Lean UX: Laying the Foundation for Continuous Innovation

Inspired by Lean and Agile development theories, Lean UX is the practice of bringing the true nature of our work to light faster, with less emphasis on deliverables and greater focus on the actual experience being designed.

- Jeff Gothelf

Lean UX is as much a philosophy as it a set of practices, all geared towards trimming the fat from the way all companies create customer experiences. In a nutshell, the reason why digital innovators are now singing the virtues of having a Lean UX design process is because it’s the first methodology that doesn’t just create successful customer experiences efficiently, it also adds real business value. Based on the Agile development philosophy, a Lean UX approach calls for an iterative and gradual design process. The success of which is not determined by the project’s leaders or designers, but by the users testing the product. On the way, it removes egos and the unnecessary approval steps that weigh down production times. In other words, with Lean UX the only people who get to be ‘right’ about what the customer wants, are the customers.

Admittedly this can be a little daunting, but if you follow Lean UX design principles to the letter, the results will speak for themselves. It’s important to realize that with Lean UX you are not giving up control of the ‘final’ product, because the final product as it’s been thought of in the past no longer exists. Web 2.0 experiences have revolutionized the digital channel so thoroughly that today the only way to remain relevant to customers is through constant innovation. Just look at how quickly and consistently Facebook, Google and Amazon roll out game-changing feature sets. As soon as they do, customers now expect to see its relevant counterpart everywhere, including on your website. If you can’t keep up, then you’ll be left behind. Using a Lean UX developmental approach, the like of which we are advocating at Backbase, means you can adapt and release at speed.

It’s easy to get a bit confused by exactly what Lean UX is, buzzwords abound in the IT industry and ‘Lean’ principles didn’t even start out there. The first part of the term, as we’re using it, was coined by Eric Reis in 2008 when he started the Lean Startup movement based on Japanese lean manufacturing practices. ‘UX design’ is really just shorthand for ‘user experience design’. Together Lean and UX specifically refer to the process of creating a product that actual people will be interacting with. Where Lean UX design departs radically from other design processes as it gets those actual people involved much, much, much sooner in the process. Drastically reducing the chance of spending too much time going down the wrong path and rolling out an expensive piece of digital window dressing that no one outside of the team that built it can figure out how to use.

The other major difference brings us back to the need for constant innovation in the Web 2.0 world. The Lean UX process is the best solution to answer that need with because at its core relies on ‘iteration’. This means repeating a process until you get the ideal response from your customer test base. In the case of Lean UX design, that process is made up of a few simple steps: concept, prototype, validation, testing, learning from those results and going straight back to the concept. Repeat as needed.

Lean UX Design Process
The visualization above gives you a good idea of how the iterative design and critique process works
[source: Warfel, Todd Zaki. 2009. Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Rosenfeld Media]

Anyone who has been involved in user experience design for any length of time will recognize the process of iteration from the Design Thinking philosophy. Jeff Gothelf describes Design Thinking as taking “a solution-focused approach to problem-solving, working collaboratively to iterate an endless, shifting pat toward perfection.” Lean UX design does draw upon this as a foundation but prevents the process from taking place in a vacuum. It drags this iterative process into the light, where honest collaboration and testing ensure project viability from a business value perspective.

It’s worth noting at this point that real Lean UX design principles demand a certain amount of sacrifice, or at least a change in perspective. To go lean you have to put away expectations of receiving beautiful mock-ups at every step of the process. Truly lean UX designers will be able to test their ideas and prototypes using nothing more than a whiteboard and a few colored markers. It’s being able to step away from the idea of receiving stacks of documentation from every person involved that makes budgets just as lean as the design process. Even though you won’t have twenty-five, three inch thick binders to show for it, you will have a product that actually works. Not just for you, but for your customers too.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about adopting a Lean UX design approach is that it doesn’t matter (so much) when designers get it wrong. All design, or even every idea ever thought, is based on some assumptions. It’s human nature to assume – it only becomes a problem when we assume that our assumptions are facts. By openly acknowledging that every concept is based upon assumptions and testing them immediately Lean UX eliminates the potential for costly failures and bruised egos. If it all goes wrong and you’ve been sticking to real Lean UX design principles, all you have to do is scrunch up the napkin sketch, wipe the wireframe doodles off the whiteboard and got back to the drawing board. Literally.

We are genuinely excited by the changes we’re seeing on the digital channel. It’s very clear to us that there are a lot of passionate players who have big ambitions, great vision and lots of ideas for improving customer experience. However, many projects fall apart in the implementation stages because of old technologies that are just incapable of rapidly delivering the kind of experiences and evolving innovation customers want. At Backbase we know this doesn’t have to be the case. We developed our easy-to-use Lean Portal so that it delivers immediately. We believe in simplicity and getting real results quickly, that’s why we’re advocates for Lean UX. We believe that Backbase Lean Portal, together with a Lean UX implementation process will breath new life into portal projects that have become bloated and stagnant.

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