Most of 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.
What is Lean UX?
Let’s start off by talking about what Lean UX means. 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.”
At the beginning of the design process, most product teams feel uncertain about which solution is the right one and need to explore various design directions before landing on the optimal solution. That’s what Lean UX is all about—it’s about formulating a hypothesis and validating it before committing to building anything.
Lean UX focuses on outcomes rather than deliverables. It positions UX designers as highly collaborative members of the product or service team, aiming to test their assumptions and hypotheses through the delivery of guerrilla-style user testing and experiments on minimum viable products (MVP) concepts.
Adopting Lean UX means creating a culture of constant learning. Continuous discovery drives the product design process and makes product team members curious about finding better solutions.
Lean UX principles include cross-functional teams (work in teams with varied skill sets), problem-focused teams (don’t just create features, solve problems), producing the least possible waste (eliminating all work that doesn’t get your team closer to your expected outcome), and a culture of continuous discovery and improvement. See the full list of principles below.
Where did the Lean approach 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 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 ideas—namely, lean manufacturing, lean management, lean software development, or lean startups. In a tech and design context, we are usually referring to lean software development or lean startups.
Lean has its origins in lean manufacturing, which emerged from the car manufacturer Toyota in Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 2003, Mary and Tom Poppendieck wrote a book titled Lean Software Development that outlines how to apply the seven principles of lean manufacturing to developing software. In 2008, Eric Ries began outlining the Lean startup concept that applies lean management theory to startups in the technology space. His 2011 book Lean Startup is one of the best-selling business books ever written.
What is Agile UX?
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.
Where did the Agile approach originate?
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. Instead of releasing everything all at once, an agile team delivers work in small increments that are easier to test.
In 2001, a group of 17 software developers came together and published the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” Here are a few key points from the manifesto:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
This manifesto defined Agile software development methodology as we know it today. Agile has become a catch-all term that often encompasses these approaches. It refers to a way of working that focuses on collaboration, time-boxed work blocks (sprints), and incremental evolution of a product and feature set when building software.
How Lean and Agile help create better design
There is a saying (sometimes attributed to Laura Klein):
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 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 is 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.
As mentioned above, Lean UX design 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.
If you look closely at the build-measure-learn Lean UX cycle, you will notice discovery, definition, development, and delivery steps, which can be a part of the traditional double-diamond design process. However, the key difference between the traditional design approach and Lean UX design is that defining and developing steps are iterative. It means that as a team, we will ideate to find the best possible solutions before prototyping the solutions.
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 (both Lean and Agile have a direct connection with corporate culture, and that’s why Lean and Agile thinking should be baked in UX design system principles) as well as support at the executive level. 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, so the process does not always have room for research in an explicit way. Many designers have tried to find approaches to adapt to this by doing things like 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.
- Getting to the right level of documentation. Both Lean and Agile approaches emphasize the importance of building working products rather than focusing on creating documentation. For UX designers, certain types of design artifacts are crucial to exploring and evolving the product, for example, information architecture (IA) diagrams or wireframes.
IA diagrams help product teams create meaningful content and organize it so that users can find it while wireframes are used as a reference during UI design. 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 unique jargon and rituals. 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, minimum viable product (MVP), and pivots are some of the core concepts. Shared language and understanding between team members make up the backbone of any work.
Contributing value beats process dogma
To quote Scott Cook: “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve a customer’s problem.” Regardless of the methodology and approach a team decides to use, the ultimate goal for UX designers is to create value for businesses and users alike. 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.
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! help designers to dive deeper into the day-to-day on an Agile team. The Lean Startup is a foundational text for understanding the Lean mindset in a tech company context. Lean UX and The Lean Product Book should also cover what a designer needs to know.
And if you’re looking for more information on UX design systems, XD Ideas has you covered.