Consider a child playing with his Lego blocks, trying out an original design that he saw his friend create. It’s highly likely that the child will get the design wrong multiple times before he compromises with a similar yet different version—or gives up altogether. It’s only when the friends meet again and work collaboratively that the first child reaches his goal. Without the teamwork, the child is just wasting the resources at his disposal: his time and energy.
Now zoom out of this small frame and look at some actual UX design work in progress. Websites are built; e-stores are designed; apps are planned. The designers behind these projects cannot afford waste. Squandered resources, in these cases, will be more than just Lego blocks and play time.
Lean UX helps reduce waste. This design process focuses on collaborative working and continuous learning through timely customer feedback. Designers and nondesigners come together to rapidly develop multiple prototypes before putting out the final version of a product.
With roots at the intersection of user-centered design, agile development, and the lean startup philosophy, lean UX aims to minimize waste and maximize value by doing just enough work to get to the next step—and then iterating further.
Let’s dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of lean UX.
What is Lean UX?
UX design is a user-centered field wherein the attention is on creating products that provide value to customers and solve their problems. There is no better way to learn what customers really want than by incorporating their feedback early and often.
Lean UX emphasizes building a product incrementally based on fast-paced customer feedback instead of spending more time in development to deliver a single, fully functioning product that may not actually meet the customer’s needs.
For example, your team may start by researching customer requirements and preferences about the project at hand. However, by the time the development phase commences, the research may be outdated.
The lean approach keeps your team focused and on track through quick cycles of iteration and customer feedback.
What exactly do customers give their feedback on? UX designers following the lean UX development process churn out a minimum viable product (MVP), a prototype that provides just enough features for customers to weigh in on. The MVP serves as the foundation for future product development based on the feedback received.
The fundamentals of Lean UX
Lean UX is based on the assumption that the first design will always be wrong. Think about preparing a dish for the first time. The flavors may not be quite right, but that initial miss is a required step in perfecting the recipe. So instead of researching, developing, and finalizing the design only to get crickets (or worse) from customers in response, lean UX encourages the development of the MVP and its associated feedback loop.
The main principles of the lean UX process are:
- Collaborative work: Roles and teams are not as rigid and distinct as they are in the traditional UX design process. Instead, team members from different departments—design, product management, and development, for example—come together to deliver the product. The fast pace helps keep the team focused.
- Make assumptions: All team members should be involved in creating and prioritizing hypotheses about the service or product. Lean UX works with assumptions instead of requirements because the focus is on an outcome, not a deliverable.
- Minimize waste, maximize value: Lean UX supports the development of a prototype for feedback at the start of the design process to avoid wasting money and time. Producing a finished product with the wrong features and then determining that many changes need to be made is a riskier and costlier process.
- Continuous feedback: The best way to solve customer problems with design is by looping them in throughout the design process so you can test your hypotheses. That’s why an MVP is produced.
- Delayed decisions: Making decisions as late as possible, in this framework, is considered a good thing to do. Working with facts avoids wasting resources. Knowing what customers value today, and not what they cared about yesterday, is the goal.
- Quick delivery: Don’t wait for the perfect design. The faster a prototype is completed, the faster the team can collect feedback and incorporate it into the next iteration.
The lean UX cycle
The standard lean startup method focuses on three main pillars: build, measure, and learn. Similarly, lean UX is driven by three basic concepts: think, make, and check.
Let’s break down each of these steps.
Brainstorming sessions that meditate on problems and solutions make up the think phase of the lean UX cycle. You make some assumptions about the potential users, their concerns, and what design features may solve their problem or help them achieve their goals.
Next, you frame these assumptions into a hypothesis that can be tested and validated by gathering feedback from users. The thinking stage also articulates the aims of the project and possible successful outcomes.
Here’s an example hypothesis from the Interaction Design Foundation:
“We believe that enabling people to save their progress at any time is essential for smartphone users. This will achieve a higher level of sign up completions. We will have demonstrated this when we can measure an improvement of the current completion rate of 20%.”
Lean UX prioritizes collaborative design and employs methods such as informal conversations, white-boarding, and sketching. These processes help to take the design forward instead of focusing on specific deliverables.
This leads us back to the minimum viable product we’ve mentioned. Wikipedia defines an MVP as “a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.”
The MVP is the smallest thing you can create to test the validity of your hypothesis. It may have some UX attached, but an MVP can be a low-fidelity digital or paper prototype—as simple as a sketch.
The aim of the make point is to create the MVP based on the assumptions you made in the think phase and start an iteration-feedback loop.
The last step in the lean UX cycle is checking the initial hypothesis by stepping away from creating and interacting with users to test the MVP. This feedback validates or invalidates your assumptions and shows you how you need to update your hypothesis (restarting the cycle).
Ideally, the lean UX cycle runs on scheduled feedback, such as weekly talks with the customers. In this way, lean UX keeps the users in the loop throughout the entire design process.
Responsibilities for user research and testing typically are spread more widely among a lean UX team, avoiding the bottleneck that can sometimes exist in traditional UX, when a single team member siloed from the rest of the product team is tasked with overseeing the process.
In Lean UX, the feedback is available to all team members, so everyone has access to important information and can develop a shared understanding of the design.
Eventually, you make a fully featured product that is based on user feedback and thus is useful for customers.
While it’s particularly powerful for teams with fewer resources, lean UX has been successfully implemented by larger companies too. (PayPal is one notable example.)
That said, it may not be right for every company. After all, there is no one true design method, no one-size-fits-all solution. But given the tremendous popularity of both agile development and the lean startup, it’s an increasingly popular UX design process with very real benefits: rapid development with ongoing feedback that eliminates waste and magnifies value.
It may not make sense to fully integrate lean UX into your organization’s product development process right away, but applying some of its core principles could reap tremendous benefits.
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