Lean UX: a process guide + practical tools
Lean UX is an agile approach to product development based on experimentation. It helps gain the knowledge needed to build relevant products faster. When does it come in handy? How does it differ from other approaches? Where to start implementing Lean UX in your organization?
Since the beginning of Project: People, we’ve had this approach deeply ingrained in our DNA. We aim to understand the client’s needs, have a mutual comprehension of the proposed solutions, and develop a common definition of success.
We have written about Lean UX many times before. This time, however, we have prepared a comprehensive guide for those who are interested in this approach and are looking for tips on how to implement a lean approach in their team. In this article you will find information about the basics of Lean UX and contributions from our experts: Joanna Ostafin – CEO & Lean UX Strategist; and Agnieszka Zygmunt – Lean UX Researcher.
We have also added practical tools and canvases that we use in our day-to-day lean work. As we are constantly developing in the area of lean, we are going to expand this article regularly. Be sure to add it to your favorites.
Lean UX basics
What is Lean UX?
I call Lean an approach because it’s a shift in thinking: until we confirm something, it’s just a hypothesis, an assumption. And here comes the question: do we build on this hypothesis or do we want to confirm or verify it?
– says Joanna Ostafin, CEO & Lean UX Strategist at Project: People
On one hand, Lean UX stems from the Lean Startup approach, and on the other, it has its foundations in Agile and Design Thinking. The difference between Lean Startup and Lean UX may seem blurred because both approaches have similar underpinnings.
What Lean UX takes from Design Thinking is a human-centered design method to solve real-world problems. It also assumes that every business aspect can be approached using design methods.
From agile software development, generally known as Agile, Lean UX has taken 4 key values:
- people and interactions are more important than processes and tools,
- working software is more important than extensive documentation,
- collaborating with customers is more valuable than negotiating contracts,
- responding to change is better than sticking to the plan.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, which aims to minimize project risk and accelerate learning, gives Lean UX a build-measure-learn loop (known as Think – Make – Check), and the concept of MVP (Minimum Viable Product).
Why use Lean UX?
To build relevant products. It’s not about finding any solution quickly, but about creating the RIGHT one to minimize the risk of failure. Experiments allow us to limit this risk.
– Joanna Ostafin, CEO & Lean UX Strategist at Project: People
How does Lean differ from other approaches?
The biggest differences can be noticed between Lean UX and the classic Waterfall approach. We are talking about a situation when you have different teams dealing with different parts of the project. Even when they do communicate, it is often not enough and results in repeated “project returns”.
Lean UX assumes that we have small teams whose members are interested in business assumptions, and the goal is to deliver a meaningful product. By meaningful, I mean a product that responds to an actual user need, a product that is going to be profitable for the business, and technically feasible to implement. It has to combine these three perspectives.
– Joanna Ostafin, CEO & Lean UX Strategist at Project: People
The big advantage of Lean UX is that you have a complementary and self-sufficient team, so you can deliver products under shorter deadlines. In one- or two-week iterations, we always deliver a certain value – knowledge.
When does Lean UX work?
This approach is useful in different types of teams. In teams at the beginning of their journey which base their approach on Lean Startup, as well as in teams that work on large and complex products that are constantly evolving. Lean UX allows for testing the concepts needed for the development.
You can read more about when to opt for a Lean UX approach in the articles: Lean UX: Is it Beauty or the Beast? When to choose Lean UX approach?
As Agnieszka Zygmunt, Lean UX Researcher at Project: People, says:
Research should occur whenever you don’t have enough confirmed information about user needs to move forward with a project. Thanks to research, the steps taken will not be based on your beliefs, but on the actual need of the target group.
How to implement the Lean UX process in an organization?
The larger the product, the larger the organization, the bigger the problem of implementing Lean UX may seem. From a practical perspective, it’s often impossible to introduce Lean UX across the entire team right away, and it certainly can’t be done quickly.
What can you do then?
Create experimental teams that are responsible for conducting research, testing, and confirming or invalidating hypotheses. Identify the part of the team that is interested in lean change. The other groups can work on product development in a standard way, while a micro-team that is dedicated to research is the first step to implementing a lean culture. (You can read more about lean culture in the text:
But how to coordinate the work of such teams? As Agnieszka Zygmunt says:
You don’t have to stop research to use some of the conclusions at the stage of design work. Quite the opposite! Creating the basis of a project and simultaneous exploration and validation of subsequent detailed assumptions may accelerate the work and the product release … to validate it directly on the market! Of course, the decision of whether to take this step should be made on a case-by-case basis.
When does Lean UX not work?
Lean UX does not work if you over-interpret it and assume that you “will build the whole product in one sprint”. This means you don’t understand the whole concept of the approach and are tempted by “time efficiency”.
It is very important to remember that in lean UX, we are not interested in building a product in one sprint. Instead, we are interested in capturing specific knowledge in a single sprint.
As Joanna Ostafin explains:
Sometimes people thinking about implementing Lean UX have wrong expectations and a poor understanding of what the Lean UX effect is. They think that the effect of sprints is faster delivery of products. However, the objective of Lean UX is to deliver the right products as fast as possible, and that means the purpose of sprints is to acquire knowledge.
Not every industry allows for such an easy implementation of Lean UX. It may seem that it is easier in the case of digital products. In fact, you can test everything. It all depends on the approach and the selection of the verification method that fits the industry.
For example, there may be doubts when it comes to implementing Lean UX in such industries as finance, medicine, or public services. How to run tests in such industries?
I would say it is difficult, yet not unrealistic. These are different types of experiments, though. Medical devices are also tested. We can make a prototype, iterate and test, and then change the assumptions. This is how skin cancer detection devices can be designed. On one hand, we have an innovative device, and on the other hand, we have an interface for doctors that needs to be tested to provide them with real value.
It’s all about finding ways to test solutions in a given reality. It’s about minimizing uncertainty in any possible way. You can’t cut uncertainty to zero, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do.
According to Lean UX principles, we always think about what we can do.
Lean UX principles
You already know what it takes to implement a Lean UX approach. You will now learn about Lean UX principles based on the book “Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams” by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden:
And what does Joanna Ostafin say about Lean UX principles?
The premise of Lean UX is that we need different views. In the case of a minimal team, it would be one designer and one developer. The business perspective is also important here. Such a team can deliver finite, encapsulated, complete value.
Another important thing is knowledge sharing. It is hard to imagine product development without sharing knowledge. We need to build products, teams, and processes in a way that gives everyone access to knowledge right away so that we all understand the user. You can’t build a Lean UX process if there is only one person who knows the users and the others haven’t had any interaction with them.
Lean UX assumes that we all need to know the user. Therefore, we often encourage clients to attend at least one interview, even as an observer, or to listen to a recorded interview. We encourage clients to attend a workshop, even if they are in a profession that is far from the user, far from research.
It is worth remembering that what matters is the knowledge we gain, not the result in the form of a product. Our goal is not to deliver just any product at any cost, but the right product. We need to gain knowledge that will help us determine what the right product is.
The most difficult thing in introducing Lean UX is accepting failure if our assumptions turn out to be wrong. Our goal is to find out if the assumption is right. If not – we need to develop a plan to pivot. This is a considerable barrier I sometimes encounter. I put great emphasis on the workshop where we jointly decide what to do next.
Let’s draw conclusions, let’s convert the knowledge we gained about the business model into specific actions. Let’s define what we can do in the next sprint or in the next phase.
So where to start?
These articles may also help you: Lean UX: how to start? 6 simple steps
It is valuable to learn through experience. Consider the following as a team:
- What does product development look like for you?
- What are the pain points you are dealing with?
- What are the problems you face?
What would happen if you approached it in accordance with the principles of Lean UX? That is: first think about what doesn’t work, and then about what you can do differently. Next, design an experiment, a study.
How to approach experiments in Lean UX?
The starting point is an idea for a function or product. We break it down into specific assumptions. It’s very important to choose a critical assumption and make a hypothesis. We put it together in the form of a sentence: “We believe that if we introduce x for group y, it will give us the z result” (as in user stories).
Based on this, think about how you can test whether you are right or wrong. It turns out you don’t need to build the final product. It’s enough to have a small part, a prototype, a survey, a landing page, some element that will help you verify whether this assumption is true.
Our researcher, Agnieszka Zygmunt, says:
We need to discover something new, learn about real needs and problems, validate preliminary assumptions and hypotheses. Taking further action without a research step can be risky – you will be relying on your convictions. The “problem” you are working on may turn out to be a “problem” in your head, and all the work done by the team will be a waste of time and money because you will not address the real need of the audience.
Constant research, tests, experiments help to assess whether anything has changed in the target group between the research and development phases. It may occur that the assumptions developed some time ago are no longer valid. Operating based on outdated knowledge is a waste of time and money. Thanks to experimenting and confronting users and the market, the knowledge that we would gather for a year can be aggregated in one or two sprints. The result in the classical and lean approaches is the same knowledge. The critical difference, however, is the time it takes to get this knowledge.
To map hypotheses and design experiments, you can use the Experiment Sprint Canvas, which we use in Project: People.
If you have trouble defining the purpose of your study or experiment, use the list of questions prepared by Agnieszka Zygmunt:
- What is the team’s motivation, why do we want to conduct the study?
- What do we want to achieve through this research?
- What is the intended outcome of the study and product?
- What steps do we want to take after the research is completed?
- What is the cause of the problem we want to investigate?
- What do we already know about the topic area or problem?
- What is our realistic budget and time capacity?
What methods can you use in the experiments?
As Agnieszka Zygmunt says:
There are a great many activities and methods that can be used in discovery activities. Their use should also be continuously reviewed and the question “what is our goal and will this help us achieve it” should be asked throughout the entire research process. For this reason, defining one fixed and linear research process for this phase is very difficult – after all, we choose to do research to learn about the unknown.
However, we can make a basic division into specific research loops (for good reason similar to the loops in the Design Thinking process), where the methodology is selected depending on the needs.
Each of these loops should end with a decision – do we take the findings into the next phase (prototypes, tests, and then implementation), or should we deepen them in the next round? The number of iterations in the loop should be individually determined based on the research needs and your capabilities.
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