• Getting to the right level of documentation. Both and approaches emphasize the importance of building working products rather than focusing on documentation. For , certain types of documentation are crucial to exploring and evolving the product, for example IA diagrams or wireframe prototypes. Some approaches for overcoming this challenge include focusing on more lightweight documentation, such as whiteboard sketches or paper prototypes.
  • Learning the language. As with any method, agile and lean both have their own set of distinct language and rituals associated to them. For agile, understanding what is meant by scrum, sprints, the backlog, user stories, and epics will be helpful for designers. Within lean, words like assumptions, hypothesis, MVP, and pivots are some of the core concepts. Shared language and understanding between team members is the backbone of any work.

Where did lean and agile approaches originate?

Aside from the specific UX context, it can be helpful to get a baseline understanding of lean and agile themselves. Lean and agile have distinct origin stories, and the words themselves can have slightly different interpretations associated with them. While they are now sometimes practiced in an integrated way in certain software development teams, they may not necessarily go hand in hand.

Lean can refer to a few different things — namely, lean manufacturing, lean management, lean software development, or lean startup. In a tech and design context, we are usually referring to lean software development or lean startup.

Lean has its origins in lean manufacturing, which emerged from the car manufacturer Toyota in Japan in the late 1940s/early 1950s. In 2003, Mary and Tom Poppendieck wrote a book called “Lean Software Development,” which outlines how to apply the seven principles of lean manufacturing to developing software. In 2008, Eric Ries began outlining the concept of lean startup, which applies lean management theory to startups in the technology space. His 2011 book “Lean Startup” is one of the best-selling business books of all time.

Agile usually refers to agile software development. A backlash occurred throughout the 1990s against heavily planned and regulated approaches to developing software, with teams evolving their approaches to more lightweight and nimble ones such as scrum, crystal clear, and extreme programming. In 2001, a group of 17 software developers came together and published the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development,” based on conversations about these emerging lightweight approaches. Agile has become a catch-all term that often encompasses these approaches, and refers to a way of working when building software that focuses on collaboration, time-boxed work blocks (sprints), and incremental evolution of a product and feature set.

How do lean and agile software development compare to each other?

There is a saying (sometimes attributed to Laura Klein) that says: “Lean helps you build the right thing. Agile helps you build the thing right.” While there are nuances to these approaches, both are focused on highly collaborative teams that aim to build quality products iteratively by being able to break work into smaller chunks and responding to change.

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