Using Lean UX Within Agile Software Development

In the world of Agile software development, a natural tension has emerged between the engineering and UX functions. The UX team often works in relative isolation from the rest of the product team, completing research and creating prototypes without feedback from engineers.

Then, when it’s time to hand off designs to the developers, issues pop up — certain features aren’t feasible, for example, due to API limitations or other reasons. These issues are frustrating, time consuming, and — in some cases — entirely preventable. One way of preventing these hand-off headaches is to adopt a Lean approach to UX.

What is Lean UX?

Lean UX is a user-centered design approach that embraces Lean and Agile development principles. When compared to more traditional UX practices, Lean UX is more focused on collaboration and iteration. 

A core objective of Lean UX is obtaining ongoing feedback during the design process in order to make improvements quickly and frequently. As with all Lean methodology, Lean UX has a number of guiding principles, including:

  • Cross-functional collaboration
  • Outcomes over output
  • Removing waste
  • Working in small batches to mitigate risk

For more details about these Lean UX principles, the Lean TECHniques UX/CX team recommends Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden.

Benefits of Lean UX

Lean UX carries with it many of the same benefits as other Lean processes. At the end of the day, Lean UX facilitates a faster and more efficient design process. Other benefits of Lean UX include:

Compatibility With Agile

Traditional UX follows more of a “waterfall” development process, which is at odds with Agile methodology. Waterfall is a rigid, sequential way of working, and Agile is all about iteration and responding to change. For organizations and teams doing Agile software development, Lean UX makes a lot of sense.

Increased Collaboration Within Product Teams

Lean UX is all about collaboration. Rather than the UX team doing research in isolation, they’re having ongoing conversations with developers. This way, UX designers can get immediate feedback on their ideas, and developers are looped in regarding planned features.

Less Time Spent on Documentation

The increase in cross-functional collaboration also means that teams don’t need to spend time on tedious documentation in preparation for hand-offs. When everyone is on the same page from the beginning, you can save a lot of time and use your time more efficiently.

More Flexibility to Respond to Outside Factors

With traditional UX and waterfall-style development, there’s one main initial research phase, and many things can change afterwards — markets, customer needs, and other outside factors can all shift after you’ve sunk considerable time into a project.

With Lean UX, you’re constantly doing discovery alongside design and development. This makes Lean UX much more flexible and adaptable to new information that emerges throughout the process.

Faster Value Delivery

The iterative nature of Lean UX means teams are able to deliver value quickly and continuously. It may initially feel like a slow drip compared to the traditional method of delivering a completed product, but demonstrating the value of the project early on is a positive trade-off — and the end result is likely to be a much better product.

Lean UX Challenges

At this point, you might be thinking that Lean UX sounds too good to be true. Conceptually, Lean UX is a fantastic methodology, but you’re likely to have some bumps in the road with implementation.

Adjusting To a New Mindset

Adopting Lean UX principles can be a big shift for all teams involved. The transition won’t be seamless, and some team members might prefer the old way of doing things. Even if it makes things better in the long run, the initial changes might be a struggle for your team.

Educating Others

Once you have your product teams on board with a new way of doing things, educating other teams or business units could be another hurdle. With Lean UX, you might want user feedback early in the process, and your team might need more flexibility in terms of budget and timelines. These things can be an uphill battle, especially when working with other teams or leaders that are resistant to change. It’s your job to help them understand why you want to do things this way and what the benefits are.

Avoiding Too Much Change at Once

Any time you challenge the status quo, you’re going to have some growing pains. In his book The Secrets of Consulting, author Gerald M. Weinberg recommends implementing improvements at a rate of 10% at a time. Any more than that, and you might deal with pushback and other problems. 

Should You Switch to Lean UX?

So, should your organization move away from traditional UX and switch to Lean UX?

The answer depends on a number of variables, including your organization’s UX maturity and appetite for change. While it’s always a good idea to eliminate waste and become more efficient as an organization, Lean UX is not a one-size-fits-all solution or the cure for all of your UX and development pain points. 

If you’re already exploring Lean and Agile principles in other areas of your organization, it’s worth seeing how you can apply those ideas to UX. You can start with small steps toward a more collaborative and iterative UX approach — try things on for size, and keep a pulse on how your team is feeling. 

And if you want an outside perspective as you think through your UX and development processes, reach out to our team