact, will take advantage of these new process models?’ … I think Lean UX is an umbrella term for all of these approaches that work well in an Agile context.” Lean UX optimizes design for an Agile world, by applying digital design tools and techniques, as they’re needed.

The origins of Lean UX

Lean UX can trace its origins back to lean manufacturing, a system that aims to eliminate waste in production—those activities that do not add to value for the end-customer—with the greatest efficiency. In The Machine That Changed the World, published in 1990, authors James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos first described the lean manufacturing approach, derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota’s lean manufacturing approach has helped produce substantial growth for the company, which has become one of the largest automakers in the world.

In 2008, Eric Ries in his groundbreaking book, The Lean Startup, applied lean management practices to business and product development, encouraging entrepreneurs to follow an iterative build-measure-learn feedback loop to test business hypotheses by soliciting customer feedback on a minimum viable product (MVP). This process enabled startups to quickly validate their ideas in the market.

Lean UX takes key ingredients from its predecessors—including a strong emphasis on eliminating byproducts of processes that do not drive customer value—and applies them to user experience design.

Overview

Lean UX is driven by a set of core principles, each focused on maximizing value and minimizing waste in software design. The Lean UX cycle can be expressed as think-make-check, not dissimilar from the Lean Startup method’s build-measure-learn feedback loop.

Think

We start our Lean UX cycle by articulating our assumptions about a problem—what we know or think we know about that space. We might have assumptions about our potential users and their goals, or what software features might facilitate them in reaching those goals. Next, we turn these assumptions about the problem into a hypothesis that we can test and validate via feedback from our users. At this stage, we also articulate what a successful outcome might look like, the state toward which we are aiming and for which we are managing.

Make

Next, we design collaboratively. Our goal is to make a minimum viable product (MVP)—which might be a prototype or even a sketch—to help us test the assumptions articulated in our hypothesis with real users. Lean UX prioritizes co-creation—sketching, white-boarding, and having informal conversations—to move the design forward, rather than aiming for specific deliverables.

Quick sketches
Figure 1. Quick sketches can illustrate the flow of an idea or design concept. Image credit: Juhan Sonin (CC BY 2.0).
White-boarding
Figure 2. White-boarding can be a critical co-design technique. Image credit: Juhan Sonin (CC BY 2.0).

Check

Ongoing research gives us the chance to check our hypothesis quickly, to test our MVP with customers and validate or invalidate it, as the case may be. Ideally, we’ll talk with customers at regularly scheduled intervals, perhaps once a week and receive feedback. Lean UX research is collaborative and distributed across the entire team, so that everyone can have exposure to it and develop a shared understanding.

With this core think-make-check cycle in mind, let’s look at some of the key principles of Lean UX.

Lean UX principles

Act as one team

In order to build a shared understanding around customers and what they need most, designers, engineers, and product managers need to work together on one team. “It’s really about [creating] this cross-functional collaboration around what we’re building, who we’re building it for, [and] what success looks like, which is a really difficult conversation in most companies,” says Jeff Gothelf, an organizational designer and co-author of Lean UX. “Because in most companies, success is: ‘We shipped the feature. It’s out the door. We're successful.’ [But] that’s the beginning. In my eyes, that’s the beginning of the conversation with the market.”

“Shared understanding comes from a tight collaboration between those disciplines,” Gothelf explains. “That’s really where the efficiency and the productivity gains come with Lean UX.” For example, by interviewing users together, team members gain first-hand knowledge of feedback, and can understand the reasons why particular results happened as they did. With this shared knowledge, team members can quickly focus on figuring out what to do about a problem.

With collaboration at such a premium, it stands to reason that remote teams might have difficulty practicing Lean UX. “The philosophy remains the same. It’s just [that] the company has to optimize for remote culture,” says Gothelf. “They have to provide their teams with the tools that allow them to do this kind of collaborative work. Then, most importantly, they have to be awake at the same time. If the time zones don’t overlap in any kind of productive capacity, then no, it can’t work. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Of course, the digital technology exists for enabling real-time collaborative work on dispersed teams. We can easily engage remote colleagues in activities like sketching, white boarding, video conferencing, and screen sharing. A few examples of these applications include the ubiquitous Slack or HipChat for team conversations; Basecamp or Asana for project management; and GoToMeeting, Blue Jeans, or Zoom for video meetings, not to mention Skype and Google Hangouts. There are also collaboration tools like Mural and Realtime Board for instant collaboration with virtual sticky notes and white boards.

Solve the right problem

Lean UX practice requires that teams get customer feedback quickly. The more we can talk to customers together, the better off we’ll be. “We have to learn our way forward, in small, continuous batches with continuous feedback,” says Seiden. “We do that ... [by] building our process around continuous learning.”

Lean UX organizes teams around learning, using small steps, small units of work, and continuous customer or user engagement. “I think a lot of the places where you see Agile fall down is that people think that Agile is about just doing small increments of work. Actually, Agile is about small, continuous feedback loops,” says Seiden. With continuous feedback and learning from customers, it is more likely that we’ll hone in on and solve the right problem.

For example, having a user or early adopter group that is involved with the design of the product from concept to completion can pay dividends. For technical applications and business-to-business software this can be especially important. Your team can choose one day per week on which new designs or prototypes are reviewed or tested with the group. User feedback informs the next week of work. Sometimes weekly reviews can be too much, depending on the rhythm of the design team—bi-weekly reviews can be effective as well. Pick an interval that works best for your group.

Working in small increments allows us to test out potential solutions while mitigating risk. If the solution we’re devising is not working, we find we need to try out something else, or even reframe the problem. Ongoing input from users will help ensure the team truly understands the problem, and its various aspects, and has diagnosed it correctly.

Design collaboratively

For Lean UX, design is a function, not a person. “In our little agency that we had for four years, we really saw this ... mingling of the waters between product design and engineering. It was difficult for us to say, in fact, ‘He’s our designer,’ [which] was a very limiting statement, or, ‘She’s our engineer,’ says Gothelf. “I see a blurring of the lines. I see a much more collaborative future.”

Lean UX relies on well-managed, continuous design collaboration. For example, at Involution Studios, a Boston area software design firm where I work that specializes in health care, projects are set up so clients and the design team can work closely together, both in virtual and physical environments, as much as possible. Projects typically start with multi-day workshops at the studio, where, through design exercises, shared meals, etc., the team can begin to coalesce into one unit. The studio—a historic grand ballroom, with period architecture originally constructed at the turn of the 20th century—has open workstations on the balcony that can accommodate client designers, developers, or product managers to help the project team integrate into one working group.

Additionally, the majority of the walls in the ballroom, as well as meeting spaces and the kitchen, are painted with IdeaPaint, a writable and erasable surface coating that encourages ad hoc collaborative design and white-boarding. And, when the project team is not together physically, they communicate and share knowledge using a variety of digital tools from Basecamp to DropBox, Google Drive to Slack.

Plans change, so plan accordingly

Lean UX demands that designers evolve their understanding as they discover new information. Working in software almost always means working in situations with high levels of uncertainty. “It's very difficult to predict whether the solution you’re putting in front of people is going to work, and whether it’s going to have the desired effect,” says Seiden. “That’s kind of the starting point, right? ... How do we get them to behave within these systems? We don’t know, and so that means that instead of a model where we do careful planning, we need to optimize for taking small steps and learning as we go, and being open to change.”

Being open to change is easier said than done, however. It can even be difficult for designers and developers whose work mandate is to create such change. For instance, there are moments when the information coming back from user testing or reviews reveals that the initial assumptions for our design hypotheses were incorrect—debunked by observing users actually interacting with software or product. What we are challenged to do, in these instances, is to change course when our assumptions prove false, which rarely instills a good feeling, at least at first. Flexibility in this manner—not wanting to be right, but rather being willing to be wrong and follow the path that the evidence demonstrates—can be a critical trait for a designer or developer.

Deliverables? Not so much.

Deemphasizing designing for deliverables is another key principle for Lean UX.

Other design processes may favor upfront work, whether it’s research, information architecture, interaction design, UI mockups, or prototyping, with each step generating a discrete set of deliverables. But this approach doesn’t work well in an Agile environment. Lean UX is about adjusting your design process to become more Agile compatible.

“How do you take all those [design] tools and apply the most relevant ones at the most appropriate time at the appropriate level of effort?” says Gothelf. “You’re eliminating the waste in your design process, and you’re moving away from being in the deliverables business.” This doesn't mean that a Lean UX process is devoid of deliverables. “It means only create the artifacts that you need to communicate the conversation one step forward,” Gothelf explains.

“I think probably the most important [tenet of Lean UX] … is [the] minimum viable conversation,” says Gothelf. “What I mean by that is, as a designer, what’s the most important thing you need to communicate next? Whom do you need to communicate it to? Then, what’s the least amount of work that you need to do to make that communication take place? I think if there was a Lean UX commandment, that’s really it.”

For example, if you’re a designer working closely with the developer on your team, you might choose to talk through the interactions required for an interface, or sketch your idea quickly on a piece of paper or whiteboard to communicate. This is the minimum viable conversation required to move forward one step.

In a world driven by virtual communication, there’s sometimes too little credit given to the volumes of information we can receive from human body language and the shared context and knowledge of working in the same room or same office.

“Now, if I need to explain [something] to an executive, who doesn’t really care about pixels and whatever, maybe I’ve got to build a prototype and walk them through that,” says Gothelf. “Maybe we have to fully design something to show that and get that point across. Maybe I have to come to that presentation with a little bit of evidence, some kind of research that I’ve done as well. I need to do that amount of work to make that case convincing.”

This principle of favoring conversations over deliverables for the sake of themselves, is a great example of design adapting to an Agile world. But, while Lean UX is an evolutionary step toward continuous process, it nevertheless shares characteristics with other established design methodologies that may not be immediately apparent.

Lean UX and design thinking

Another methodology that shares with Lean UX an evidence-based approach to product design is design thinking. The two have a number of elements in common. In fact, Lean UX draws upon design thinking in many crucial areas: observing the customer, understanding and building empathy, brainstorming collaboratively to find different solutions, and measuring the impact of those solutions to determine the best one.

But there are points of difference between them as well. Lean UX sees formal process and method as scope that can and should be altered as needed. When it comes to adhering to specific steps or ways of doing things, Lean UX takes a pragmatic and utilitarian approach, especially when it comes to soliciting customer and user feedback. For instance, expensive formal usability tests are unlikely to have a place in a Lean UX process, while guerilla usability tests with a few users, are more likely. For a formal usability test, requirements might include a lab with various observational technologies, recruiting and scheduling a substantial group of users, and devising a testing protocol. Depending on the number of users you test, costs could reach tens of thousands of dollars. In contrast, guerilla usability can be conducted anywhere that you encounter users who are appropriate for your product. If you have a product with a general user base, you may be able to test your designs in a communal space like a coffee shop. “The formality is really where the play is for me. Yes, all of the design thinking components fit. Use what you need to help move forward in the right direction. But the core philosophies are highly aligned,” says Gothelf.

Lean UX in action: CarMax

How does a company leverage technology to make the used car buying experience more successful? This was the question that CarMax, the largest used car retailer in the U.S., asked as it started to put Lean UX principles to work, taking an iterative, experimental approach to product design and development.

CarMax wanted to redesign its shopping experience—which contains both digital and physical world elements—by re-examining it from the car buyers’ perspective. The company desired a more modern, customer-centric design for its mobile and desktop experiences. Online, CarMax needed to first inform customers about its inventory, allow them to browse it, and then schedule a test drive. The buying experience then had to move offline, where the customer visited one of CarMax’s physical stores to check out and potentially purchase the car. Within this experience, there was room for improvement. The CarMax design team hypothesized that if customers had a more thorough understanding of the financing available to them, they would have a better car buying experience. To validate this thinking, the team first spoke with customers and created a journey map to better understand the buying experience. Next, they iterated through various designs for the loan application via a series of prototypes, changing the experience as they learned more about what was important to the customer. Additionally, the design team worked closely with sales consultants at the CarMax stores to make sure that the right information about the customer was included in the offline sales process. Ultimately, the CarMax design team was able to create an integrated online / offline experience that helped customers find the cars they were qualified to purchase.

CarMax is also building Lean UX into the way that they work, which, as a consequence, is evolving their corporate culture. It has reshaped the way the company hires, the way they build teams (projects, for instance, can involve stakeholders across many different departments), the way they incentivize those teams, the way that those teams engage with leadership, the types of activities these teams do, and even their physical space. For instance, the company’s product organization offices—a digital and technology innovation center in downtown Richmond, Virginia—is a converted music venue, created specifically to improve collaboration. Located in the historic Lady Byrd Hat building, the space can hold up to 120 employees, including application architects, UX designers, and software developers.

“The interesting part, I think, of the story,” says Gothelf, “is that occasionally these [Lean UX] efforts reveal some feedback that’s not necessarily what the company wants to hear. ‘We’re heavily invested in this particular initiative.’ Guess what? This is the wrong initiative. … That's the toughest part in all of this. It’s all fun and games when the feedback and the learnings that you’re getting confirm your hypothesis. [But] when they invalidate your thinking …  the hard part of this is changing course. It’s one thing to change course on a design or on a project team. It’s another to strategically shift courses in an organization, which is what this is ultimately having an impact on. That’s proven to be fascinating.”

You can learn more about the CarMax Lean UX case study in Gothelf and Seiden’s book, Lean UX.

What’s next, Lean UX?

As Lean UX continues to be adopted in the marketplace, where will it take companies in the future?

“My hope and my expectation is that this way of working simply becomes the way we work,” says Gothelf, “when we move into a post-Agile world, a post-Lean UX world. Something new will come along, but ... the values of collaboration, of evidence-based decision-making, of humility, of customer centricity, I expect those values to [be maintained]. That’s what I see moving forward, a breakdown in silos.”

“Software is here to stay,” says Seiden. “It’s a fact of life now, and continuous methods are the way to work in software. ... We’re really moving from these kinds of assembly line process models to continuous process models. I’m seeing young designers that I’m talking to who [are saying], ‘Yeah, this is how you work. I don't get it. Why are you talking about this Lean UX stuff? This is just design.’”

Creating a product in a digital environment is altogether different from the ways in which we created products before. Lean UX, then, is a design process evolution toward a digitally dominant future, where rapid change, continuous learning, and adaptation are key. Surprisingly, it takes time for this kind of process evolution to occur even in the most tech saavy of industries, like software. But we’re definitely on our way. 

Resources

Ready to take a deeper dive into Lean UX? Check out these resources.

Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden

Sense and Respond: How Successful Organizations Listen to Customers and Create New Products Continuously, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden

UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design, by Laura Klein

The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback, by Dan Olsen

Article image: Sketching ideas. (source: Juhan Sonin on Flickr).