"Lean UX" is nothing new, or is it?

Designer Andy Budd expresses his concerns about Eric Ries's Lean Startup and Lean UX processes in a thoughtful post that I highly recommend. He argues that these trendy buzzwords are simply repackagings of old ideas. Budd is dead right that Ries's ideas aren't new, but I argue that Ries has still accomplished something important: a new audience is listening to those ideas.

I'll liberally quote from Budd below, but I'd recommend reading the entire thing on his site.

As I sat listening to Eric [Ries] I thought to myself, “here’s a guy who really get’s user experience design” and thought it was great to see somebody from the start-up world echo what we’ve been saying in the design world for years.

Jump forward 18 months and Eric Reis has become the poster boy for the Lean Start-up® movement, lauded by business magazines like Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review. While I was grateful that these ideas were gaining wider circulation, something started bugging me. Wasn’t the Lean Start-up® simply a case of the Emperors New Clothes? A combination of User Experience Design and Agile development rebranded and repackaged for a new market.

Also, what the hell was that ® about?


You see, I think I developed an immediate dislike of the Lean UX brand because it’s something I felt the UX industry was already doing. However the more I looked at traditional UX agencies the more I realised that this wasn’t the case. Instead of doing quick bursts of user research they were running month long engagements; rather than doing café testing on half a dozen people they were lab testing a hundred, and rather then sketching interfaces out on paper and prototyping them in HTML/CSS, they were generating reams and reams of formal documentation.

Over the last few weeks a grim realisation has started to dawn on me and it’s something I’m not especially happy about. I think the reason I hate the Lean UX label so much is because Clearleft is a Lean UX company. That’s why Lean UX has always felt superfluous to me; because it doesn’t describe anything new, interesting or novel; just business as usual.

My take is different. The value of Lean Startup and Lean UX doesn't come from the novelty of their advice. Their achievement is getting entrepreneurs and software developers to finally listen to that advice. The software industry industry collectively doesn't "get" design and we have been slow to learn cheap validation techniques. We design products from unvalidated bullet points instead of from empathy. We treat our expectations of customer behavior as infallible.

I've seen my companies commit these sins numerous times. ("If we could just strip a few features out of our enterprise product and lower the price, we could sell to SMBs!") And we've all seen the recent high-profile examples, with Google Wave and Google Buzz at the forefront.

Designers haven't been successful at selling design practices. In some cases, as Budd points out, they advocated wasteful practices that are unlikely to win converts within a software company. But, even when designers call for effective methods, they tend to lack the organizational power to call for fundamental change in how companies conceive and validate their product visions.

Ries's success is getting CEOs and developers to follow practices that designers alone once followed. And he is doing so with some clever repackaging (MVP as Ries defines it isn't much different from low-fidelity design.) But Ries isn't stealing or plagiarizing. His book liberally gives tribute to design thinking and to lean thinking, which is also decades old. He is getting developers and entrepreneurs to recognize the fallibility of their own ideas, to validate constantly, and to build only enough product to get the required validation. If Lean UX produces a positive change in how companies build products, then Ries has earned his money.

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    4c - Four Cups - "Lean UX" is nothing new, or is it?

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