When to choose Lean UX approach? Is it Beauty or the Beast?

when lean UX makes senseWhat if we create a product that has a perfectly polished UX, users will go through usability tests without much problem, but it turns out … that ultimately nobody uses it? Lean UX may be the answer to these and other problems. And about what it is, you will find more in the article below. 

Lean UX is a method of iterative product building, the author of which is Jeff Gothelf It draws its basics on such approaches as: Lean Startup, Agile or Design Thinking and pbought on 3 elements: building the right products in shorter time and without wasting resources. 

Sounds like a perfect approach, right? Let’s take a closer look at it.


What to choose: waterfall model vs. Lean UX?

We start the project with basic knowledge about our recipient, sometimes based on research (more and more often, but still not always!). We design the best solution, and after many months, after implementation, when the product finally comes into contact with its recipient, it turns out that no one uses it, and we have wasted e.g. a year or two of hard work.

when lean UX makes sense

Diagram 1. Cascade model of product creation (waterfall). Source: own


Sounds familiar? The above description sounds like a typical scenario of many projects carried out in the so-called waterfall.

What is the said waterfall? This is a cascading model of product creation, where the project is implemented in successive stages, and resembles a bit … blind date. A date where we build the image of another person, prepare for a joint exit, put a lot of strength and energy into it, and when it comes to the meeting, it turns out that … there is simply no chemistry, and we planned the whole evening only based on our assumptions.


And how will it be in Lean UX?

In Lean UX, instead of focusing on moving the project between successive stages, we pay attention to how to verify subsequent hypotheses that appear, and deliver value here and now. The goal is to constantly implement new functionalities, but only those that have a business sense and which users will actually use. 

One of the main distinguishing features of the Lean UX model is that the whole team has been working together since the beginning of the project. Product managers, designers and developers form one team that jointly participates in the product development process. This is of great importance and value for the entire enterprise, because from the first stages we are able to look at the problem from different perspectives. Thanks to this, we do not design a solution whose implementation would not be possible or is incompatible with the company’s business strategy. Importantly, teams usually have between 4 and 8 people – they are small, because their goal is agile work and fast communication.


The Lean UX process consists of 3 stages that are inspired by the Lean Startup method:

when lean UX makes sense

Diagram 2. Lean UX model. Source: own
  • think (learn) – the phase during which we organize ideas (product / functionality), transforming it into a hypothesis to be verified. For example: “We believe that adding a pop-up that encourages you to download an e-book in exchange for leaving your e-mail address will increase your newsletter subscription by 10% per month.” We can easily tell if we were right or wrong, right?
  • make (Build) – at this stage we are building a prototype for testing, the so-called MVP, or Minimum Viable Product – a product with a minimal set of functionalities, ready to be launched on the market to test key hypotheses.  We are talking about a version of the product / functionality that will allow us to answer the question whether our hypothesis was true or false during the tests. MVP does not have to be a working website or application. Sometimes it can be a pre-sales interview.
  • check (measure) – the last phase, i.e. the collision of our MVP with the real recipient and measuring the results to return to the “Think” stage.

This three-step process consists of one sprint. How long does it last? IN Project: People we use most often weeklyin special cases fortnightly sprints. That is enough time to verify one hypothesis. Even if it turns out that the idea did not make sense, we will lose a week or two, and not – as often – months.


Project: People and lean educational platform

As at Project: People we are distinguished by very strong work in lean methods, at the beginning of 2019 the idea was developed to create our own interactive educational platform around these topics. 

There were as many concepts for the product as there were hypotheses, but the fundamental assumption was whether people were interested in learning lean methods at all that they would be ready to pay for it.

Instead of designing the entire platform immediately (although each team already had its own idea), we wrote some fundamental hypotheses about it, which we decided to check with subsequent experiments. Two of them are:

  • “People are interested in content about Lean Startup, Lean UX and Lean Marketing.” a group on Facebook, where we promised to publish educational materials on these areas to see if the value proposition and subject matter were of sufficient interest to the public
  • “The target group is able to pay a certain amount to gain knowledge in practice, based on the example of their business idea.” – We announced that we will organize workshops regarding Lean Startup & Lean UX, during which we will teach methods working on participants’ businesses.

The portal, according to the original idea, was not created. We narrowed the target group due to what people and for what value they are able to pay. It turned out that yes – people are interested in content, but no, they can’t pay enough to make the project profitable. The whole experiment lasted 3 months and allowed us to save a huge financial and time contribution in the future. 

We are now working on a small fragment of the original idea, which turned out to be the most important.


Is waterfall so bad, i.e. when it’s worth being more or less agile

Does the simplicity and popularity of the Lean UX method prove that a more classic approach – a cascade model – is simply bad and should be replaced? Definitely not.

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    Lean UX works primarily with innovative projects (or so-called disruptive), when we don’t know yet what the final shape of the product or service will be.

    Nationale-Nederlanden and innovation

    When starting cooperation with Nationale-Nederlanden, we only knew the problem area that we want to raise, and we had a lot of hypotheses regarding the potential product.

    However, before we started to develop it, we decided to verify the fundamental assumptions.

    • At the outset, the design area and market has been narrowed based on business information, market analyzes, trends and forecasts of growth potential. Thanks to this, we were able to focus in the next stage on a more specific target group.
    • Then we dealt with the target group. By verifying subsequent hypotheses, we were able to narrow the target groups from 3 to 1, but very specific, which had the biggest problem. Here, interviews with users, analysis of existing data, A / B tests and Facebook campaigns came to the rescue.
    • Having a narrow target group with a confirmed problem, we were able to proceed to testing the Unique Value Proposition for which customers would be able to pay. The subject of UVP aroused a lot of discussion, so we just checked if we were right to create landing page product with several versions of Facebook advertising messages.
      And here we met one of the biggest surprises in relation to our imaginations, and which allowed us to clearly indicate what we really sell.

    We worked in sprints, going from interviews to landing page with product records and price list tests, ending with a prototype of a mobile application. The experiments allowed to cut the mobile application with another ⅓ functionality before implementation. 

    It sounds like a good Lean UX in a beautiful form, doesn’t it?

    However, if the project is less innovative, a problem area known and researched (e.g. we have to create a company one landing page), it’s worth using the more classic one, waterfall approaches. The risk of changes in such a project is small, with a high degree of probability we are also able to plan the entire project, and tests can be limited to one or two hypotheses.

    Another situation in which Lean UX will be a better choice is when to we approach product development in the long term. Lean UX works best in development projects, i.e. where we want to quickly enter the market to collect feedback and financing, not to specify the end date in advance with a list of functionalities that we will provide at that time. In the Lean UX method, the emphasis is on delivering only those parts of the product that are most valuable and for which the recipients are able to pay, so experiments are important, not the implementation of subsequent user stories (also known as user story).


    What customers and designers don’t like at Lean UX

    At the beginning of the work, we do not know yet what the effect will be. We are not able to define the final product right away. We do not know what exactly we will do for 4 sprints, nor how many we need them to create the final product. 

    Instead, we will test many different ideas to reduce the risk of releasing the wrong solution. We know that the entire team is focused on bringing and developing only those functionalities for which customers are able to pay. And we deliver value with each sprint faster and faster, having even more knowledge about the real needs of our recipients. Still not worth it?

    Many designers, learning about the Lean UX process during workshops or lectures, ask about the research phase. There is no dedicated process phase for research in the Lean UX process, because we conduct research all the time. We have continuous contact with the target group, verifying knowledge about it. In the first stages of work on a solution, when there are most hypotheses, it happens that the MVP, which verifies them, is the interview (in the following it may be … an interview ended with sales) before we will have a really implemented product – Lean UX magic). Therefore, standard research methods appear, although in a slightly changed formula, but much more often than just at the initial stages of work.

    The lack of a clear design process makes designers, especially initially, feel insecure. Lean UX forces us a lot of flexibility, knowledge, knowledge of methods and tools so that we can “juggle” them depending on the needs. 

    Another problematic issue is that sometimes we will fail to verify an idea. In the case of Lean UX, however … it is just a success. Success, because we have gained knowledge that an idea did not make sense, while saving time and money.

    Working in a cascade model often seems more tempting – it gives specific space for research, allows you to plan the process, and this predictability gives you a greater sense of security. That’s why designers and clients like waterfall, but business and innovation do not. The question is what do we care about the most.


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    Joanna Ostafin
    She starts most of her conversations by saying "I have an idea". Joanna is a serial initiator and co-founder of many organizations, brands, and communities. On a daily basis, she is a CEO at Project: People and develops the DesignWays brand.

    Co-founder of Project: People, Project: Values, DesignWays Conf, and DesignWays Hub. She has created several communities, including the Krakowska Inicjatywa Designerska [Krakow Design Initiative] and the Product Culture Community.

    She enjoys sharing her knowledge during workshops and conferences - she was a speaker at Grafconf, the UX in Business Conference, Mobile Trends Conference, ProductCamp, Bitspiration, and many others. She is a lecturer at the Tischner European University and WSB Universities. Author of the “+25 to workshop equipment” e-book.

    Totally in love with the lean approach, especially Lean Startup & Lean UX. Big fan of educational projects, workshops, Product Discovery process, and... people. Privately an amateur of street workout and obstacle races.

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