14 October 2011
Design Practice

My thoughts on Lean UX

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 TM 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 cafe 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.