If you’ve spent any time building digital products in the past 30 years—regardless of your role—you’ve felt the sting of this lie. And if your team claims to be agile, is phase two still a valid concept? Teams prioritize features and ideas for each sprint, racing toward a launch date while pushing nonprioritized ideas to the next phase of work. Except that phase never comes, and those features are gone—never to be heard from again. As designers, product managers, coaches, and consultants, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of wireframes, product backlog items, and workflows end up in this same bucket.
But were these ideas abandoned because they were flawed? Because something changed in the market? Did the features that shipped actually meet customer and business goals? Or did the team simply forget? They never got to phase two.
In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries lays out his vision for how to ensure the ideas that have the most value get the most resources. The method Ries promotes relies on experimentation, rapid iterations of ideas, and evolutionary processes. In a truly agile environment, teams launch features continuously, making the actual deployment of code a nonevent. The entire concept of phase two has become moot.
What Is Lean UX?
The Lean principles underlying Lean Startup apply to Lean UX in three ways. First, they help us remove waste from our UX design process. We do just enough work—be it design, research, writing, whatever—to move the conversation between design, development, and product forward. These minimally viable conversations move us away from the lengthy negotiations triggered by heavily documented handoffs. Instead, a Lean UX process creates only the design artifacts we need to move the team’s learning forward. Second, Lean principles drive us to harmonize our “system” of designers, developers, product managers, quality assurance engineers, marketers, and others in a transparent, cross-functional collaboration that brings nondesigners into our design process. Lean UX is a transparent process that not only reveals what designers do but encourages participation from everyone on the team.
Last, and perhaps most important, is the mindset shift we gain from adopting a model based on experimentation and validated learning. Instead of relying on any one person—a hero designer, the lead engineer, a business stakeholder—to divine the best solution from a single point of view, we use rapid experimentation and measurement to take an outside-in view of the experience we’re creating. We push to learn quickly—to discover—how well (or poorly) our ideas meet the needs of our customers. In all of this, the designer’s role begins to evolve beyond just creation of artifacts toward design facilitation—and with that, we take on a new set of responsibilities.
Besides Lean Startup, Lean UX has two other foundations: design thinking and Agile development philosophies. Design thinking helps us widen the scope of our work beyond interfaces and artifacts. Design thinking looks at systems and helps us apply design tools to broader problems. It relies on collaboration, iteration, making, and empathy as core to problem-solving. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from design thinking is its focus on building empathy—teamwide—for the end user. Practicing Lean UX means the entire team builds this empathy. Agile refocuses software development on shorter cycles, regular delivery of value, and continuous learning. It seeks to get ideas (oftentimes as working software) to customers quickly, sense how these ideas are received, and respond frequently to new learning along the way. As the Scrum guide puts it: inspect and adapt.
Lean UX uses these foundations to bridge the speed of Agile and the need for design in the product-development life cycle. If you’ve struggled to figure out how UX design can work in Agile environments, Lean UX is the answer.
Lean UX breaks down the barriers that have kept software designers isolated from real business needs on the one hand and actual implementation on the other. Lean UX not only brings designers to the table, but it brings our partners in product management, business, and technology to the whiteboard to work with us on the best solutions in an ongoing way.
Early in his career, Jeff worked with a large pharmaceutical client who had hired the agency he worked for to redesign their ecommerce platform. The goal was to increase revenues by 15%. Jeff was the lead interaction designer on the team. In the vacuum of their office, Jeff and his team spent months researching the current system, supply chain, competitors, target audience, and contextual use scenarios. They researched personas and assembled strategic models. Jeff designed a new information architecture for the product catalog and crafted a brand-new shopping and checkout experience.
The project took months. And when the work was complete, the team packaged it all up into a PowerPoint slide deck. This was a formidable deck—and it had to be, considering the $600,000 price tag! The team went over to the client’s office and spent an entire eight-hour day going over each and every pixel and word in that deck. When it was over, the client clapped. (They really did.) Jeff and the team were relieved. The client loved the work. And Jeff’s team never looked at that deck again.
Six months after that meeting, nothing had changed on the client’s site. The client never looked at that deck again, either.
The moral of this story: building a pixel-perfect specification might be a route to rake in six-figure consulting fees, but it’s not a way to make a meaningful difference to a real product that is crucial to real users. It’s also not the reason that any designer got into the product design business. We got in it to build valuable products and services, not to write specs.
When we practice Lean UX, we ensure we’re solving a real problem for real customers in a meaningful way. Some teams we work with today create entirely new products or services. They are not working within an existing product framework or structure. In “greenfield” projects like these, we are simultaneously trying to discover how this new product or service will be used, how it will behave, and how we are going to build it. Most importantly, we want to validate that it’s solving a meaningful problem for its intended target audience. This is an environment of continual change, and there isn’t a lot of time or patience for planning or up-front design.
Other teams work with established products that were created with traditional design and development methods. Their challenge is different. The systems they work on were developed to meet the needs of a specific period of time. The rapid pace of change in the market means that those needs have likely evolved. These teams need to optimize these existing platforms to meet new realities while increasing revenue and brand value. They usually have more resources at their disposal than a ground-floor startup, but they still have to use their resources efficiently—discovering the best way to spend those resources to build products and services their customers actually want.
Perhaps one of the toughest changes Lean UX asks us to make is to overcome the feeling that we are showing work in an “unfinished” or “ugly” state. Even today, after nearly 15 years of working this way, we still struggle with this one. We’ve learned over the years that our first attempt will inevitably require revision. So the sooner we get our ideas out, the sooner we can figure out what those revisions should be. Waiting too long to get that feedback is wasteful. We invest too much in the initial design and are less flexible to changes because of the effort we’ve already put in. The sooner we learn what changes need to be made, the less we’ve invested in the current idea. It will hurt less to change course. Accepting the iterative nature of design and, more broadly, software requires the support of a high-functioning, humble, collaborative team. You need to know—as a team—that you’re not going to get it right the first time and that you’re all working together to iterate your way forward. The deployment of the code is not the measure of a Lean UX team’s success. It’s the positive impact you have on your customers.
There are many elements that affect the success of digital systems. Design is certainly an important component, but product management, engineering, marketing, legal, compliance, and copywriting (to name a few) all have an impact on the system. No one discipline has all the answers. To that end, no one point of view has all the answers, either. The greater the diversity of your team—gender diversity, racial diversity, etc.—the more innovative and broad-reaching the solutions the team generates. Inclusivity is key to a successful collaboration. This is the nature of our digital medium. Broad collaboration creates better work. Revision and iteration make for better products. Within the pages of this book, we’ve distilled the insights and tactics that have allowed us to adopt this point of view and to create real success for product and business teams—and real satisfaction for customers.
Who Is Lean UX For?
This book is, first, for product designers who know they can contribute more and be more effective with their teams. That said, we believe that “user experience” is the sum total of all of the interactions that a user has with your product and service. It’s created by all of the decisions that you and your team make about that product or service. It’s not just user interface or functionality. It’s also about pricing, purchasing experience, onboarding, support, etc. In other words, user experience is created by the whole team. For that reason, this book is also for product managers who need better ways to define their products with their teams and to validate them with their customers. It’s also for Scrum masters and developers who understand that a collaborative, agile team environment leads to better code and more meaningful work. And, finally, it’s for managers—managers of UX teams, project teams, business lines, departments, and companies—who understand the difference a great UX can make.
What’s in It for You?
The book is set up in four sections.
Part I, “Introduction and Principles”, provides an overview and introduction to Lean UX and its founding principles. We lay out the reasons the evolution of the UX design process is so critical and describe Lean UX. We also discuss the underlying principles that you’ll need to understand to make Lean UX successful in your Agile work environments.
Part II, “Process”, introduces the Lean UX canvas and walk through each of its eight steps. We also share examples of how we and others have done these things in the past.
Part III, “Collaboration”, takes a deep look at collaboration between designers and other disciplines, and introduces tools and case studies to bring together several popular ways of working, like design sprints, design systems, and collaborative research with Lean UX. Finally, we share some considerations for better integrating Lean UX into the rhythms of an Agile process.
Part IV, “Lean UX in Your Organization”, tackles the integration of Lean UX practices into your organization. We discuss the organizational shifts that need to take place at the corporate level, team level, and individual contributor level for these ideas to truly take hold.
Our hope is that this book will continue to serve as a way forward for UX designers, their colleagues, and product teams in all organizations still waiting for “phase two.” Although the book is filled with tactics and techniques to help develop your processes, we’d like you to remember that Lean UX is, at its core, a mindset.
—Jeff and Josh
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