Lean UX and Product Design

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Michele Ide-Smith is a UX designer with over 17 years’ experience designing digital products and services. She loves solving complex problems: from re-designing government and educational services, to creating productivity tools for software teams, and she is currently a UX designer and researcher at The European Bioinformatics Institute.

In this in-depth case study, Michele will share how she and her team used Lean UX techniques – such as rapid prototyping – to inform product development in the wild. Sharing a vignette from when she was working at the University of Cambridge, Michele will also provide insights into the challenges she has faced using Lean UX techniques within a centuries-old institution.

While working at Redgate Software, one of the things that they found hard was getting face-to-face contact with customers (the majority of whom were based in the US or Canada). Ethnographic studies were challenging, so often the teams would make do with telephone calls, remote usability tests, and so on. Opportunities to meet customers and see how they worked in context were rare.

Unfortunately, understanding the context in which you’re users’ are interacting with your product is essential to developing a rigorous understanding do your customers. Michele was working on a team developer products for the Oracle market, and they were looking at a way to rapidly validate their ideas.

Meaningful Customer Interactions

Most companies exhibiting at events are demonstrating product and pitching, and so it’s not necessarily a great place for customers to get value.

Taking a quick look at the Agile manifesto, there’s a critical line about business people and developers working together daily, throughout the project. But what about marketing? They’re often only involved quite far down the line, after the product has been developed. Michele’s team wanted to change that.

Marketing manager on the team – James Murtagh – had been inspired by the ideas in The Lean Startup and Marketing With Meaning, and Michele by the principles of Lean UX, and they came up with an idea. The crux of this idea was to build products that have real meaning to your customers, and thus already service an established need. As a classic case study of how that works, check out the Nordstrom Sunglasses example. The principles and mindset of Lean UX were particularly interesting and relevant:

  • Continuous discovery – Always make sure you’re getting a constant feed of customer feedback.
  • Shared understanding – Make sure the whole team has the same understanding of the customer problems you’re trying to solve.
  • Getting out of the building – It’s critical to make sure you actually speak to and meet customers while they’re using your product, or dealing with the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Externalising you work – Making your work visible, to others as well as to yourself, is a powerful way to quickly draw out assumptions and gaps in your reasoning.

Applying this in The Wild

The team had a hypothesis that Oracle developers and Database Administrators needed a better way to source control their databases, but they didn’t want to put a whole team on the project until they’d validated that hypothesis. They decided that if they got >70% interest in the conversations they had at the big K-Scope event, that would count as sufficient validation to commit to the project.

Redgate turned their ‘standard’ conference stand into a “Live lab”, combining user research, visible ideas for product development, and a developer visibly working on rapid prototypes (thus attracting other developers, as well as producing viable prototypes). What was remarkable was how much good quality research and feedback the team got with this approach. People would skip sessions and spend up to an hour in conversation with the team, giving great insight into their processes, their teams, and the problems they faced.

When it came to demonstrating and exporting ideas, Michele used paper prototypes and quick sketching. They’re quick and easy to demo, and easy to change (even with a developer building rapid prototypes in HTML & CSS).

What works, and What Doesn’t

This experience hinged on good communication with customers and within the team, and close collaboration. Michele’s team kept the momentum by setting up a beta-testing mailing list, and constantly surveying / calling customers to validate hypotheses. By the time the team were releasing V1 of the product, there were very few surprises because people had already been using the product. It was possible because they were a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional team.

However, there is a cautionary tale: Michele joined a new organisation – a new design team who wanted to introduce lean UX principles into their work. Initially, there were lots of great ethnographic ad hoc conversations with potential users, but then she noticed that a few things weren’t going so well.

Beware Lean UX Anti-Patterns

Of course, the problems her new team encountered were not new – Bill Scott has a great slide deck that walks through some of these challenges, such as “too many cooks” (Conflicting opinions and communications challenges) and Tribalism (Functional groups reverting to their own, isolated teams).

Cross-pollination within a team an between teams is important, but challenging. Constant communication is crucial to make sure everyone is still working to solve an actual problem that the customer has.

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  • ProductGuy1983

    Sorry to be a grammar stickler but it bugs the heck out of me. “Unfortunately, understanding the context in which you’re users’ …” This should read “your users”

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