You may have heard the terms “lean” and “agile” — or Lean user experience (UX) and Agile UX — being used to describe a team or company’s approach. You may also have been wondering what this means for you as a UX practitioner, and how these approaches differ from your existing process. This guide tackles some commonly asked questions to set you up to contribute on teams using these approaches.

OK, so what are Lean UX and Agile UX?

Let’s start off by talking about what Lean UX and Agile UX mean. Janice Fraser, a design and UX industry pioneer, coined the term Lean UX. She’s a founding partner of legendary design firm Adaptive Path and an accomplished lean startup coach, and she defines the terms simply and clearly: “Lean UX is UX practice adapted for Lean Startups, and Agile UX is UX practice adapted for teams working with Agile.”

Lean UX focuses on outcomes rather than deliverables, and positions UX designers as highly collaborative members of the product or service team, aiming to test their assumptions and hypotheses through the delivery of guerilla-style user testing and experiments on minimum viable products (MVP) concepts.

Agile UX tries to integrate UX practice with agile software development teams. Since agile was conceived as an engineering practice, it did not originally integrate UX and design. There is much debate in the UX community about how compatible the practices are. Agile UX aims to bring an iterative approach to the design and improvement of features that are being built — through team collaboration and the stewardship of customer feedback.

What do designers need to know when working with these approaches?

As companies have adopted lean and agile ways of operating, challenges have arisen for UX designers as they try to adapt their own human-centered design process to these approaches. Some of these challenges exist across both Lean UX and Agile UX:

  • One team, one dream. For agile and lean to effectively incorporate UX, there is a need to have buy-in for the importance and value of the UX role. This requires a certain amount of organizational design maturity, as well as support at executive levels. UX design needs to be seen as an equal contributor to the process.
  • Making time for user research. Agile software development in its origins was focused on building effectively and efficiently, and so the process does not make room for design or research in an explicit way. Many designers have tried to find approaches to adapt to this, for example starting with a Sprint 0 that allows for foundational discovery work before development starts. There is much discussion about how the design team can work in the right cadence to keep design work on pace with development.
 Whiteboard sketching as a team is one approach to more lightweight UX documentation as part of Lean or Agile teams.
Whiteboard sketching as a team is one approach to more lightweight UX documentation as part of Lean or Agile teams.
  • Getting to the right level of documentation. Both lean and agile approaches emphasize the importance of building working products rather than focusing on documentation. For UX designers, certain types of documentation are crucial to exploring and evolving the product, for example IA diagrams or wireframe prototypes. Some approaches for overcoming this challenge include focusing on more lightweight documentation, such as whiteboard sketches or paper prototypes.
  • Learning the language. As with any method, agile and lean both have their own set of distinct language and rituals associated to them. For agile, understanding what is meant by scrum, sprints, the backlog, user stories, and epics will be helpful for designers. Within lean, words like assumptions, hypothesis, MVP, and pivots are some of the core concepts. Shared language and understanding between team members is the backbone of any work.

Where did lean and agile approaches originate?

Aside from the specific UX context, it can be helpful to get a baseline understanding of lean and agile themselves. Lean and agile have distinct origin stories, and the words themselves can have slightly different interpretations associated with them. While they are now sometimes practiced in an integrated way in certain software development teams, they may not necessarily go hand in hand.

Lean can refer to a few different things — namely, lean manufacturing, lean management, lean software development, or lean startup. In a tech and design context, we are usually referring to lean software development or lean startup.

Lean has its origins in lean manufacturing, which emerged from the car manufacturer Toyota in Japan in the late 1940s/early 1950s. In 2003, Mary and Tom Poppendieck wrote a book called “Lean Software Development,” which outlines how to apply the seven principles of lean manufacturing to developing software. In 2008, Eric Ries began outlining the concept of lean startup, which applies lean management theory to startups in the technology space. His 2011 book “Lean Startup” is one of the best-selling business books of all time.

Agile usually refers to agile software development. A backlash occurred throughout the 1990s against heavily planned and regulated approaches to developing software, with teams evolving their approaches to more lightweight and nimble ones such as scrum, crystal clear, and extreme programming. In 2001, a group of 17 software developers came together and published the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development,” based on conversations about these emerging lightweight approaches. Agile has become a catch-all term that often encompasses these approaches, and refers to a way of working when building software that focuses on collaboration, time-boxed work blocks (sprints), and incremental evolution of a product and feature set.

How do lean and agile software development compare to each other?

There is a saying (sometimes attributed to Laura Klein) that says: “Lean helps you build the right thing. Agile helps you build the thing right.” While there are nuances to these approaches, both are focused on highly collaborative teams that aim to build quality products iteratively by being able to break work into smaller chunks and responding to change.

 Both Lean and Agile approaches emphasize the importance of close-knit, highly collaborative teams.
Both Lean and Agile approaches emphasize the importance of close-knit, highly collaborative teams.

Both lean and agile software development are based on sets of principles. You can read more about the “Twelve Agile Software Development Principles” and the “Seven Lean Software Development Principles,” but for our purposes a synthesis of their main focus will do. As outlined in this Codementor article:

“The Agile paradigm as laid out in ‘The Agile Manifesto’ favors short iteration cycles and frequent deliveries over a holistic end-to-end view. The E2E [end-to-end] focus is therefore unique to Lean. In fact, it is because of the E2E construct that Lean (rather than Agile) is more often applied as an organizational structure and management style.”

Lean often focuses on reducing waste, and lean startup emphasizes a build-measure-learn loop that attempts to answer key questions around customer and business value through the building of hypothesis-focused MVPs.

Where can I learn more?

For UX designers working with agile and/or lean teams, educating yourself about these approaches and their mindsets is a crucial part of your contribution. There are lots of books, blog posts, and articles to dive into. Start with the “Agile Software Development Manifesto,” then check out some of the Nielsen Norman posts on integrating UX and Agile. The books “Agile Experience Design” and “Get Agile!” will help designers to dive deeper into the day-to-day on an agile team. “Lean Startup” is a foundational text for understanding the lean mindset in a tech company context, and paired with “Lean UX” and “The Lean Product Book” should cover what a designer needs to know.

Contributing value beats process dogma

In the end, regardless of the methodology and approach a team subscribes to, the ultimate goal for UX designers remains creating business and user value. As a UX designer on a team, the ability to collaborate, be flexible, and be adaptable will increase your chances of success. Lean UX and Agile UX give designers mindsets and models to enhance their contribution.