Lean UX is not just for lean startups

Posted on July 14, 2011.
Try something new today
It's always time to try something new

As the conversation around Lean UX heats up in the blogs, Twitters and conferences a lot of reference is made to the ideas of lean startup promoted by Eric Ries, Steve Blank and others. Many discussions focus on how user experience and design can exist in the highly iterative and test-driven world embodied by that movement and the companies that employ it. Indeed, lean startup thinking along with Agile philosophies served as inspiration for the Lean UX methodologies and practices I and others have promoted.  It’s no surprise then that when the conversation is focused on other types of organizations the Lean UX approach meets with skepticism.

Many of the questions I get regarding the viability of Lean UX center around three types of organizations – midsize/enterprise level companies, interactive agencies and “other” non-Agile environments. While I won’t address every single challenge and opportunity Lean UX faces in each of these situations, I want to take a high-level look at how this type of thinking can be applied for the benefit of each organization.


Larger companies (i.e., not startups)

Steve Blank describes startups as organizations designed to find a repeatable business model. When those organizations find that business model they shift their focus to scale – i.e., executing that business model at greater quantities and efficiency. This shift drives growth and that growth depends on repeatable processes. Teams are built around these processes leaving little room for iterative evolution of that process. For Lean UX to take root in a larger organization, it needs to start at the team level. An execution team needs to actively decide to try a new way of working. By opening up a new level of communication amongst the team members, new conversations can happen. Members of the team who were never involved previously in the design process are now welcomed in and are not only involved but are encouraged to participate. Design direction and decisions become a broader conversation that brings in fresh internal voices (developers, business owners, subject matter experts, et al) as well as stronger input from your customers.


The goal for this team is to prove the validity of their design solution as early as possible. The designer has the onus, in this type of organization, to break new ground. The initial step is to get buy-in on the design direction from internal members of the team. Conversations around feasibility, scope, general design direction and user experience can all happen at a very early point in the design cycle. Before committing your ideas to pixels even, start shopping them around in their most raw format to ensure that, as you design, you’re heading in the right direction. In addition, you make your teammates aware of that direction empowering them to start aligning their planning and contribution much earlier than they would have in the past.

In all but the most confidential environments, it is usually possible to get a hold of a customer or two. Even if you can’t show them actual work, discussing your proposed solution helps you refine the idea. If through these efforts you learn that the proposed direction is either not feasible or fails to alleviate your customer’s pain points, the investment level made to get that feedback (i.e., sunk cost) is minimal enough that making changes is relatively cost-free.


Enterprise teams can grow to large numbers and the scope of projects can also get big. To break ground for Lean UX, I recommend picking a smaller effort – perhaps even a non-customer-facing project. Taking on a low-risk project allows you to carefully feel your way around your organization’s existing methodologies while proposing new ideas around efforts where failure would have minimal impact both to your team and this new approach.



There are many flavors of consulting companies and agencies. For the purpose of this post, the word “agencies” means interactive and advertising agencies who take on primarily website design and development work. One of the biggest challenges in this environment is separation of the teams. There is, typically, a client-based product team, the agency provides the user experience and design team and a third-party usually provides the technical side of the equation. Traditionally, an agency will kick off a project with a client, disappear for a while, perform voodoo/witchcraft/magic and return to the client with a shiny object. That object may or may not meet the client’s (or their customer’s) needs and edits/redesigns/negotiations ensue from here.


Applying Lean UX in an agency context means engaging your clients on a much more frequent basis. I recommend setting aside two to three 15-minute meetings a week with the client. These can be virtual, phone or in-person but the purpose is to have an ongoing, regularly cadenced conversation about the direction in which you are heading. In addition, these conversations should always include artifacts that show the progress the agency team has made. These artifacts should be of whatever fidelity and polish is available that day. It’s not necessary to push for pixel-perfect mocks at each one of these meetings. That’s wasted effort, as the feedback will undoubtedly force the relocation of some of those pixels. The goal is to show day-over-day progress and iteration on the concept – yes, revealing to the client the way the sausage is made.


This is critical because it makes the client feel like a part of your team. Their input and feedback inevitably makes its way into the product and they begin to “own” the work. The more they feel ownership over the work the more they will defend it and buy in to the vision you’re selling. If a third-party is providing technical support for this effort, they should also be included so that they can weigh in on feasibility, scope and cost of the features being proposed. In addition, they too will begin to feel as part of the team motivating them to create higher quality product more efficiently.


Non-Agile environments

“But my [insert company type/size here] is not an Agile shop!”  Lean UX has its roots in Agile but its practices are not limited to those environments. Regardless of what your methodology is there is always room to be more collaborative and inclusive in your design while reducing waste. The trick is to jump the rut of historical momentum. Just because it’s “always” been done a certain way doesn’t mean that tomorrow, you can’t come in to the office and try something new. And that something new doesn’t have to be a radical re-architecting of the way your company builds products. It can simply start as subtle change to your design process. For example, instead of disappearing behind your monitor for a day or two on a particular task, take a crack at it with your sketchpad and then walk over to one of the developers on your team (or stakeholder, product manager, whatever) and ask them what they think. Share your idea and get their feedback. Tweak the sketch in real-time until you are both on the right page. With this one simple step you have reduced waste in your process, opened lines of communication and iterated on your product design. Nifty.


These small steps can then be strung together into larger shifts in the way your team works. Find the things that resonate and build on them. As your team becomes more efficient and collaborative, other teams take notice. They begin to ask questions and ultimately want to work “the way” you’re working. It’ll take time but the payoff can be big. Regardless, the change has to start small so it may as well be you, the designer, who kicks it off.



Lean UX is a different way of applying the broad user experience and design tools we’ve been using for years. In addition, it promotes a greater role for cross-functional collaboration and transparency that has, traditionally, not been a part of UX processes. Interpreted in that light, it’s easy to see that the application of Lean UX can span any type and size of company as well as any development environment. The trick is to have an open mind, try something new, see how it works and iterate from there. Small steps lead to small wins. Credibility comes from those small wins on which you can build bigger change. Give it a shot and let me know how it worked out.

4 thoughts on “Lean UX is not just for lean startups

  1. So true!  I am seeing some large organizations are realizing the need to adopt a lean UX culture to be more responsive to their customers and hence be more competitive in a market place where some startups are challenging the survival of well established brands.

  2. I am not sure whether I just don’t like your writing style or whether I disagree with you completely. What is the point of this article?

    1. Jim –

      Thanks for your insightful feedback. If you’d like to point out specific parts of the post that you disagree with or would like clarified further I’d be very interested in that discussion. If the point of your comment was to let me know you don’t like my writing style consider that mission accomplished.



  3. Hi Jeff,

    Great article. Great insight into alternative processes. I agree – frequent collaboration would have prevented man of my agile woes… Just not quite as easy to bill 😉 where there’s a will, there’s a way. In the end we have to do what’s best for the client/project.

    PS – I never comment on blogs I don’t like. I just stop reading them.


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