UX design newbies and business owners alike may be wondering: “What is lean UX? How is it different from regular UX?”
If you’re itching for answers about lean UX, we’ve got ‘em 😎
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Dogs don’t live forever, salads never taste as good as McDonald's, and we need to consider the user and stakeholder goals to create a successful digital product (or it wouldn’t be UX design).
But, what if we told you there was a way to make user-friendly products without sacrificing your creative vision?
Allow us to introduce you to lean UX!
What is Lean UX?
Lean UX is an agile approach that gives designers more freedom when creating digital products without completely disregarding what the users and stakeholders want.
Let’s take it back to grade school for a minute. When you did a science fair project, you had to follow the Scientific Method: Define, hypothesize, test, analyze, and draw a conclusion.
The lean UX process is pretty similar to the scientific method. It lets the designer do their research and form a hypothesis that guides their design choices. Then, they gather user feedback after the MVP is finished to prove or disprove their hypothesis.
UX design team leader Jeff Gothelf (which is an awesome last name) literally wrote the book on lean UX after listening to designers voice their frustrations with traditional processes. He developed the lean UX approach as a way to help designers realize their vision and iterate quickly by:
- Eliminating time-consuming stages like frequent documentation and lengthy user interviews.
- Ensuring constant, collaborative communication between design teams and stakeholders.
- Promoting experimentation and creative problem-solving instead of solely relying on user feedback.
Through this agile, adaptable design process, Gothelf found a way for designers to think critically about user behavior, brainstorm solutions, and create better-looking products.
How is Lean UX Different From Traditional UX?
Lean UX is essentially a scaled-down and rearranged version of the UX design process. Let’s take a look at both side by side:
As you can see, lean UX cuts out a few steps. Instead of prioritizing the user and the business at the beginning, the designer can lean on UX best practices and their experience from previous projects to offer potential solutions to a problem.
That’s not to say there’s no input from the user or stakeholders, it just happens at different stages. Lean UX design requires frequent and open collaboration to ensure the client’s goals and brand identity are supported.
User testing is one of the most crucial stages in lean and traditional UX. Except in lean UX, you’re experimenting to see if your proposed solution works. It kicks off several iteration stages, requiring further collaboration with design teams and stakeholders to guarantee the product ticks all the boxes.
Traditional UX also focuses more on deliverables than lean UX does. This makes traditional UX a better fit for new products, letting you define values and craft brand identities in tandem with the design. Lean UX is much better suited for improving a product long-term.
Breaking Down the Lean UX Process
Now that we answered the great “What is lean UX?” question, let’s talk about what the process looks like (with examples, of course).
Pretend you’re on a design team for a scheduling app and they want to add a feature that increases meeting attendance. Spend time thinking about why users miss meetings and how you can increase their awareness.
Outcomes, Assumptions, and Hypotheses
Lean UX still requires research, but you don’t have to validate your decisions right away. Instead, you can use your findings to make assumptions about user behavior.
So, why are users missing meetings? Your research shows that most people miss meetings because email invites get buried under other messages. You also noticed that users preferred using the calendar feature on their phones instead of the app.
How do you remedy this problem and get the user to attend more meetings?
You’ve heard this phrase: “Never assume...it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Well, that doesn’t apply here. In lean UX, we have room to make assumptions, test theories, and adjust as needed (or scrap things altogether).
From your findings, you can assume that users are missing their meetings because they rely on their phone calendars to coordinate their schedules instead of email invites. Once you make that assumption, it’s time to form a hypothesis and state the desired outcome.
We know what you’re thinking…“Whaaaat? We’re skipping straight to design?”
Heck yes, we are!
Lean UX is about drawing conclusions around basic data and testing a proposed solution. We’ll worry about user interviews and testing a little later.
This is where everyone needs to be on the same page. Your team members will help you consider possible outcomes and stakeholder requirements that might make your plan a no-go. It’s up to you to convince your stakeholders that you’re making the right choices to help them and the user reach their end goal.
For this scheduling app example, the stakeholder might be concerned about users abandoning the app if everything automatically syncs to their iPhone calendar. How do we get around that?
As we said earlier, frequent communication is a must in lean UX. Work with your stakeholders and team members to address their concerns and brainstorm solutions that meet in the middle.
Just like the Scientific Method, what is lean UX if not a basis for learning?
The MVP in lean UX does NOT have to be a fully realized design. Instead, it’s a tool that helps you gauge the user’s reaction to your product and features.
Your MVP can come in a few forms: wireframes, high-fidelity mockups, and a working prototype. They don’t have to be 100% perfect, but they should be close enough to the finished product so the user can see how it’s supposed to function.
What’s the best way to encourage the scheduling app’s users to sync their meeting invites with their phone calendars? It could be as simple as a toggle feature in their settings, or they may need a full onboarding process to update their permissions. Either way, your MVP must demonstrate its value and entice the user.
This primitive version of your product or feature will help you see your assumptions in action. Then, once your hypothesis is proven or disproven, you can start working your magic on the design.
Research & Learning
Ready to see if your hypothesis was correct? Exciting, isn’t it?
Test your MVP and get the sign-off from your future users. They will validate your assumptions, showing you what works and what doesn’t.
User testing and feedback are a pivotal part of traditional and lean UX. Successful products are designed around the user’s behavior — and this is your opportunity to see if your design supports or goes against it.
The goal isn’t to get glowing reviews or build up excitement. It’s all about validating your choices. Some users may be completely elated to have their meetings automatically dropped into their phone calendar, while others might not see much use for it or be turned off by the lengthy onboarding process.
Criticism, while sometimes hard to swallow, doesn’t negate all the hard work you’ve put in so far. It shows you where you need to make adjustments so the product or feature can live up to its full potential.
The user’s feedback is invaluable in any UX process, but the good thing about lean UX is that you can adjust and iterate much faster. Think, make, check, and repeat until the product is the best it can be.
When Is It Best To Use a Lean Approach?
You may be thinking: “Why do designers follow a more lengthy UX process when this scaled-down version exists?”
Lean UX is a great process that helps us churn out user-friendly designs fast! But the truth is, it’s not suited for all projects.
Some projects, especially the new products we mentioned earlier, need that deep level of exploration to understand what users and stakeholders respond to. Or else you’re just designing for the sake of design.
Let’s pretend that instead of creating a new feature for a scheduling app, we’re creating that scheduling app from the ground up. When we’re starting from scratch like this, we don’t know much besides the stakeholder’s goal of creating a new, innovative product.
The question is: “What makes a product (like a scheduling app) innovative?
A long discovery phase is almost mandatory here. We need to understand why users gravitate to scheduling apps and the structures and flows that make them so easy to use (all while developing a unique brand, style, and messaging to make it stand out in a sea of competitors).
But, if the product already exists, lean UX is a safe bet. When you already have a solid product, user base, and brand identity to work with, a lot of that exploration has already happened. You can skip straight to applying your knowledge from past projects and adapting your design choices to fit the brand.
Notes From Our Designers About Lean UX:
“It’s a good approach - to use carefully. Not all projects and clients can be done Lean. It doesn’t mean that we can run a project while walking in the dark. Basic data about the target audience and a solid set of requirements are always needed. The most frequent downside of Lean UX is that clients get hyper-excited about the fast results that they forget about testing. Also, if the client comes with a medium/long-term vision of the product, it helps designers collect ideas and start prioritizing them.” -Virginia, UX Designer at CreateApe
“If there’s enough trust and user data, then lean UX is great. On the other hand, it might not survive a close encounter with a client. A product can’t be fully stakeholder-oriented with no room for user input.” Serj, UX Designer at CreateApe
“If it’s done correctly, we should have the right approach from the start of the project. That includes not skipping research, applying workshops between the team and client, testing, and validating. Throughout the process, it should gain the trust of the client, especially when we have a decent amount of research to provide validated solutions.” -Sheryl, UX Designer at CreateApe
- Lean UX isn’t suited for every project
- Always base your assumptions on data and research
- Define goals and requirements early on
- MVPs can be basic, but they must be functional
- Communication is KING
- Never, ever, EVER skip user testing
Think, Make, Check!
So, what is lean UX for designers?
For us, it's a simple, scaled-down method giving us more creative control over the project. But it's also a way for both designers and stakeholders to experiment, learn, and iterate to create more innovative products.
Stop and review your data at the beginning if you're thinking about taking a lean approach with your next project. What can you infer about your audience based on it?
If you can make a logical assumption based on your data, form a hypothesis, consider multiple scenarios with your team, and design a bare-bones version to improve piece-by-piece, lean UX is right up your alley!
Need a team to turn your digital product into a lean, mean UX machine? Start a project with us today!