Agile UX vs Lean UX – How they’re different and why it matters for UX designers

I’ve seen a lot of discussion recently on what the difference is between Agile UX and Lean UX. I am happy to plead guilty to having used these terms interchangeably, as it would seem they are both talking about a more light-weight and iterative UX practice. But when I was recently asked to participate in a Lean UX Roundtable panel, I thought it would be a good opportunity to show that they, in my opinion, really are not the same.

Here’s the slide I used in explaining how they’re different (I’ve added the complete deck below):

Explaining the relationship and differences between Traditional, Agile, and Lean UX

Traditional UX – it’s not like it suddenly vanished

I think it’s easy to think that just because you are adopting an Agile and/or Lean approach to your UX practice, that all the traditional UX practices and principles suddenly somehow vanish. Nothing could be further from the truth. As experience quality becomes an evermore critical factor in product success (ie. if you have 10 apps to choose from that basically all have the same features, which one do you think people will pick?), everything that UX designers have been hemming and hawing about for eons (ahem) about usability and good design principles is as important as ever.  Good design is good design, regardless of if we are living in an Agile or Lean or [insert new term] universe. The only real difference when adopting these methods is in the How, which is what Agile and Lean UX are all about.

Agile UX – Collaboration and Delivery

Agile was created by enterprise developers and looks at the software product from a developer perspective, similarly to how someone working in a restaurant kitchen looks at the restaurant at large. It’s not that the stuff going on in the front of the house, the experience part of the restaurant, isn’t seen as important, it just isn’t the primary focus.  Furthermore, in the enterprise world of old, which was a primary focus of Agile, software products were more akin to an institutional cafeteria anyway, ie highly utilitarian systems where the focus is on delivering the required features rather than a great user experience.  As Ward Cunningham, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, once said at an Agile UX retreat at Cooper, “Agile is hot food served quickly.”

Ultimately, Agile is about high-quality high-velocity delivery of working software.  In the Agile universe, that is the ultimate measure of progress.  However, a funny thing happened on the way to that Agile Manifesto.  Making great software quickly, it turns out, requires collaborating really effectively with pesky non-binary entities called people.  While basically silent about UX design, Agile thinking offers a fundamental paradigm shift about how to interact and communicate with the people on your team and beyond.

So, while there certainly is a lot that UX designers can learn from Agile thinking on software delivery (such as to automate everything that can be automated), the real pay-off for UX practitioners is in the collaboration part.  Agile UX methods, like Design Studio and Cross-Functional Pairing, help UX practitioners replace slow documents with fast and effective direct interaction.  An Agile UX practice, in other words, replaces document-centered practice with one that is collaboration-centered.  This is a very big deal for UX designers working on Agile teams, because it is this shift that is key in allowing them to integrate their practice with Agile Developers.

Lean (Startup) UX – Measuring and Validating Product/Market Fit

Cool, so now we’ve got this great Agile machine allowing us to be crazy-efficient in shipping software.  But, um, did anyone check to see if we are shipping the right software?  A Lean UX approach shows us that shipping, which basically is the big honkin’ Done in the Agile world, is in fact really only the beginning.  While Agile methods help UX designers turn old ways of designing and communicating on their head, Lean UX helps us overturn old approaches to research and measuring quality.

In a traditional model, research is something you do before starting to create the product, to figure out what the product is that you are going to build.  In a Lean approach, we are continuously building and gathering metrics about what we have built.  The most archetypal example of this is the metrics-gathering landing page, which is created and launched at the very outset of the project, rather than soon before the “finished” product is about to be released.  We turn what was once just seen as marketing fluff into an actual experiment of our hypothesis that others will think our idea is as great as we think it is.  Then, the metrics gathered from that landing page (or it can evolve into a full-fledged metrics-gathering website) are fed back into the product design.

But a landing page is just one of any number of ways one can apply Lean UX.  Another common pattern is to create a simple prototype and GOOB! or “Get Out of the Building!”  Many UX designers give lip-service to the idea of User-Centered Design, but don’t actually spend a lot of face-time with real users.  Regardless if they do, GOOBing both rebrands and reshapes the idea of UCD and also gives UX designers a nice kick in the butt to get out of their cozy cubicles and offices and actually take their ideas to where the users are.

We are, in this model, not doing research before or after the product is made but throughout the product design and delivery process.  While in an Agile UX model, Building is Designing is Building, in a Lean UX model, Building is Research is Building, and it is easy to see how these two are very much intertwined.  Like with Agile UX, it allows for much more easily integrating research with how Agile teams work, since it is continuous and not up-front.

One more thing about Lean UX: I think it’s kinda’ confusing.  The term “Lean” has its origins in Lean Manufacturing and refers to the practice of minimizing waste and maximizing flow, which, in turn, is a cornerstone of Agile methods.  Lean UX, on the other hand, is really a reference to Lean Startup a la Eric Ries (and Steve Blank, basically the godfather of Lean Startup, and creator of concepts like Customer Development and Getting Out of the Building), which extends Agile ideas to include methods for ensuring that there in fact is a market for the product you are doing such a good job designing and shipping early and often.

Bottom line: in everyday conversation, whether one uses the term Lean or Agile or what-not is probably not important.  What’s more important is an understanding of how Agile and Lean help make traditional UX a more whole practice.

Oh, and here is the complete deck from my 10-minute opening talk at the Lean UX Roundtable Panel: