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Feb 25, 2020

Better products thanks to Lean UX

Agility meets UX: Lean UX helps develop streamlined processes and user-centered products. To achieve this, lean UX combines various approaches and integrates methods and processes that improve the user experience (UX) into agile development. In our Buzzword Jungle, Michael Burmester explains how this works and describes the principles that lean UX is built on.

Before uncovering what is behind lean UX, we would like to take a look at the two components of the expression. In the context of lean UX, the term user experience (UX) is employed in a broader sense. It describes the process of designing digital products, systems and services based on the needs and requirements of the users. The focus of this procedure is on good usability. In our Buzzword series, we already talked about the fact that the term UX can be used in a way that puts a lot more emphasis on positive user experience. However, this aspect is less important for lean UX (more information on the term UX).

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Lean UX takes its roots from lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing aims at optimizing and streamlining the use of production resources with the greatest efficiency. Lean UX inventor Jeff Gothelf describes three foundations of lean UX: The first is design thinking, which deals with finding and developing innovative and creative solutions for complex problems. The second foundation is agile software development. The work is segmented into short, iterative development cycles, the so-called sprints.

The word “sprint” already describes the central idea: It’s got to be quick, and the focus is on implementing small work packages, not on processes or formalities such as writing reports. Thanks to the cyclic approach, the team can adapt the product again and again and flexibly integrate new requirements into the design. The third foundation is lean startup by Eric Ries. Lean startup intends to reduce the risk of failure in the market. In iterative "experiments" – evaluation studies –, new products have to undergo field tests with users and customers whose feedback helps to optimize the products step by step.


Below we will give you an overview of the most important principles of lean UX.

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Interdisciplinary teams

From software developers to UX designers and marketing or product managers – all competencies that are involved in the product development should be part of the team. They all bring their own view of the product, their know-how and their ideas into the squad. This approach also reduces information loss or inefficient communication between the disciplines. It is important for all team members to have an idea of the current status and the next project steps at all times. This can be visualized, for example, by photos of offices that are covered with sticky notes of all colors. These or their digital variants are important communication tools that make the collaboration within the team effective.

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Reduce waste

Sounds like environmental protection. What it really means, though, is that at team should only work on features that add value for the users and make economic sense. If there are several ideas, the team selects the one that solves the problem best. Tests with users and customers will then show what ideas are viable or need to be optimized further. Anything that proves useless will be discarded and not pursued any further.

Constant learning

In every team, there seems to be a "rock star" or a "UX guru" who knows exactly what the users need. After all, this person has been doing the job for so long and has so many great ideas. According to the lean UX philosophy, however, the team should learn from the customers and users instead of listening to preconceived ideas: What do the users need? What are their objectives? How do they act? What do they like about a product? What don’t they like? To me, this is the most important principle because it conveys a fundamental take on design and development. And this is also reflected in various lean UX approaches, e.g. getting user feedback on-site or implementing and testing ideas fast using simple means.

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Creating assumptions

It is often expensive or time-consuming to collect data on the users and customers. And from time to time, a usability context analysis as per the ISO 9241 standard is not possible. With the assumption concept, lean UX offers a quick and easy solution for this problem, too: The team members construe assumptions about the usage context from their knowledge of the users. However, this knowledge is often incomplete or faulty. Therefore, the team members gauge every assumption’s validity and the risk of it being wrong. High-risk assumptions are validated with users or customers. This ensures that the concept and design are based on corroborated knowledge.

Small steps towards a bigger goal

Constant learning requires so-called Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) and experiments. An MVP is the smallest-possible initial version of a product. It only contains the most important core features and functionality but it can already be used by the customers, offering some added value. That way, the team can collect feedback from real users. Since MVPs are limited to few features, they are usually fast to implement. In early development stages, these can simply be prototypes (e.g. paper prototypes) that show key aspects of a product. MVPs allow the team to verify at an early stage and at moderate costs whether their assumptions are correct. Evaluation studies that serve to gather user and customer feedback are called experiments.

Failures are allowed

Mistakes are instructions for improvement because failures also contribute to reaching a goal. The team now knows what paths do not need to be pursued any further. This culture of learning from mistakes is key to lean UX. Only when mistakes are allowed does the team have the liberty to follow up on creative and innovative ideas.

Conclusion

With these principles, lean UX combines agile development and user-centered design. Lean UX is a fast and targeted approach that allows teams to develop streamlined and user-centered product versions and test them with users. The usage context analysis, UX concepts and user studies are directly integrated into the sprint plans. All disciplines are integral parts of the development teams. That way, everyone involved learns quickly and without loss of information about the findings and consequences that the experiments or user evaluations have revealed. Don’t forget: If you consider using lean UX, you need a UX professional who has a deep knowledge of the lean UX process and the resulting methods. Therefore, the team should grow first in order to be able to perform lean work.

The author

Prof. Dr. Michael Burmester is UID’s Principal Scientific Advisor. Since 2002, Dr. Michael Burmester has been holding a chair as professor for ergonomics and usability in the information design course at the HdM Media University in Stuttgart. His research work deals with methods of human-centered design and positive user experience. The main focus of his current research projects is positive user experience in modern working environments including current technological developments such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, etc. At the HdM he heads the User Experience Research Labs (UXL) and the Information Experience and Design Research Group (IXD). He also acts as a coordinator of a project financed by the German Ministry of Economics that supports SMEs in designing digital technologies with positive usability and user experience (Mittelstand 4.0 – Kompetenzzentrum Usability).

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