Lean UX: Understanding The Core Principles & Fundamental Phases

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Who doesn’t love discovering new ways to work more effectively. Heck, I know I do. And it’s seemingly more important with the competitive nature of the digital product development scene. But I’m not just talking about developing new products that outshine your competitors – definitely not – because there’s added pressure to be one step ahead and develop more efficient products faster.

Welcome, Lean UX: a simple design method used for creating web offerings that are streamlined and visitor-centric. Applying lean-agile methods will help you to create useful and usable products, while helping users enjoy a more unique and memorable website experience.

Check this out from SaaS Doodle, who saw a 54% increase in the number of free signups by changing the language on their homepage – something the company discovered using Lean UX.

But What Exactly Is Lean UX?

Lean UX is a technique that works in alignment with Agile development methods. Aiming to reduce waste, create knowledge and provide value. The concept of ‘being lean’ derives from lean manufacturing principles and has been used by major companies such as Nike, Toyota and Ford, to eliminate waste in production. Lean UX is an excellent way to build products with value and products that your users are going to enjoy long-term.

“One of the most important concepts of Lean UX is to validate product ideas with users early and often in order to keep learning. Lean UX centres around validating hypothesis in order to build faster and better products.”
— Laura Klein, author of UX for Lean Startups.

At its core, Lean UX is about collaboration with the whole team and bringing the core features of a product to light faster. “Instead of thinking of a product as a series of features to be built, Lean UX looks at a product as a set of hypothesis to be validated,” Klein explains.

And that’s right, Lean UX largely relies on collaboration to ensure the end product firmly meets the users’ needs and requirements. Hence the importance of user research, which plays a vital role in creating your hypothesis around what the user might want.

Leading nicely to the three fundamental phases of Lean UX: Build-Measure-Learn.

Fundamental Phases Of Lean UX: Build-Measure-Learn

The purpose of Build-Measure-Learn is to maximise learning through incremental and interactive engineering. It is not, on the other hand, to build a final product or even a prototype with fewer features (More on this in a second). And despite being called Build-Measure-Learn, there are four fundamental phases to the sequence if you include the initial planning.

Some designers wrongly skip this stage and opt for a gung-ho approach with the building phase. Though planning is essential for defining the idea you want to test and understanding the information you need to learn.

Step 1: Plan

Your prediction of what will happen during the experiment is called a hypothesis. And you guessed it, developing a hypothesis is the first fundamental phase of Lean UX.

Generally speaking, your hypothesis will focus on product features and customer service. The idea is to test your initial assumptions early, focusing on the ideal user or business.

Here’s an example of a simple hypothesis statement taken from Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX Workshop.

We believe [doing this] for [these people] will achieve [this outcome/impact].

We’ll know this is true when we see [this market feedback].

Once you’re happy with your hypothesis, the next stage is to design a simple experiment to test it. Conducting interviews, surveys and website analytics are among the most popular methods used for gathering data.

Step 2: Build

The second stage involves building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). It’s important you’re aware that an MVP is not a version of the product with fewer features.

A good example of an MVP would be a landing page used to gauge customer feedback for a product that doesn’t yet exist. Alternatively, a PowerPoint or a clay model, wireframe or simple data set, etc.

But no matter what type of MVP you choose to create, it has to engage with your audience and attract enough attention to begin the iteration-feedback loop.

Step 3: Measure

Step three is simple – how does your user feedback compare with your hypothesis?

After analysing the user feedback, you’ll want to know if there’s enough interest in your product to continue with the design process. Fingers crossed the feedback will be positive and the users responded well to your new design. In which case, you can continue to expand your MVP with confidence.

Step 4: Learn

Some people will disagree with me, but I think this is the most important phase of Lean UX. Why do I think that? Well, because “life is a journey, not a destination” – as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said.

Learning plays a vital role in the success of your projects. And in this instance, you will benefit from deconstructing the feedback given by the product team and learning how to use it to your advantage. The application of dissecting the comments made by the product team will enable you to hugely improve your product. Though more importantly, it will shine on a light on the intricate details that you may have missed during the initial design process.

Practising Lean UX means continually validating your design decisions.

And What Are The Core Principles Of Lean UX?

It’s important that you understand the five core principles of Lean UX. They are:

  • Act as one team
  • Solve the right problem
  • You’re a team, not a group of individuals
  • Be flexible, and watch things develop
  • De-emphasise deliverables

Act as one team, and only one

The first principle goes against the tradition of assigning tasks based on the skill and experience of a certain individual. Building a shared understanding of the customer requires the whole team to work together.

“Shared understanding comes from a tight collaboration between those disciplines,” Gothelf explains. “That’s really where the efficiency and the productivity gains come with Lean UX.”

You see – in Lean UX – a diverse team with a variety of qualifications and disciplines will mean that stronger; more well-rounded solutions will be thought up to tackle the problems highlighted throughout the user testing.

Solve the right problem

It sounds obvious, I know – but you’d be surprised.

As mentioned in the previous section, Lean UX relies on a “Build-Measure-Learn loop. This loop centres around continuous learning facilitated by continuous feedback. The feedback you gather will provide you with a deeper understanding of what’s required, and enable you to fine-tune your approach towards the problems that need to be solved.

You’re a team, not a group of individuals

Lean UX demands well-managed; continuous collaboration, and is about building a shared understanding around the customer and their needs.

“It’s really about (creating) a cross-functional collaboration around what we’re building, who we’re building it for, [and] what success looks like,” says Gothelf. “Shared understanding comes from a tight collaboration. That’s really where the efficiency and productivity gains come with Lean UX,” Gothelf explains.

With collaboration at such a premium, remote workers may have difficulty practising Lean UX, especially those whose time zones don’t overlap in a productive capacity.

Having said that, digital technology enables real-time collaboration for dispersed teams. So for remote workers, activities such as sketching, video conferencing and screen sharing are all possible through applications such as Slack, HipChat, GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc

Be flexible, and watch things develop

As we all know, software can be unpredictable. It also brings working situations with high levels of uncertainty. Therefore, it demands a certain attribute from designers to evolve their understanding as they conceive new information.

It’s difficult and almost impossible to predict whether the solution you choose to put in front of people is going to have the desired effect. And you can’t just sit in hope – no. So what’s the solution? Well, it’s simple: Take small steps, be open to change, and be prepared to learn along the way.

I understand that being open to change isn’t always easy. But in Lean UX, the trick is to assume the plan will change and be prepared to alter your plan respectively. For instance, your initial assumptions may be proved wrong after your second round of user testing – forcing you back to square one. This sort of flexibility – not wanting to be right, but willing to be wrong and follow the path that the evidence demonstrates – can play a vital role in the Lean UX process.

De-emphasise deliverables

De-emphasising designing for deliverables is an important part of Lean UX. In order to become more agile compatible, Lean UX focuses on adjusting the design process as you go along, putting emphasis on conversations during the design process as opposed to deliverables.

But that’s not to say that Lean UX is devoid of deliverables; only – it asserts that you identify the conversation required in order to proceed to the next step.

A traditional design process may favour upfront work. Whether its information architecture, UI mockups, research or prototyping, each step will generate a discrete set of deliverables. But in an Agile environment, this doesn’t work so well.

And Now For The Benefits Of Lean UX

Lean UX leads the line of resourceful designing for startups. Allowing teams to maximise output and minimise waste – along with working through each design phase quicker and more effectively – are the most beneficial factors of using Lean UX.

Also, its collaborative nature builds energy and helps to form long-lasting bonds within the team. Not to mention the wonderful things it can do for a designers’ confidence. Giving each individual the chance to not only voice their concerns, but also test them out.

Gathering user feedback during the early stages of the design process also has its rewards, as it will teach you how to make better design decisions in the future. And not to mention the creativity that it puts in the hands of the designer during the early stages of design. In particular, the assumption and hypothesis method.

Understanding Lean UX: The Conclusion

As a designer, it’s your job to deliver fruitful products that are easy to use. Understanding the core principles and fundamental phases of Lean UX will enable you to focus on the small aspects and reduce the reliance on deliverables.

This degree of efficiency is unheard of in most popular design methodologies, and as a greater number of designers who adopt the Lean UX approach will realise, Lean UX is a way of working smarter and more effectively.

The end result is a highly sought after product that is on the market sooner.

What do you think about Lean UX, I’d love to hear your thoughts?

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Kevin McGowan

Kevin McGowan has been writing about tech from past 5 years with expertise in UI/UX design, Web Development, Big Data and Data Science.

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