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The Truth About ‘The Lean Start-up’

October 24, 2011

in design,prototype

My one treat I give myself when I travel is a trip the magazine rack. I stock up on Fast Company (my personal fav), Inc., The Harvard Business Review and when I’m really spoiling myself a Dwell. The October Inc. looked promising, ‘The Lean Start-up’, with Mr. Lean himself, Eric Ries on the cover. And his start-up story has the painfully familiar melody that most of us can relate to. I didn’t have the misfortune of tanking my own venture, but I woefully bared witness to two Titanics destined for the ocean floor. And my work in design and user experience  during those times only strengthened my belief in generating value by delivering a great product experience to the customer, the same work I’d spent years reading about. Anyone sharing that message is a friend of mine.

Yet, it didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to wane. As the article slowly starts to define this genius new way to innovate product development, a method that seems an awful lot like what I do, what I’ve been doing for years; user experience. And I’m not the only one, nor am I the first, far far from it. Those radicals at IDEO, the outlier Bill Buxton, the godfather of all things process and experience Alan Cooper, I could do this all day… Was Ries cryogenically frozen for 20 years and missed all this UX talk? I didn’t care, I was ticked.

But, I kept myself, until I read Andy Budd’s take on Lean UX. Ok, good, it’s not just me (thanks Andy).

Andy’s perspective nailed it, so at first, I thought, Sweet, I’ll just retweet that…but there was one rather looming issue. Something I think erodes the fabric of the craft of experience design. Now, you can brand something, write a book,  make some dough on it, shout it from the mountain-tops, but I CANNOT swallow is re-naming something that already has a name, a history, practitioners and craftsmen who make a living at it and teach it to others. What’s worse is design has always had a problem defining itself, explaining the value; the 2003 Clement Mok article, ‘Time for Change’ is likely the most powerful depiction of the problem and a solution. When I read it, I made a promise to better the design conversation.

From the Inc. article:

“By building what I call a minimum viable product—or MVP. It helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible. Unlike a prototype or concept test, an MVP is designed not just to answer product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses.”

I’m fine with someone calling their, WIP prototype a MVP, but it’s still a prototype. And prototyping IS and always has been the business plan, the journey AND the path. So unlike the MVP Eric described, the prototype solves for the technical and design (the ‘what’s possible’) as well as the customer/user and business value. That’s right, the prototype when used effectively is the whole enchilada.

Another quote:

“Lean thinking defines value as “providing benefit to the customer”; anything else is waste.”

User experience is and has always been described and utilized to address and focus on customer/user meaning and benefit. It seems by renaming UX to ‘lean thinking’ for no other reason than personal gain, is categorically wrong.  We really, desperately need to use the same language, consistently to communicate the value of what we do. If we dilute it, complicate it and re-mystify our work, everyone loses. Clement illustrates this with a comparison, “If every physician made up his own set of definitions and beliefs about anatomy and disease on an improvised basis, the medical profession would still be in the Dark Ages.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ross Belmont May 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Hi Sara,

I had essentially the same reaction when I read the book. Over time, though, I’ve been able to make my peace with it.

First, if you work with a product team that says they want to “go lean” instead of “doing UX,” I’d challenge them on how many of their current ideas they’re willing to throw away in the name of validated learning. If they’re ready to put their money where their mouths are, everything’s on the chopping block. Whatever stays in will be valuable to users. Then, you can push for tests of stronger designs and see what improvements you can fold in. All the tools and techniques we know and love can be brought to bear.

If the product team isn’t learning, it’s not “lean.” If the MVP concept is being abused as an excuse to cut corners, raise that issue.

In the bigger picture, I think UX can work within the Lean phenomenon, so why not jump on the bandwagon and use it to achieve your goals? We might as well make the best of the fact that Reis is on magazine covers and the book is a NYT best seller.

Finally, I think there’s something in the air right now that Lean, UX and anything else you want to call it are getting popular. Newton and Leibnitz separately discovered calculus at about the same time. The time is right for delivering great products and if we can get past the differences in labels, we can do some really great work.

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