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Lean UX by Josh Seiden, Jeff Gothelf

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The biggest lie in software is Phase II.

If you’ve spent any time building digital products in the last 20 years—regardless of your role—you’ve felt the sting of this lie. You set aside features and ideas for the next phase of work and then they are gone, never to be heard from again. As a designer, I’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of wireframes and workflows end up in this same bucket.

But did these ideas disappear because they were flawed? Did the features that shipped actually meet customer and business goals, so Phase II ideas were never needed? Or did the team simply run out of time? The team never got to Phase II.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries lays out his vision for how to ensure that the ideas that have the most value get the most resources. The method Ries promotes relies on experimentation, rapid iteration of ideas, and evolutionary processes. For Ries, the entire concept of Phase II becomes moot.

The junction of Lean Startup and User Experience-based (UX) design—and their symbiotically coexistence—is Lean UX.

What Is Lean UX and How Is It Different?

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 move away from heavily documented handoffs to a process that creates only the design artifacts we need to move the team’s learning forward. Second, they 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. Last, and perhaps most important, is the mindset shift we gain from adopting a model based on experimentation. Instead of relying on a hero designer to divine the best solution from a single point of view, we use rapid experimentation and measurement to learn quickly how well (or not) our ideas meet our goals. In all of this, the designer’s role begins to evolve 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 takes a solution-focused approach to problem solving, working collaboratively to iterate an endless, shifting path toward perfection. It works toward product goals via specific ideation, prototyping, implementation, and learning steps to bring the appropriate solution to light. Agile refocuses software development on value. It seeks to deliver working software to customers quickly and to adjust regularly to new learning along the way.

Lean UX uses these foundations to break the stalemate between the speed of Agile and the need for design in the product-development lifecycle. If you’ve struggled to figure out how UX design can work in Agile environments, Lean UX can help.

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 software designers to the table but also brings our partners in business and technology to the whiteboard to work with us on the best solutions in an ongoing way.

I once had a large pharmaceutical client who hired the agency for which I worked to redesign its ecommerce platform with the goal of increasing revenues by 15 percent. I was the lead interaction designer on our team. In the vacuum of our office, we spent months researching the current system, supply chain, competitors, target audience, and contextual-use scenarios. We researched personas and assembled strategic models. I designed a new information architecture for the product catalog and crafted a brand-new shopping and checkout experience.

The project took months. When the work was complete, we packaged it all up into a PowerPoint deck. This was a formidable deck—it would have to be, considering the $600,000 price tag! We 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 (really). They loved it. We were relieved. And we never looked at that deck again.

Six months after that meeting, nothing had changed on the client’s site. I don’t think they ever looked at that deck again, either.

The moral of this story: building a pixel-perfect spec might be a route to raking 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 to build valuable products and services, not to write specs.

Some teams I work with today create entirely new products or services. They are not working within an existing product framework or structure. In “green-field” 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. It’s 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. They need to build upon existing platforms while increasing revenue and brand value. These teams usually have more resources at their disposal than a ground-floor startup, but they still have to use their resources efficiently to build products and services their customers actually want.

As I’ve learned to practice Lean UX, I’ve had to overcome the feeling that I was showing work that was “ugly,” “unfinished,” or “not ready.” Working this way requires the support of a high-functioning 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. I want you to gain that confidence, too. Within the pages of this book, I’ve distilled the insights and tactics that have allowed me to create real success for product and business teams, and real satisfaction for customers.

Who Is Lean UX For?

This book is for interaction designers who know they can contribute more and be more effective with their teams. It’s 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 developers who understand that a collaborative team environment leads to better code and more meaningful work. And finally, it’s for managers—managers of user-experience teams, project teams, business lines, departments, and companies—who understand the difference a great user experience can make.

What’s In It for You?

The book is set up in three sections.

  • Part I provides an overview and introduction to Lean UX and its founding principles. I lay out the reasons that the evolution of the UX design process is so critical and describe what Lean UX is. I also discuss the underlying principles you’ll need to understand to make Lean UX successful.

  • Part II focuses on process. Each chapter takes a step in the Lean UX cycle and details clearly how to do each step and why it’s important. I also share examples of how I and others have done these things in the past.

  • Part III tackles the integration of Lean UX practices into your organization. I discuss the role of Lean UX within a typical Agile development environment. I also discuss the organizational shifts that need to take place at the corporate level, the team level, and at the individual contributor level for these ideas to truly take hold.

My hope is that this book will deliver a wake-up call to user experience designers still waiting for Phase II. Although the book is filled with tactics and techniques to help evolve your processes, I’d like you to remember that Lean UX is, at its core, a mindset.

A Note from Jeff

There are many folks who have been patient, supportive, and inspirational in the writing of this book. Josh and I wanted to take a moment to thank them.

First, I’d like to acknowledge Eric Ries for driving the Lean Startup movement and urging me to write this book. His support came in various forms, including perspectives on design’s role in Lean Startup and experience with the book-writing process. He served as a proverbial shoulder to cry on, on more than one occasion.

Next, I’d like to thank Mary Treseler, my editor at O’Reilly. We’ve spent many hours on emails, phone calls, and the occasional in-person meeting working through editorial strategies, writing tactics, and reviews to arrive—triumphantly, I might add—at the book we have today. Thank you.

Along the way, I teamed up with Matthew Rothenberg to get over the hump of midcycle reviews. His camaraderie, humor, wit, and editorial guidance helped shape the final version of the book and added a much-needed humanity to the words.

I’d like to thank my writing partner Josh Seiden. We spent a lot of time working, teaching, traveling, and hanging out together in 2012, so it only made logical sense for him to join the project and help bring it to the finish line. The book wouldn’t be what it is today without his insight and tough-love editing style. I’m a better writer for it and this is a better book because of him. Thanks, Josh.

I would particularly like to thank the many folks who have contributed material to the book. By the end of the project, we had more case studies and contributions than we could use, so some of the wonderful material our colleagues shared didn’t fit into the manuscript. This issue reflects more on our writing process than the quality of the contribution. With that said, thanks to Stuart Eccles, Ian Collingwood, Lane Halley, James O’Brien, Adam Silver, Antoine Veliz, Anders Ramsay, Desiree Sy, Zach Larson, Emily Holmes, Greg Petroff, and Duane Bray.

Many of the teams I’ve worked with over the years inspired the ideas covered in the book. We learned them together and helped build better products together—as well as happier and more productive teams. I know you’ll see your influence in the case studies, stories, and anecdotes in these pages.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the love, patience, and support I’ve had from my family over the 18 months it took to reach a final manuscript. My wife Carrie has dealt with far too many hours of me locked in my office tapping at the keyboard. That sacrifice is not lost on me. My daughters Grace and Sophie have also watched their dad huddled in front of his laptop far too much. I’m sure they’re looking forward to having me back in their life. I love you guys. Thank you.

A Note from Josh

In this book, Jeff and I describe a working style that is deeply collaborative. That’s my preferred style of working—I always feel that I learn more and am more effective when I’m collaborating. Whatever I’ve been able to contribute to this book is a result of the amazing collaborations I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in my career.

There are a few folks I’d like to single out, though. Alan Cooper first taught me what it means to design software. Working with Alan, I met Jeanine Harriman, who (many years later) first opened my eyes to many of the informal, collaborative techniques we describe in this book. Janice Fraser introduced me to Lean Startup and gave me an opportunity to explore these techniques at LUXr (the Lean UX Residency). Lauralee Alben gave me the courage to open a studio to pursue these ideas, and Giff Constable gave me the kick in the ass to actually open that studio. My friends in the Balanced Team (http://www.balancedteam.org) group have had a deep influence on my thinking.

Special thanks go to Lane Halley, who is one of the most gifted practitioners I’ve ever met and a dear friend. Whenever I am confused, I ask myself, “What would Lane do?” and I usually find a way forward.

I want to thank Jeff for inviting me to join him in bringing this book to market. The book is in his voice because this is his story. It’s also been his baby, his passion, and his burden for a long time, so I’m grateful he opened the door for me to join him. I’m continually impressed by his ability to collaborate with grace. Jeff and I have spent a lot of time working together this year, and I’m very proud of that collaboration.

Thanks, finally, to Vicky, Naomi, and Amanda. I love you.

From Jeff and Josh

This book is our attempt to capture what we know about Lean UX at this moment. Lean methods are learning methods, and we expect to be learning and discovering more as we continue our journey. As you travel down this path, we’d love to hear about your journey—your successes, challenges, and failures—so that we can keep learning through our collaboration with you. Please keep in touch with us and share your thoughts. You can reach us at and . We look forward to hearing from you.

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