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entrepreneurship Lean Startup Is Great UX Packaging

When Albert Einstein was a professor1 at Princeton University in the 1940s, there came the time for the final exam of his physics class. His assistants passed the exam forms to the hundreds of students, and the hall was dead silent. One of the assistants suddenly noticed something was wrong.

She approached Einstein and told him that a mistake had been made with the exam form and that the questions were the same as those in the previous year’s exam. Einstein glanced over the exam form and said that it was OK. He explained that physics had changed so much in the last year that the answers to the questions were now different.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

The lean startup movement, like Einstein’s physics exam, talks about the same things that UX people have talked about for decades. The difference is that people are now listening. Lean UX is an approach that quickly followed the lean startup movement. It is not a new thing. It’s just a new name for things that were always around. The difference is in the packaging of these ideas.

One other factor that has changed dramatically is the audience. Entrepreneurs and startup founders have always been asking themselves how to develop great products. The answer that UX practitioners, usability professionals and UX researchers have been giving them was too complicated. UX people (me included) have been using disastrous jargon that only we understand. We have been talking about usability tests, personas, field studies and areas of interest in eye-tracking studies.

The lean startup answer to the same question uses plain language that people understand. When I say, “We need to conduct a contextual inquiry,” I usually get a deer-in-the-headlights reaction. When a lean startup person says they are “getting out of the building,” it is a whole different story. We mean the same thing; we use different words.

Does it matter? I think it does. Who would have thought that startup companies would be looking for UX people and UX founders, and would become interested in doing usability testing, iterative design and customer interviews?

This article takes the principles of the lean startup and suggests their UX research equivalents. Hopefully, it sheds some light on why the lean startup concept is so very well accepted in the entrepreneurial world and why startups suddenly want to do UX research and design.

Validated Learning And Usability Testing Link

The lean startup movement claims that startups exist not just to make stuff, but to learn how to build sustainable businesses. This learning can be validated scientifically by running frequent experiments that enable entrepreneurs to test each element of their vision, as outlined by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup5. In my interview with Ries (embedded below), the most familiar voice of the lean startup movement, for my book It’s Our Research6, he calls for entrepreneurs to double-check their assumptions to verify that they are right. He determines that validated learning exists to help entrepreneurs test which elements of their vision are brilliant and which are crazy.

In the UX world, we call in the product development people to evaluate their design assumptions in usability tests. We urge them to ask users to complete tasks while using the think-aloud protocol and to identify usability problems.

An interview with Eric Ries about getting stakeholder buy-in for UX research and how it relates to the Lean Startup ideas.

When entrepreneurs hear “validated learning,” they can see the benefit. They understand that this concept refers to proving or disproving their assumptions. When they hear “usability testing,” they associate it with a time-consuming, money-eating, academically oriented project.

Validated Learning
Validated learning: You believe you’ll find a new continent if you keep sailing west. So, you test your idea and verify the route using scientific methods and measurements.

Build-Measure-Learn And Think-Make-Check Link

The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, to measure how customers respond and then to learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop. As Ries explains, the feedback loop includes three primary activities: build (the product), measure (data) and learn (new ideas).

Build-Measure-Learn And Think-Make-Check
Eric Ries’s Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop and the Think-Make-Check UX cycle.

The lean UX approach calls for a slightly different cycle: Think-Make-Check. The difference, according to Janice Fraser (cofounder and first CEO of Adaptive Path), is that this latter feedback loop incorporates your own thoughts as a designer, not just ideas learned through measurement. Janice, who now leads LUXr7, indicates that the pattern of a lean startup is an endless loop consisting of two steps: Prove-Improve, Prove-Improve, Prove-Improve. This means that you design something, learn about it, make it better, learn again and so on. There is no room for people who are afraid to put their creations on the line for testing. These two feedback loops are very similar and are making a lot of sense to people in both the entrepreneurial and the UX worlds.

Build-Measure-Learn: How do you build the fastest ship? You try to build and test your hypothesis; you measure the result; and then you learn new knowledge that you can bring to your next ship design.

MVP, And “Test Early And Often” Link

The minimum viable product (MVP), as Ries explains it, is a version of the product that enables a full turn of the Build-Measure-Learn loop with a minimum amount of effort and the least amount of development time. How many times have UX people told their stakeholders that for every dollar spent on solving a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development, and $100 if the problem had to be solved after the product is released?

We’ve known for years that product prototypes are to be evaluated early in the development process (not just prior to launch). We’ve also known that these evaluations are most valuable if they are repeated throughout the process. The MVP is, in fact, an early prototype that serves as a tool to learn and test the team’s assumptions.

<br /> Minimum Viable Product
MVP: You want to build a huge ship, but instead of building the ship right from the beginning, you start by testing your idea with minimal design to see if it floats.

Pivot And Iterate Link

To use the analogy of a basketball “pivot,” one foot of a business is always firmly rooted in what the team has learned so far, while the other foot is moving and exploring new ideas for the business. Instead of taking the big risks of developing something huge, lean startups take small steps forward, developing things and pivoting to better directions. This way, if they fail, the fall will be less painful and will allow them to bounce back and continue. On the other hand, if they had climbed a big cliff, the potential fall would be deadly.

This reminds me of why we pitch for an iterative design process or for using the RITE methodology (rapid iterative testing and evaluation). Many product development decision-makers feel that the best time to conduct a usability test is near launch time, when things look good and are “ready” for users to play with. Many UX research practitioners know that when they agree to conduct a usability test right before a product is launched, especially if this is the first usability test for the product, the following is most likely to happen:

  1. The study will result in a long list of defects (i.e. usability problems);
  2. The product team will be presented with a long list of issues exactly when they are trying to shorten the list of issues;
  3. Only the easiest problems to fix will be taken care of;
  4. The most important problems will be ignored and the product will be launched;
  5. By the time the team is ready to start working on the next version, there’s already a long list of new features to be developed, leaving the usability issues low down on (or off) the priority list.

The solution to all of this is to adopt an iterative design process that involves fast rounds of small-scale usability tests. Jakob Nielsen has been preaching this8 for years now. And then along comes Eric Ries, who talks in the most natural way about pivoting companies, directions, customer segments and design. People don’t iterate, they pivot.

Pivot: You want to defeat your opponent, but it is difficult to win instantly by launching a full-scale attack in one shot. The proper way would be to advance and attack step by step, always keeping one foot on the ground and ever ready to bounce back in case an attack is not successful.

Customer Development And Fieldwork Link

The term “customer development” was coined by Stanford University professor Steve Blank, one of the fathers of the lean startup movement. Customer development means developing your own understanding of who your customers are, what they are like and what their needs are. This is done through an approach guided by the mantra “Get out of the building.” This mantra urges entrepreneurs to interview potential customers, to observe them in their own environment and to try to make sense of it. What a revelation to our UX research ears, huh? We UX people have been getting out of the building for a living for decades now. We call it by different names: ethnography, fieldwork, generative research, exploratory research, discovery research, user research, design research. Phew!

Customer Development
Customer development: You want to trade with a country in the Far East. However, when you finally get to talking with the people of the country, you realize that they prefer to trade with your scientific equipment rather than your gold coins.

The Bottom Line Link

The lean startup movement, like the story of Einstein’s physics exam, talks about the same things that UX people have talked about for decades. The difference is that people are now listening. The lean startup movement, followed by the lean UX approach, did not reveal any new UX concept. Lean startup thought-leaders do a terrific job and do an awesome service to UX people who struggle to get buy-in for design thinking and UX research.

The secret sauce of lean startup people is that they advocate for user experience research and design as one of the primary solutions to their business problems, and they do it using plain language. I highly encourage UX practitioners to closely monitor the developments and thought-leadership in the lean startup world to see how they can use what they learn in their own organizations, “lean” or not.

Learn More About The Lean Startup Movement Link

Books Link

Videos Link

Illustrations by Calvin C. Chan, (@calvincchan18), UX designer, Hong Kong.


Footnotes Link

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Tomer is a user experience researcher at Google Search in New York City and author of the book, It's Our Research: Getting stakeholder buy-in for user experience research projects (2012). He founded and led UPA Israel and is the co-founder and organizer of leanUXmachine, a weekend of UX learning, collaboration, and mentorship for Israeli startups. Tomer holds a master’s degree in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.

  1. 1

    Not going to lie, this article was rather bland and seemed rather pointless. More tips and techniques, less articles that are hard to read and difficult to decipher the point the author is trying to make.

    The drawings were cool :)

    • 2

      This article was not bland and certainly not pointless. The Lean Startup movement is a new way to manage startups and as you can learn from this article, the processes UX designers have been using are really similar to what Lean Startup advocates as the way to a successful startup.

  2. 3

    I think this is one of the highest quality articles I’ve seen on Smashing in a while. Keep it up!

    • 4

      Thank you, Jonathan. Much appreciated. What other topics interest you when it comes to the intersection of Lean Startup and UX?

  3. 5

    My comment will be only about one part of the article I specially like.
    Packaging ideas. There are many packaged ideas like “Lean UX”. For example, “Web 2.0” packaged many ideas around that were already being used. Likewise, “Gamification” packages virtual currencies, points, badges, levels, leaderboards, challenges, etc. into a new subject.
    When such packages are created, people know what they do and why they do it. For example badges were being used by many sites like Stack Overflow, forum sites etc. But did all these sites that use badges knowing that “engaging a user in a non game application using gaming concepts” will increase the value of the product ? Mostly they just knew that using badges will drive users to use the application. When you do not really know what you are doing, the result will be a product that uses “some” good ideas. But when you package releated good ideas into a new subject, the result will be a best practice.
    For example, you can check Louis Von Ahn’s new project: Duolingo. Duolingo teaches a language to the user, and at the same time it aims to translate the web. They used gamification obviously knowing that they were using gamification. This way they created a product that always drives the user to keep learning the language and translating the web.
    Finally maybe we should start packaging releated ideas knowing that we are packaging ideas and give it a new name like “Lean UX” or “Gamification”.

  4. 6

    Gary R Boodhoo

    October 12, 2012 2:52 am

    great illustrations

  5. 9

    Justin Henriksen

    October 12, 2012 6:22 am

    Great video injection! I agreed with a few pieces in that video, and it got me thinking about the iterative process, as designers we take to make ourselves happy with the designer / client relationship. (Don’t tell me I’m wrong, I’m the designer — here’s my proof). I think we should shift some of that thinking. However, what I don’t agree with, and this is just an opinion, Eric claims that as entrepreneurs they should take on UX research and design and do it for themselves. Now, I do enjoy and agree with the fact that I would like the entrepreneur to appreciate and understand the design work, the process and some of the hurdles we overcame to get there; however, there are certain things I don’t feel that entrepreneurs need to “do themselves” to fully appreciate and understand; one of those being design, UI / UX. As an owner of a small design company there are “hats” that I just have to wear in order to save money, etc. But, there are some items I don’t touch for good reason. One example might be law. I am not a lawyer. I don’t have a law degree. There are complexities at work that I will never understand. With that said, I can understand basic things, appreciate what my lawyer provides, but that doesn’t mean I learn law. I feel that design is one of those things. I want start-ups to learn about design and appreciate great design, and yes know how to feel out a good UX researcher or designer, but to do it themselves? I don’t agree with that. This is an opinion only. I know some of you will agree and some won’t. Overall, great article — it stirred up some great debate in my mind and I suppose that’s what a good article does! Well done. Thanks!


    • 10

      Thanks, Justin. I’m happy to learn it makes people think :-)
      As for the point you are making, I am well aware of that debate. Maybe I should write an article about it… (When should startups hire their first UXer?). Maybe.

  6. 11

    I agree with some of the points in here and I love that you are connecting the dots between design jargon and lean startup jargon. I think you are extremely off base when you associate “validated learning” with “usability testing”. This is a frequent misconception with folks that are not actually applying these methods in their daily work. Lean Startup is about using these techniques to search for a BUSINESS MODEL that will work, not just designing the product with your customers.

  7. 12

    Other than repeating Lean principles and practices for about the millionth time this year on Smashing, what is this article adding, other than trying to score credit for the UX community?

    “UX people” weren’t the first to get out of the building and try to validate their assumptions with data. That’s just plain old science.

  8. 13

    Well said. UX people are great at having empathy for the end user, but not so for their own customers. Lean UX appeals to this group with its terminology and simplicity in explanation… totally agree!

  9. 14

    varun bhardwaj

    October 21, 2012 8:00 pm

    thanks for the pointers. however i would like to know if .. think >> make >> learn is really different from other cycle. | build + product = make (just another word) OR
    learn + ideas = think OR measure + data= check

  10. 15

    Stefan Gustafsson

    October 23, 2012 2:48 pm

    I can not agree more with this article! I just started reading the Lean Startup book. While the things spoken about is a move in a great direction, I was also taken aback/pissed off at how these ideas are treated as some kind of new gospel, when this is the way designers are always trying to make it happenbbbut often with huge resistance. The book should have the title “How an engineer learned that talking to the customer is necessary”.

  11. 16

    Great article and ( I have to admit) I loved the sketches. We hear you, loud and clear. Until recently, the clients were the ones we had trouble convincing of UX worth. When we started backing up our knowledge with hard numbers we’d found doing the research, it was a LOT easier for clients to digest things like why Flash wasn’t a good idea for their particular website.

    Thanks for sharing!


  12. 17

    Much of the article I agree with, not sure why it has to be pitched as a competition between who came up with the ideas first, software development is meant to be a collaborative game – should feel like a team sport when we are working together and doing it right. I also think there is a sweet spot to be found (which will vary by context) of the write amount of prototype vs working product. The article does seem to infer that we can prove all our assumptions without putting the working software in the hands of the customer. What they say or appear to do can be quite different to what they actually do. Everything is a hypothesis until we get true validated learning. I think the case for an MVPe (Minimum Viable Product Experiment) is there just be risk driven and don’t hold back too long from your MVP.


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