Hint: it’s not.
Recently I was listening to a podcast with the author of Lean UX on the show. It was not the first time I heard of this term since I read Lean Startup a few years ago, but I was not so sure about the clear definition. Fact is, if you are working in UX, you probably have already been using part of Lean UX methodology for a long time, even if you never heard of it.
What is Lean UX?
Lean UX is, as the author Jeff Gothelf explained on the show,
“Take all the tools in a designer’s toolbox, use on an as-needed bases, but only to the depths that are necessary for us to take the next step forward in the evolution of this product or service.”
In other words, DO LESS, MORE OFTEN.
It struck me immediately when I heard this as I started to recall, wasn’t this exactly what I did during my internship at Uber last year? Only back then I didn’t know that, there was this design methodology behind the product development process. My mentor and PM would check in with me constantly once in a while, informally or during presentations, and give me feedbacks. Their suggestions were usually not only about the product itself, but also who else to reach out to for further advice. These people could be designers and researchers in relevant teams, content strategists who were in charge of that product line, engineers who could see potential technical issues or sometimes even give you an estimated timeline of deployment of an MVP.
As a result, all these opinions from other parties played a certain part when I was weighing the pros and cons of different design options. Then I iterate, get feedback, and iterate again.
During the 8 weeks I was working on the primary project that was assigned to me, there were in total 15 iterations, each with 3–4 concepts that significantly differentiate from each other, and each concept with a variety of visual treatments. Beyond static wireframes and mockups, I’m a firm believer in understanding interactions through motion, so I made interactive prototypes for concepts worth exploring.
I’ll give you some numbers just to understand what I did that is tangible in this “Lean” process. For this project, I made ~350 interfaces and ~30 hi-fi interactive prototypes for 25 concepts, plus 2 interactive prototypes of the whole user flow of the 2 final concepts for testing in Invision. Sounds like a lot but it’s totally reasonable when you break the number down to 8 weeks.
But this was not only my work. It was team efforts with all the people I interacted with, which is the intangible part of work. A core mindset of Lean UX is to keep in mind that you are a team player, not a UX lone wolf. Lean has changed the way UX works, for we are no longer the kind of designer that sit at the desk all day and come up with designs. We have extra responsibilities in facilitation and collaboration. We need to be proactive to gather feedbacks form related parties ourselves, instead of waiting for some sort of “boss” to come in and give you the ultimate instruction like old times. By involving ourselves in feedback gathering and product planning, we can better lead the product with firsthand information. Just like PMs, now product designers should also have clear understandings of what is important for the product, but from a different perspective. Thanks to Lean, leadership can no longer be a nice-to-have for UX designers. That said, it would be a disaster if we cannot clearly justify our product decisions, or share our understanding and vision with the whole team.
When to move forward in Lean UX?
In Lean UX methodology, designers should do just enough work that is necessary to move on to the next step forward. No more, no less, just enough.
As Jeff mentioned in the podcast, there used to be times he compiled 200-page design spec documents that listed everything of design details, and later on only 20–30% of the content is implemented, which was a huge waste in the process. That kind of unpleasant experience eventually inspired the creation of Lean UX. Through his original starting point, it’s not that difficult to infer that the essence of Lean UX is to reduce waste and make design process in corporate environment more efficient.
But how much work exactly could be defined as “just enough”?
Short answer is, it depends.
I know it sounds vague, and it truly is when you get started at any new project. It depends on the product roadmap, on related people’s schedules, and on the designer’s ability. However, just like everything else, you become clearer of what you are doing over time. I can vouch for it through my own experience.
Tracing back to when I got started with my previous project at Uber, I didn’t know who to approach right from the beginning, except for my mentor and PM. I had no idea what the final deliverables would be like, or to which extent the prototypes would be. I was also not sure about how much work is worthy of communicating, so that I tried to touch base with my mentor every single day, till one day he said to me, “You know, you really don’t have to check in with me this often.” I still find it amusing when I recall at that time, he held back a little bit, but eventually turned out to speak up and explain to me a lot later on so as not to hurt my feelings.
So as you can see, I started quick and dirty, but it didn’t take me long to figure out the appropriate pace of work. Naturally, I figured it felt just enough to move on to the next iteration after I updated design options till there would be 3–4 new concepts based on the previous batch and feedbacks gathered from major stakeholders. It worked very well for this project as the quality of work kept getting better after each round, and finally grabbed a lot of attention of product leaders in Driver and UberEats team.
So yah, it depends. Most likely, you are going to figure out the amount and pace yourself. Throughout all the projects I’ve done with Lean UX mindset, the processes have never been exactly the same.
Lean UX is not the ultimate design method
Lean UX was born out of Lean Startup, design thinking and Agile. It suits what tons of corporations need for now because of the tremendous popularity of Lean Startup and Agile.
The whole article I’ve been talking about how amazing Lean UX is, and how much benefit it can bring to product design process. I have no doubt that Lean UX will still work well and keep evolving for years to come, for it perfectly fits most modern-day B2C services. But I’m absolutely not saying it is the one true ultimate design method. Just as we ditched the good old ways for Lean, Lean will be replaced by new methods when there is a new disrupting business model, or technology.
It is already happening. And that disrupting thing which will surely push design methods to change significantly again, is called Artificial Intelligence. Imagine when AI can automatically localize content strategies, handle user testings, or even create smart design systems, what can UX fellas do to adapt to the new era?