by Greg Laugero

How ‘Lean UX’ Can Improve Application Development

Apr 05, 20125 mins
Agile DevelopmentDeveloperInnovation

User experience designer Greg Laugero says 'Lean UX'--the next big thing in application development--places the emphasis on quickly developing the right thing for the target user. It holds significant promise for getting better applications to market faster.

As the name implies, it emerges from the general popularity of Lean thinking, such as lean manufacturing and lean startups, characterized by a laser-like focus on finding business value. The goal of Lean UX is to find the quickest way to identify and design features that matter most to the target customer. As such it offers a new way to think about the application development process. CIOs and IT professionals can take advantage of Lean UX to deliver value faster.

While the definitions of Lean UX vary widely, there are four fundamental elements:

  • Finding the core features that matter most to customers—no more, no less—and find them at the cheapest possible cost.
  • Moving as quickly as possible through the “build-measure-learn” loop. This is also referred to in UX circles as the “think-make-check” loop.
  • Exposing the product directly to target users early and often.
  • Developing “minimum viable products.” Moving through the loop often does not require building an actual product.
  • Clickable prototypes, presentations, screen mockups, and other low-fidelity techniques often work well.

For Lean UX practitioners, this is a quasi-scientific endeavor and involves validating hypotheses. Josh Seiden, one of the prominent voices of Lean UX, puts it this way:

  • “First, you declare your assumptions, and express them as a testable hypothesis.
  • Then, you write your test-what signal will you get back from the market that will let you know if your hypothesis is true?
  • Finally, you ask the question, ‘what’s the smallest thing I can do or make to test this hypothesis?’ The answer to this question is your minimum viable product, or MVP.”

Lean UXers are always in learning mode. And this is what makes the methodology different than (and complementary to) Agile and other rapid-development methods. While they overlap significantly (and have been successfully integrated), Lean UX places more emphasis on quickly building the right thing rather than quickly building something.

Putting Lean UX to Work

There are two ways that Lean UX can be put to work:

  1. To scope the development process by discovering the right requirements, user stories or enhancements
  2. To find the best user interface (UI) when requirements and user stories are defined

If you find your organization working on big projects with lots of uncertainty about which requirements really matter, then Lean UX can help. You may start with a list of requirements, but Lean UX quickly establishes tests that will prove which requirements are most important to the actual users of the system. You should do this before you seek funding for the bigger project.

An example: Let’s say the business has an idea for a mobile application. It’s a big idea with lots of stakeholders, all with different opinions on what it should do. When you ask what the target market is, the value users might get, or the actual scope, you get different answers from different people. The stakeholders are adamant about its potential, but you see nothing but scope creep and blown timelines because the idea isn’t focused enough. You don’t want to spend scarce development resources to validate the idea.

Lean UX will help you break down the idea into testable hypotheses to see if there is a marketable product. For example, start by trying to prove that the application has any perceived value by the market. To test this, put a clickable prototype in front of a few users. Work with those users to isolate exactly what they like—where do they find value. Then, you might build a simple version of the application to see if anyone downloads it. In the first test, you were looking for value. In the second test, you’re looking for scale—is there a big enough market to warrant further investment?

The second way to use Lean UX is when you know your requirements and user stories, but you’re not sure what the UI should be. Here is where Lean UX is a natural fit with Agile. Lots of work has been done to combine these two methods, and it’s accelerating (though still experimental). Recently, integration has occurred in two ways:

  • Developers and designers are paired to work on the same user stories simultaneously.
  • User testing is a part of the sprint.

Here’s how it might work with our mobile application. Stories are prioritized. Then the developer and designer together sketch out “wireframes,” which are reviewed with the stakeholders. Put the wireframes (or a prototype) in front of a few users. Document changes and review again with stakeholders. The designer finishes the UI while the developer gets ready for coding. The developer and designer work together to make sure the code works as designed, perhaps conducting additional rounds of user testing. The sprint proceeds like this until stakeholders feel like it’s ready to go to market.

No doubt the integration of UX into application development processes is in its experimental phase. Some of the most interesting work is focused on the combination of Lean UX and Agile development. It’s worth watching because it holds significant promise for getting better products to market faster.

Greg Laugero is co-founder of Industrial Wisdom. He helps companies turn their ideas into real products with great user experiences. Follow him on Twitter: @prodctstrategy.