Choosing a UX Strategy that suits you and your users: Agile Vs Lean UX / by Gavin Lau

There are so many UX strategies and techniques floating around our world of all things web these days—it’s a wonder we see eye to eye on anything. When it comes to the right UX strategy, there is no one size fits all, no right answer. We should opt for what works best for our business, and for our users. Today, we’re talking about how Agile and Lean UX strategies can help or hinder your software development.

It seems that the arrival of Agile UX and Lean UX has led to some confusion for a lot of us, and in everyday tech conversation, a lot of us use these two terms interchangeably. Indeed, both fit into the broad vision of new user experience design tools, but what’s the difference between the two?

Essentially, Agile UX produces a more polished product whilst Lean UX produces multiple products of increasing polish. Let’s dive right in to the details!


The basics of Agile UX

Agility: “marked by ready ability to move with quick, easy grace.”

Agile originates from software creation, focusing on team collaboration and efficiency between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Agile UX describes the combining of Agile Software Methodology with UX Design methods and follows a set of simple principles:

  • Valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Creating working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Establishing customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and
  • Responding to change over following a fixed, anticipated plan

Software development driven by Agile uses the principles of the Project Management Triangle – cost, scope, and schedule – to determine the quality of a project. With the user-centric and emergent design movements that we currently find ourselves in, product concept is also moving towards the hands of consumers, with a more holistic view of the product development process. There is more emphasis on the customer’s perspective in project management, and functionality in product development. This is where UX comes into play: the understanding of complex user interactions and behaviors has earned its place in the world of Agile, with the growing need for testing and iterations of design concepts. The way that UX comes into Agile is a great deal through Scrum.

When we think about integrating UX and testing within software development, we need to think about how to fit into an existing agile model, such as Scrum or Kanban. This framework is based on a ‘backlog’: a collection of requirements in the form of short user stories, a sort of ‘to-do list’ for web, product and marketing tasks. From this list, the team can extract micro-jobs and start to plan ‘sprints’ that are then worked on over a set number of days or weeks (typically in 2-4 week increments, though the amount of time needed can differ substantially per task).


The nitty gritty of Agile UX

Agile UX is designed to ensure usability for the consumer. As products and services evolve more rapidly in the digital space, the end-users also become more sophisticated and harder to define. As such, companies have been adopting UX and agile approaches in order to satisfy the demands of multi-faceted consumers, to define each persona. In order to do this, companies need to perform user research and evaluate potential consumers so as to deliver a user-driven product. Agile UX is designed to be more responsive to competitive pressures and differing customer demands. As requirements of our user-centered design movement, increased cross-team and customer collaboration are characteristics of Agile UX.

Designed to reduce the risk of large technology builds, Agile UX is great when you’re looking to test against fixed outcomes because you test and verify on a regular basis, and understand each change made. Agile UX shines when there is a known requirement in a project. For example, in an environment where features must be shipped double-quick time, the setting of time limits on activities – see timeboxing as a distinctive, early feature of Agile – allows you to ship faster and organize better, even when things aren’t so cut and dry. Agile UX allows you to set a budget (e.g. the number of sprints) and increase or decrease the number of features to be worked on, according to the progress made in each sprint. This progress tracking allows for a constant level of quality and efficiency: happy team, happy end-user—sorted.

The potential downside of Agile UX is that, in focusing on the efficiency of the software development process, it does not include design, particularly when it comes to Scrum. In Agile culture, there is no particular place built in for design—this has to be created. What we must remember is that Agile UX is not designed to tell you what to build, only how to build it faster and with less risk. At the end of the day, the goal of Agile is to have a potentially shippable product that has been designed, tested and is functional, in a matter of weeks. If you’re looking to release a fully realized version under such conditions, look to Agile UX.


An introduction to Lean UX

Lean, rooted in Toyota’s manufacturing model, has been designed as a concept to cut waste and optimize operational efficiency, while providing great customer value at the same time. Somewhat similar to Agile, the Lean concept sees that a business must ship a product as soon as possible. However, instead of prepping for a shippable product, Lean deals in producing a minimum viable product (MVP) and pushing it out to the market as rapidly as possible. Lean UX, coming from the dynamic startup culture, unites this product development model with user-centered business techniques, through constant measurement and “learning loops” (build – measure – learn). The objective is to find the fastest way to achieve end goals, with less focus on documentation:

  • Valuing early customer validation over releasing products with unknown end-user value
  • Establishing collaborative design over designing on an island
  • Solving user problems over designing the next “trend-setting” feature
  • Applying appropriate tools over following a rigid plan
  • Opting for nimble design over heavy wireframes, comps or specs


The good, the bad and the lean

Similarly to Agile, Lean UX is a collaborative approach to UX strategy, fostering open, collaborative, and iterative processes that intend to break through the creativity-stifling organizational “red tape”. A Lean UX team normally consists of a handful of industry experts – such as creative director, designers and developers – and encourages cross-team collaboration and feedback throughout the development process. With close collaboration, the Lean UX model aims at saving time and resources through constant iterations and review. Collaboration with customers is also placed at the heart of Lean UX, giving the team an understanding of the problems and solutions that their customers face.

Lean UX is not a process in which each tool is rigidly applied. Lean is ideal if fast and efficient end results are needed: choose a feature to test, do it well, and iterate it by releasing early and releasing often. Staying Lean highlights the shift of importance to ‘rapid experimentation and measurement’, helping us achieve the end result in a more efficient manner. The underlying assumption of Lean UX also enables the designers and developers to constantly adjust their plans to respond to the changing needs of users faster.

Some say that Lean UX is perhaps too lean. To arrive at what is truly valuable to the consumer, we need to overproduce and throw stuff away—we know this. We learn about our users from “waste”. But, if you have an idea to test and you want to (potentially) ‘fail fast’ and succeed sooner without over-committing, and are able to iterate through many versions, then Lean UX may be the way to go.


The latest & greatest: ‘lean agile’

Followers of agile and lean methodologies understand the importance of striking the right balance, instead of going to extremes. Some say that lean and agile methodologies are complementary in that becoming lean makes you more agile (and vice versa). But what if that’s just not enough? How about we take it a step further?

Lean agile describes the attempt to truly capture a collaborative, flexible team environment. Imagine a way to best match the natural pace of how people and teams actually work in order to increase efficiency and improve the end-result: the best of both worlds if you like. With Lean agile, projects are broken down into smaller ‘right-sized stories’, listed and prioritized in a backlog, placed into a kanban board for progress to be assessed, and then each story is worked on continuously. After speaking with the client, there should be an understanding of the minimum viable product to ship.

Continuous integration of Lean agile allows for the MVP to maintain functionality while other features are added, whilst the exposing defects right away instead of leaving them to a final testing phase.

The advantages of this method include:

  • Stakeholders can view and measure progress based on kanban boards and are able to customize, pause or stop the project at any given point.
  • Team members have more autonomy where it counts, allowing them to get on with their work, train each other, and encourage diversification and integration of work across teams.
  • We can adopt a more efficient method of measuring project requirements, including project time frames. People can work to the client’s budget, and the project as a whole will refine over time as the client requires certain features.