Lean UX. Is it *really* about start-ups or something more profound?

The UX Pin have produced a great infographic in an attempt to describe the differences between Lean UX and Agile UX. It’s a great look at the core issues facing these emerging disciplines and gets past some of the buzz words to answer the question “is there a difference” or are they the same thing?

Are Lean UX and Agile UX the same thing?
Are Lean UX and Agile UX the same thing? Source: UX Pin

As UX Pin point out, there are some who feel that Lean UX and Agile UX are the same. Definitionally, though, Lean and Agile have very different focuses.

Lean and UX

Lean is focussed on elimination of waste in processes that don’t contribute to the creation of value for the end customer. This may be in an actual product, or the services that surround it pre- and post-sales. It also encompasses services. The types of waste that Lean seeks to remove are [1]:

  • Transport — moving products that are not actually required to perform the processing
  • Inventory — all components, work in process and finished product not being processed
  • Motion — people or equipment moving or walking more than is required to perform the processing
  • Waiting — waiting for the next production step
  • Overproduction — production ahead of demand
  • Over Processing — resulting from poor tool or product design creating activity
  • Defects — the effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects

UX has a natural affinity here, being devoted to the design of great and engaging experiences and is easily applied to cross-channel analysis to ascertain what types of waste occur at specific touch-points throughout the experience, not just the end product itself.

Lean Start-ups and UX

Lean applied to start-ups, as first defined by  Eric Ries, therefore, seek to launch businesses and products, that rely on validated learning, scientific experimentation, and iterative product releases to shorten product development cycles, measure progress, and gain valuable customer feedback. In this way, companies, especially start-ups, can design their products or services to meet the demands of their customer base without requiring large amounts of initial funding or expensive product launches [2].

Agile and UX

Agile, on the other hand, is purely product focussed. It not only applies to software, but agile methods like Scrum are also used in the creation of medical and financial products. Scrum employs collaboration to discern what is of value to a range of users, and encompasses Deming Cycles to continuously improve a team’s capabilities, but it doesn’t specifically seek out to remove waste in the way that Lean defines it. It’s process also doesn’t necessarily seek out a great experience for its products, only that they meet, in Scrum’s case, the Product Owner’s acceptance criteria (“Definition of Done”). UX has a natural place in agile methods to help ensure that users’ needs are taken into consideration in creating products. Products that have a great experience sell better — just look at iPhone and Samsung Galaxy III sales! To extend this exemplar, the intrinsic difference between Lean and Agile is that Agile creates the smartphone, but Lean would assess post- and pre- processes to identify what parts of the that process don’t add value to the end customer experience of that smartphone.

Beyond Agile and Lean UX

While Lean and Agile have different focuses, they are complementary. Lean thinking can improve product delivery in Agile projects, just as Scrum can be applied to the building of a product to reduce waste and increase speed to market. UX has a place with each but, in my mind, is more powerful as the glue that binds each of these ways of working to ensure that the end-user’s experience, where ever it occurs, is optimised both for their enjoyment as well as business profit. The key to this marriage of processes lies in agile’s collaboration, lean’s focus on the ecosystem, and UX’s reinforcement on human-centred design.

Human-centred design is key to understanding the place UX holds in Agile and Lean.
Ecosystems, collaboration and human-centred design are the keys to understanding the differences between UX applied to Lean and Agile methods

Conclusions

Over a decade ago the community were grappling with defining what on earth “information architecture” actually was. Today, those waters continue to be muddied with buzz-words like agile and lean entering our vocabulary from different disciplines and domains. The truth is that as the reach of UX expands and it becomes obvious that an understanding of customers and users, and including that knowledge within service or product design, only serves to increase the value of those products and services. This is the human-centred design focus that the minds of Steve Jobs and others like him brought to the IT industry. Where Lean helps us to focus on entire ecosystems of processes, agile helps us build those products and improve speed to market. Both, though, need this human-centred approach to be successful in our 21st century world.

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1. Womack, James P.; Daniel T. Jones (2003). Lean Thinking. Free Press. p. 352.

2. Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Publishing. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-307-88791-7.

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