My thoughts on Lean UX | October 14, 2011

I first came across the concept of the Lean Start-up® three years ago while speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit in New York. I’d finished my duties and there was little else of interest on the schedule so I dropped into a panel discussion about start-ups.

One of the panellists—a chap called Eric Reis—explained how he’d been involved in two start-ups. One had been a catastrophic failure while the other a moderate success. As Eric began to recount his story I found myself nodding along with recognition and agreement.

His previous start-up had taken too long to build and by the time it was ready they’d almost run out of money. Furthermore, once they launched, the shear volume of features obscured the products true value and made it almost impossible to use.

Eric then talked about his new start-up and the realisation that he needed to understand his users and validate the product early on. Eric discussed fast iterations and his concept of a Minimum Viable Product—the smallest thing you could create to prove the business had legs. This reminded me of 37 Signals’ call to “create half a product, not a half assed product”. It also reminded me of what my friends as Doppler had done by tying together existing services to prove their social network for regular travellers could work.

As I sat listening to Eric I thought to myself, “here’s a guy who really gets user experience design” and thought it was great to see somebody from the start-up world echo what we’ve been saying in the design world for years.

Jump forward 18 months and Eric Reis has become the poster boy for the Lean Start-up® movement, lauded by business magazines like Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review. While I was grateful that these ideas were gaining wider circulation, something started bugging me. Wasn’t the Lean Start-up® simply a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? A combination of User Experience Design and Agile development rebranded and repackaged for a new market.

Also, what the hell was that ® about?

As somebody who believes in the free sharing of information, the idea of claiming ownership of a concept like Lean Start-up® seems really weird; like Jeffrey Zeldman registering “Web Standards” or Ethan Marcotte registering “Responsive Design”. The only reason for doing this, I surmised, was a desire to own the concept and thereby profit from it. That’s absolutely fine, I thought to myself, but I didn’t want to promote something that claimed to be a movement but was clearly one person’s brand. So I decided to keep a respectful distance from the Lean Start-up® community and carry on about my business. That is until the term Lean UX started to appear on my RADAR.

If Lean Start-up® felt like the Emperors New Clothes, then Lean UX felt doubly so.

Proponents of Lean UX talked about guerrilla research, low-fidelity sketching and rapid prototyping like they were new concepts. They discussed the need for close integration with developers and the idea of “design as facilitation” like the agile movement never happened. It was as if something was being excavated and held aloft as new; something scholars had known about for years. It also felt to me like a cynical attempt by a few people to jump on a bandwagon, stake a claim to a new brand name and make money by peddling the latest hip religion. And it annoyed me.

I attempted to ignore the Lean UX “brand” in the hope that it would fizzle out, but sadly it didn’t. Instead it seemed to grow stronger. In fact it got to the point where I started to question my own opinions and see whether I’d somehow missed some vital piece of the jigsaw. Truth be told, I think I had. I just wasn’t the piece of the jigsaw I was looking for.

You see, I think I developed an immediate dislike of the Lean UX brand because it’s something I felt the UX industry was already doing. However the more I looked at traditional UX agencies the more I realised that this wasn’t the case. Instead of doing quick bursts of user research they were running month long engagements; rather than doing café testing on half a dozen people they were lab testing a hundred, and rather then sketching interfaces out on paper and prototyping them in HTML/CSS, they were generating reams and reams of formal documentation.

Over the last few weeks a grim realisation has started to dawn on me and it’s something I’m not especially happy about. I think the reason I hate the Lean UX label so much is because Clearleft is a Lean UX company. That’s why Lean UX has always felt superfluous to me; because it doesn’t describe anything new, interesting or novel; just business as usual.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable using the term Lean UX. Especially as it implies all other forms of UX are bloated and full of fat. Also, by its nature Lean UX isn’t a different flavour of UX, just a subset. As such, some projects are fine with a guerrilla approach while others require more formality. So flexibility is key.

Anyway, if feels good to get that off my chest. I guess like so many things in life the first step to recovery is realising you have a problem. So here goes…

Hello, my name is Andy and I run a company that does Lean UX.

Posted at October 14, 2011 1:18 PM


Graham Morley said on October 14, 2011 1:30 PM

A rose by any other name…

AlastairC said on October 14, 2011 2:37 PM

Good point, I’ve largely ignored this non-new thing as well. I suspect that organisations that want (and can handle) lean UX are already doing things in a lean manner elsewhere.

Sometimes that is what we do (especially if the client is using Agile), but some clients actually do require reams of documentation. In that case it is probably because our work is 60% about persuading other parts of the non-lean organisation that what they are doing is the best course of action.

Some people might consider that wasteful, but in a waterfall world of fixed cost projects you want the water going the right way, and everyone to know it.

Stuart Hull said on October 14, 2011 2:37 PM

My sentiments exactly. Great quote “Especially as it implies all other forms of UX are bloated and full of fat.” Best cut down on the cheese…

Ian Fenn said on October 14, 2011 3:09 PM

I’ve been doing Lean UX for 15 years. Imagine how that feels.

Leisa Reichelt said on October 14, 2011 4:55 PM

so, I think the thing that most people miss when they’re talking about Lean UX is what’s really at the heart of Lean StartUp which is the idea of small, regular, testable and measurable hypotheses about what makes our products work for our customers. Making a hypothesis based on qualitative research, designing it, then measuring the outcome properly.

Making the product development process more scientific.

This is the thing, for me, that makes Lean different to Agile or Guerilla or all the other ways that we’ve packaged up sets of UX/Design techniques over the years. Not the MVP, not the guerrilla testing, but making LEARNING the measurable unit rather than the stuff we make.

So, while I’m sure that ClearLeft does excellent UX work that is appropriate to the projects and clients you work on, I suspect you’re actually not doing Lean UX.

In fact, I’d wager that 95% of people who CLAIM to be doing LeanUX actually don’t really understand what Lean really is and despite claiming to be disciples of Mr Reis, obviously haven’t read his book (where he does a good job of explaining what is essentially a management philosophy that, as you’ve noted, is highly customer centric).

Don’t for a moment take me as a member of the cult of Lean… it just bothers me that, yet again, we seem to have taken a term, interpreted it for what we WANT it to be (all the UX we want without any of the time/expense etc. it takes to really do it), and then keep using the term in that way in the vain hope that it will make it so. (Agile, anyone?)

Dan said on October 14, 2011 6:59 PM

It’s an American thing isn’t it?

We Brits invent stuff and the Americans trademark it and make all the money from it. Plus ca change…

Rachel Nabors said on October 14, 2011 11:25 PM

Reminds me of the “womens comics” semantics wars I have been through. Does a comic have to be labeled a woman’s comic to appeal to women or are all comics not inherently offensive to women women’s comics by default? Do we then even need so-called women’s comics in that case? (In case you’re wondering, my position has always been emphatically yes.)

(Psst,did you mean “sheer volume” instead of “sheer volume” up there?)

Laurence McCahill said on October 15, 2011 1:14 PM

Great (& honest) article Andy. 

Although the whole lean thing has got a too trendy for its own good, we’ve found that it’s helped the startups we work with and, as a consequence, the wider business community, grasp user experience design principles via the back door (so to speak…). 

We’ve always found UX a hard sell to ‘non-believers’ as they feel it will either be expensive or just tell them what they already know. Having a figurehead (Mr Ries) from the business, rather than design, community means there’s more exposure, awareness and validation of UCD which can only be a good thing. Having people like Janice Fraser take Eric’s approach further with the notion of Lean UX also helps to lead toss greater design understanding and how this can mean the difference between success and failure, particularly for new, innovative products. 

Hopefully over the long term this will lead to a greater appreciation of good design as a key differentiator and, as a result, budgets that reflect this. 

Josh Seiden said on October 15, 2011 2:11 PM

I’m with Leisa on this one. The point of the Lean label is not, “skinny, guerilla, essential, reduced, informal,” etc. The point is that you’re using a system specifically oriented around validated learning.

I wrote about this at length here:

Yes, some of it is a subset of what we’ve been doing for years. But I find the aggressive orientation towards “validated learning” to be a very useful technique—one that is substantially different from the way our community has typically used testing and validation in the past, and one that, when followed to its logical conclusion, has the ability to significantly change our practice.

Sohbet said on October 16, 2011 1:46 AM

It’s an American thing isn’t it?

We Brits invent stuff and the Americans trademark it and make all the money from it. Plus ca change…

Amir Ansari said on October 16, 2011 10:02 PM

Hi Andy,

Great blog and it’s about time I met someone else who is frustrated by the touting of “LEAN” as an amazing new movement. I’ve been in the industry for 13 years and remember doing LEAN UX (back then it was labelled HCI) back then, sitting with developers and butchers paper and inviting users in to give feedback.

Working for a UX agency, I find that the level of LEANness depends on the client’s appetite. We often have clients who want to see volumes of users and an engagement that lasts a month or so. However, as practitioners, we practice LEAN on a daily basis.

From my perspective, I believe the level of LEANness simply depends on how refined my ideas and designs are and how close I am to the end line of the project. And I disagree with people who feel it’s more Guerrilla UX… It’s all about iteration - the more you do the more you will refine and get a better outcome.

Thanks for the blog.