Revising UX: Learning from the Lean Startup Movement

As a consultant, I’m always interested in new ways to win interesting engagements. By interesting, I mean the opportunity to do research based design, measure the ROI and perhaps even have a publishable case study. UX designers are consistently plagued with situations that shut the door on research and KPIs. “We can only afford the time and budget for wireframes.” and “If only we would have brought you in at the beginning of the project you could have had more impact.” Are frequently heard when I to dig into a new project. I love Leisa Reichelt’s  great presentation Strategic User Experience at UX Cambridge 2011 discusses the state of typical UX engagements.

Brick Wall
User Experience projects consistently face the same barriers to delivering value.

User Experience has had considerable time to mature as a discipline. Heck, we even have a cryptic acronym with an ‘X’! It’s surprising that we haven’t broken through the roadblocks that we were fighting a decade ago. At the same time, iterative, user centered methodologies like Lean Startup are gaining significant momentum. The message is the same; make informed decisions about your product based on empirical information. From this we can see that the value proposition is not what businesses don’t embrace. It’s the packaging and delivery of that value. The way that UX presents itself to the market is in need of a pivot.

Stephanie Sansoucie and I have been discussing the shared ideals of UX and Lean Startup. Eric Ries doesn’t make much of a mention to user experience even though UX strategy is the core of what he is presenting. Stephanie and I have concluded that it’s time for User Experience to heed its own message and become more accessible to those we work with and serve. How do we do that?

User Experience has centered itself around design activities, always hoping to get the budget and time to do research first. What would happen if our defacto deliverable was research, and design was what got done with copious time and budget? Think about it. The UX resource focuses on doing the research necessary to develop a UX strategy to fulfill the product vision. He ensures that the project team is exposed to the information they need about users in order for the team to make informed interface and workflow choices. What would happen if our primary role was providing that information and we left the bulk of the designing to those with their hands in the code? I have a theory that the world would become more user friendly.

Which produces the better experience? A skilled designer making assumptions about what will work for users based on experience and no data, or developers making design decisions armed with ample information about their users? We have a world full of digital products produced using the former process. I’d like to see us try a new way rather than banging our heads against the same brick walls. I think it will be the first step to finally gaining wide adoption and having a better way to deliver on the promise of UX.

6 thoughts on “Revising UX: Learning from the Lean Startup Movement

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  2. As UX professionals, we must often to do our work in the face of adversity where UX methodology has not been embraced culturally by the very organizations who have hired us. Access to users may be cut off and core research and validation activities may be quickly cut from the project scope. As a result, the benefits of the UX approach are not realized. These companies are often wasting their time and money producing marginal deliverables by cutting core activities against our advice. Moreover, it can be downright difficult to get your work done on time in an environment where you have to upsell your approach at every turn.

    For all of these reasons, I have to admit that I am *VERY* excited about the unexpected integration of UX strategy at the core of the Lean Startup approach. For the first time ever, we are seeing companies embracing the basic tenets of user experience at the point of new formation. What does this potentially mean for our discipline?


    Imagine a world where we no longer had to sell UX because companies are founded on the very tenets of user experience strategy and methodology. While Lean Startup does not provide much reference to UX as a discipline, you don’t have to look too hard to see it in the approach. This book does not offer a lot of tactical guidance, but it does provide a strategic framework.
    What I see here is a tremendous opportunity for us to offer strategic and tactical guidance to these startups. Everything about this book and the level of book sales suggest to me that startups are hungry for UX support at the strategic and tactical level. Right now, my sense is that many of these startups have no idea that the UX discipline even exists. For those that are aware of UX practitioners, we may be deemed an inappropriate resource due to cost or reputation.

    I could go on for hours on this topic, but for the moment, I will leave you with this. I recommend you give this book a quick read if you haven’t done so already. I believe that these companies may be screaming for our help, and I think it’s time we find a way to jump in and help them out.

  3. I believe that simplicity rules the day when it comes to product design and development. I would love to be a “hero designer” w/o need for a programmer, biz dev gal, or project manager-I would love to horde all the insights and always have the best answers for any problem.

    But that is all impossible for MOST new products being birthed lately. They are too rich, too diverse, too feature heavy at times.

    Instead what is possible for those products/ideas, is for a group of diverse people with diverse disciplines to come together as a team and think through, work through, write through, or sketch through issues. My best days of leading a creative team were when the intern, front desk guardian, or exec admin comes up with a simple money saving idea that the rest of the “creative” or “exec” team has been struggling with for hours/days.

    When the group model is worked over the individual model these happy discoveries spread ownership through the company improving morale, the product and company wide communication. At no time do I think this can apply to every business model and yes there still needs to be a decision owner of the direction.

  4. Great thoughts Gail! I do believe that part of the shift is going to have to come from UXers setting their own standards in terms of how work gets done. If research and strategy are not afforded as part of the process, the project isn’t done. It’s a tough stand to take, but ultimately it is best for all involved.

  5. Giff Constable did a great presentation this weekend at AgileUXNYC emphasizing the need to measure and validate the value that is delivered to the business and customers. That could be the most important research that we do for furthering the efforts of good UX design. Think about it. How easy would it be to sell integrated UX to clients and stakeholders if you can readily show them the metrics your contributions? If these value measurements were common practice, clients could easily tell which UX designers are good at what they do rather than having to take our word for it. Designers would also benefit from the constant qualitative feedback.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with your article, Gail. Research is the currency that organizations need – and listen to. And it’s the foundation that UX needs to deliver customer-focused design.
    Likewise, Colette, customer centricity is the important focus. That’s the lesson that UX brings to the table – design for our customers, not for us – but that UX teams don’t always know how to put into practice.
    My learning on the job, over time, is that UX best practice never wins arguments. Creating a laser focus on user and customer data, on the other hand, turns business partners’ heads. And doing data-driven design both gets more traction and delivers against success criteria.
    We also need to go beyond the model of testing design work to collect actionable data. Customer SAT / Net Promoter surveys, customer verbatim from surveys or support cases, web analytics, and business metrics are all rich sources of potential insights about design.
    People talk about creating design culture. The short-sightedness of that model is that
    UX / design is just another interest (and self-interested) group within an organization. Yes, I want UX to be more empowered, but I think that happens by having UX people drive a focus on customer needs and work to create a customer-centric culture.
    We all need to focus on customers more. What we build should be about them, not about us.

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