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Lean UX: Rethink Development


The Lean Journey

The fundamental change between traditional development and Lean UX isn't obvious. It's not just the difference between a linear approach and an iterative one. It isn't even the fact that you reduce the time it takes to get to workable software from many months to weeks. The fundamental change that makes it possible to run this process is that you get designers and developers to work together, in the same room, and with the same mindset.

It's not easy to change designers' and developers' mindsets and get them comfortable working together. At one company we worked with, we promoted interaction between the teams through the various agile rituals, but they were still working pretty independently. We recently took the bold step of merging the creative team with the mobile software development team. We put them in the same building, separating people by projects, not functions. We assigned the Lean UX designer role to the creative ­directors, calling them UX experts. They're co-product owners, responsible for representing the business vision and user needs, providing creative direction and promoting collaboration across the project stakeholders.

"Lean UX is not interaction design shoehorned into agile frameworks," says Tim McCoy, a Lean UX thought leader. "Product vision, user research and modeling, and truly evolutionary iteration are central to this approach. It stresses lightweight, collaborative, right-fidelity UX techniques to generate, test, and evolve the design of your product."

In any lean-inspired methodology, visualization is key and is part the Kanban methodology that's widely employed by those using agile. Inspired by Forrester Research's POST (people-objective-strategy-technology) approach and Kanban, we created a tool to promote the product vision inside the teams: the product canvas. This simple visualization tool makes it easy for us to get initial product vision from the client and make it understandable for the entire team even before we start the project. As the project evolves, the UX expert constantly updates the canvas and posts it as a big print board next to the agile story cards for everyone to interact with. A simple tool like this helps put designers and developers on the same page.

The lean process is an agile end-to-end one where we prioritize the following flow (see Figure 2). For each story:

  • Get the team to find a solution;
  • Pair a designer and a developer;
  • Draw a low-fidelity wireframe;
  • Validate it quickly;
  • Build a low-fidelity prototype;
  • Do usability testing;
  • Make corrections and validate them;
  • Design the UI;
  • Code it;
  • Have users test it;
  • Demo it to the product owner;
  • Deploy it;
  • Collect metrics;
  • Validate it (is it producing the expected result?);
  • Move to the next story until the project is done.

Figure 2.

A common question that arises with Lean UX is, how do you get enough information for developers to start working before the design is done? This is tricky. The secret is to have developers comfortable with implementing low-fidelity prototypes for which you don't really need to make a lot of design decisions. Rapid prototyping tools can facilitate work between designers and developers, and increase their confidence. Design patterns can also give them a head start in many cases.

I discourage the use of the "one sprint ahead" approach where designers would always be working one sprint, or design iteration, ahead to make sure developers will have the assets for their upcoming sprint. This is simply a micro-waterfall approach with lots of handoffs between two teams working in constant conflict. You should avoid it.

Whatever challenges and refinements you face during Lean UX interactions will prove to be constructive, because convergence of the various viewpoints will occur quickly.

Some projects, like highly experimental marketing campaigns and content heavy portals, will face challenges when following the Lean UX approach because they need more time in the discovery and design phases to have a comprehensive view of the whole product. But even in those cases, you'll see the benefits of bringing developers to discussions during the early stages. If after reading this article, your main takeaway is that you should tear down the walls and put your developers to work with designers, then you're getting the hang of Lean UX. Your next step should be to learn more about the lean principles of the Toyota system and how they affected the software development process and entrepreneurship. This will help refine the model in the context of your own specific situation.


Marcio Cyrillo works for Ci&T, an offshore application outsourcing, software product engineering, and digital marketing company in Brazil that uses agile methodologies and lean principles.


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