In reading Lean UX, you’re about to embark on a tour of a new way of working. For those of us steeped in traditional management techniques, it may seem a little disorienting. I sometimes like to imagine what it would be like to have a birds-eye view of the typical modern corporation. From on high, you could examine each silo of functional excellence one at a time. See them in your mind’s eye: Marketing, Operations, Manufacturing, IT, Engineering, Design, and on and on in a tidy row of crisp, well-run silos.
Let’s imagine you reached down to grab one of these silos and popped its top off to see inside. What would you see? This being a modern company, you’d see each silo designed for maximum efficiency. To achieve this efficiency, you’d likely find a highly iterative, customer-centric approach to problem solving. In Manufacturing, you’d encounter traditional lean thinking. In Engineering or IT, perhaps some variation on agile development. In Marketing, customer development. In Operations, DevOps. And of course in Design, the latest in design thinking, interaction design, and user research techniques.
Zooming back out to our high perch, we might be forgiven for thinking “This company uses a variety of rigorous, hypothesis-driven, customer-centric, and iterative methodologies. Surely, it must be an extremely agile company, capable of reacting quickly to changes in market conditions and continuously innovating!” But those of us who work in modern companies know how far this is from the truth.
How is it possible that our departmental silos are operating with agility, but our companies are hopelessly rigid and slow? From our far-off vantage point, we have missed something essential. Although our departments may value agility, the interconnections between them are still mired in an antiquated industrial past.
Consider just one example, which I hope will sound familiar. A company decides it must innovate to survive. It commissions a design team (either in-house or external) to investigate the future of its industry and recommend innovative new products that could secure its future. A period of great excitement commences. Customers are interviewed, observed, analyzed. Experiments, surveys, focus groups, prototypes and smoke tests follow one after the other. Concepts are rapidly conceived, tested, rejected, and refined.
And what happens at the end of this process? The designers proudly present—and the businesses enthusiastically celebrates—a massive specification document with their findings and recommendations. The iteration, experimentation, and discovery ceases. Now engineering is called upon to execute this plan. And although the engineering process may be agile, the specification document is rigidly fixed. What happens if the engineers discover that the specification was unworkable or even slightly flawed? What if the concepts worked great in the lab but have no commercial appeal? What if market conditions have changed since the original “learning” took place?
I once spoke to a company who had commissioned—at terrible expense—a multi-year study of their industry. The result was an impressive “view of the future” display custom-built into their corporate headquarters. Inside this room, you could see an extrapolation of what the next 10 years would look like in their industry, complete with working demos of futuristic product concepts. You can guess what happened over the succeeding 10 years: absolutely nothing. The company rotated hundreds or thousands of executives, managers, and workers through this glimpse of the future. And in fact, 10 years later, the room no longer looks futuristic. Against all odds, its forecasts turned out to be largely accurate. And yet, the company had failed to commercialize even one of the recommendations in the attendant specification document. So I asked the company what they planned to do next; they told me they were going back to the original designers and asking them to forecast the next 10 years! The company blamed their engineers and managers for their failure to commercialize, not the designers.
When I tell this story to nondesigners, they are horrified and want to convince me that it is the fancy design firm who is to blame. When I tell it to senior executives—in both large companies and startups alike—they cringe. They are constantly deluged with complaints from every single function that they are fast and cutting edge but it is the other departments that slow the company down. When the whole company fails to find new sources of growth, there is plenty of blame to go around.
But the fault is not with the designers, or the engineers, or even the executives. The problem is the systems we use to build companies. We are still building linear organizations in a world that demands constant change. We are still building silos in a world that demands thorough collaboration. And we are still investing in analysis, arguing over specifications, and efficiently producing deliverables in a world that demands continuous experimentation in order to achieve continuous innovation.
It has been just about four years since I first began writing and speaking about a new concept called Lean Startup, and barely a year since I published The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Achieve Radically Successful Businesses (Crown Business). In that time, I have seen the ideas grow and spread—from industry to industry, sector to sector, and function to function. Every time we have encountered new terrain, we have relied on farsighted leaders to help translate the core principles and develop new processes to implement them.
Lean UX is an important step in that evolution. For the first time, we have a comprehensive look at how Lean Startup principles apply in a design context. Along the way, it introduces important new tools and techniques to achieve superior collaboration, faster delivery, and—most importantly—dramatically better products.
Lean Startup is a big tent. It builds on established ideas from many disciplines, from lean manufacturing to design thinking. It gives us a common vocabulary and set of concepts that can be used to accelerate results across the whole company. We can stop wasting time arguing about who is to blame and which department should rule the day.
It is my hope that all of us will remember to heed Jeff Gothelf’s call to “get out of the deliverables business” and return our focus where it belongs, enlisting the whole corporation in its most urgent task: delighting customers.
It is time to break down the silos, unite the clans, and get to work.
January 30, 2013
San Francisco, CA