What is Lean UX? UX Question #38

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Cirroc from Los Angeles asks: What is Lean UX?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Cirroc. This is UX Question number 38 and I am Ben Judy.

What is Lean UX? Well, there’s a straightforward answer and a cynical answer.

The straightforward answer is, Lean UX is an approach to user experience design rooted in three things: design thinking theory, Agile software development methods, and Lean product management methods described in the book The Lean Startup by Eric Reis, published in 2011.

The cynical answer is, Lean UX is a buzzword adopted by people who consider tried and true UX best practices to be a waste of time, and who are willing to use UX anti-patterns and embrace design debt under the banner of ‘efficiency.’ And it’s all okay, because we sprinkle fairy dust all over our prototypes from magic potion bottles labeled ‘MVP’ and ‘design thinking.’

I will tell you from personal experience—that is a cynical understanding of Lean UX, and it is also a highly accurate description of how Lean UX is practiced in the real world.

The theory of how this could work well is found in the book, Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden—link in the description. I don’t have a big problem with their book, except that this approach is only appropriate or feasible in very specific situations.

Like Agile UX, many sins are committed under the banner of Lean UX. I have seen it used as a free pass to abandon rigorous commitment to the hard strategy and research and design work actually needed to deliver good outcomes for users.

It might be helpful to compare Lean UX and Agile UX (see episode 25) because there is some overlap. In practice, it boils down to this:

Lean is about doing the bare minimum work required to deliver value—to users and to the business. The goal is efficiency, and the enemy is waste—whatever the business leaders consider to be waste.

Agile, in practice, is about delivering working software in short sprints. The goal is shipping software features, and the enemy is committing to work that takes longer than two weeks to complete.

The dangers of Lean and Agile are similar: when we trade meaningful principles for empty dogma and methodologies that are mismatched to our context and our challenges. UX becomes magic and if we just do the rituals and recite the words, good UX should just happen, right?

There are some good tactics that have come out of Lean UX culture, such as efficient ways to conduct usability testing. Borrow those and put them in your toolbox to use situationally. But I would personally be reluctant to join any team that is totally bought in to a Lean approach.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How do I build a strong UX portfolio?

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