Baby Steps to Lean UX

   Customer Experience

The world of software product development is complex. With so many moving pieces — idea validation, user research, market research, development planning, etc. — your product can get caught up and spit back out. This complex environment presents product teams with many challenges:

  • Knowing that you are building a useful, marketable product for your customers.
  • Making sure products are implemented as intended.
  • Staying productive and minimizing wasted time.
  • Keeping your team members on the same page.

Lean UX is a product design methodology that aims to overcome these fundamental challenges. Many people, including myself, have looked to Lean UX as a product design recipe: a step-by-step, repeatable process to simplify product design. I learned, however, that Lean UX is not a recipe — something that its most fervent evangelists will openly admit. In fact, all methodologies need to be adapted to the company’s individual context. While many things comprise a company’s context, this article will outline basic concepts of Lean UX and  discuss strategies for adapting them to your individual company culture and a consulting environment.

“Sketchnotes for ‘Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business’ – Talk by Jeff Gothelf” by “” Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). Accessed  5 February 2015.

Lean UX has the following key principles. For those looking for a deeper dive, I highly recommend Jeff Gothelf’s book Lean UX.

Cross Functional Collaboration

Lean UX champions the idea of cross-functional product teams. For example, designers who can code, and coders who can design. But simply having these multi-talented people on your team isn’t enough, because you need to actually give them a chance to step outside of their core competencies. To do so, hold collaborative design sessions with entire product teams, not just user experience and product professionals. A collaborative design session’s key objectives are to achieve shared understanding across your team and to replace the time-intensive, monolithic design deliverables of the past with lightweight conversation and minimum-viable-fidelity deliverables. This approach may sound like design by committee, but someone, usually a product manager or user experience designer, should play the role of the product owner and make the final decisions.


Outcome-Focused Product Design

Measure progress and success not by how many features you have developed, but by how well you have achieved your business goals. This means you must define business goals that have an objectively measurable success criteria. If two people can review the data you collect and come up with two wildly different interpretations of it, then the data likely isn’t objective. A business goal to “create a modern and user-friendly user interface” is not an an objectively measurable business goal. Instead, stick to reliable measurements of the user experience, such as task success rates, task completion time, and qualitative, codified user feedback. For example, a business goal to increase sign up rates by 20% is objectively measurable.

Validated Learning

It is not enough to simply achieve your business goals — your business goals also need to accurately represent the desires of your customers. Start by defining problems that need to be solved, then form hypotheses about how to solve these problems. The final and most important step is to interact with actual customers to validate or invalidate your hypotheses. Once you have validated your proposed solutions, your process for prioritizing their development should be just as driven by your customer feedback.


Baby Steps to Going Lean

I read Jeff Gothelf’s book Lean UX because I was looking for a product design recipe. However, I attended a talk by Jeff Gothelf, and I learned that there are no recipes. Gothelf explained that Lean UX is not meant to be the holy grail of product design recipes. Methodologies, he explained, are just “starting points” that you should fit to your company’s context.

Your existing company culture and approach to product design is part of your company’s individual context. For companies with a well established affection for pixel perfect design deliverables and siloed team roles, a transition to Lean UX can be harrowing. Start with low-friction lean strategies that can ignite change both internally and externally.

Gothelf championed the design studio as one low-friction strategy. But even holding a collaborative design session can require significant changes to a company’s makeup, especially when working with clients. You could hear objections that the two hours spent designing are two hours that could have been spent coding. Your clients may expect you to do the heavy lifting, and could be taken aback when you ask them to help you design.

In my experience, I’ve found you don’t necessarily need a two hour meeting to achieve a healthy level of collaboration with your internal team. For example, I sketch on large easel pads or whiteboards stuck to the walls of our company headquarters. And not just any walls, but the most visible and most traveled walls so that others see what I am working on. Just by seeing some rudimentary sketches and storyboards on the wall, my team members were primed to ask about what I was working on and to offer their ideas. If you have a distributed team, you can post pictures of sketches or links to rudimentary wireframes in a company or team chatroom (if you don’t have a company chatroom, consider adopting a chat client like Hipchat or Slack).

While this approach is not the same as a structured design studio and may not yield the same results, you can use it as a stepping stone to get your team members more comfortable with doing a design studio. Plus, sketching in a high traffic area has been great for more than just increasing collaboration and shared understanding, because it has forced me to externalize and discuss the rationale behind my design decisions. This translates well into the consulting world, because a large part of a consultant’s job is to “sell” the design to the client. Since I began sketching in shared spaces, my ability to intelligently explain my design decisions and how they align to the end-user’s goals has dramatically improved.

Lean UX and Consulting

A majority of existing product design literature focuses mainly on strategies for product teams building products for their direct consumers. But what if you are a third-party development company, building products for external clients, who in turn have their own end-users?

Many Lean UX strategies become more complicated when working with a client. The design process you follow should very much depend on your client’s level of experience working in an agile or lean manner. It would be great to achieve the same level of collaboration with a client that you strive for with your internal team, but the truth is many clients are not comfortable taking an active role in the design process.

To keep your clients in the design loop, the best strategy is to be upfront with them about your design process and strategy from the beginning of the engagement. If you are a UX designer and do not play a role in the sales process, this means you need to be just as in-sync with your sales team as you are with your product team. Make your expectations very clear. If you expect clients to participate in design sessions, say so. If they are uncomfortable doing so, then work towards a compromise. They may be more comfortable performing more abstract design activities, such as putting together a mood board, or pointing you towards competitor sites that they like. At the very least, you should have regular meetings to present and discuss the designs you have created with the client — both high and low fidelity.

A common misconception about Lean UX is that it requires you to completely eradicate design deliverables. In reality, the aim is to replace monolithic design deliverables with minimum-viable-fidelity deliverables. When working with clients, figuring out what that minimum-viable-fidelity is can be difficult. Some clients will need to see a full-color, full-screen mockup for every user story and every state of the UI, while others will be able to extrapolate and make decisions from an atomic or low-fidelity mockup. In my experience, when working with a client who is new to Lean UX, starting with full screen mockups that present the big picture, and then slowly scaling down to more atomic designs has proven successful.


In conclusion, there is no holy grail recipe for product design. Methodologies will come and go, and you should treat them all as a guide, not a process to blindly follow. With any methodology, inciting change can at times seem impossible, but there are small things you can do now to get the ball rolling. At Modus Create, we have begun adapting some lean UX processes to work better with our role as consultants. Please comment below; I would love to hear from you about your approach to product design and how you have adapted Lean UX, or any methodology, to fit your particular context.

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