Why I detest the term “Lean UX”

Any user experience designer worth their salt takes the needs of the company they’re serving into account and adapts their approach accordingly — identifying the appropriate process, methods and tools to get the job done. This has been the case for as long as information architecture and interaction design have been in practice. Rigid methodology — doing the same exact thing every time despite the context — is, and has always been, bad practice.

Now that Eric Ries’s lean startup and Steve Blank’s customer development methodologies have gained significant traction within the startup and wider business communities, the value that user experience design practices can bring to an organization is finally being recognized.

While the techniques are being called different things (and aren’t they always?), VCs and founders are at long last starting to focus on the user as a means to make the best design decisions for their product and the best strategy decisions for their business. They aren’t spending weeks or months on in-depth, formal research because their prospective customers are easily accessible to them, and they aren’t wasting their time with heavily documented deliverables because their development team sits right next to them. But nevertheless they are still doing UX: spending focused time whiteboarding flows and key screens; prototyping solutions and testing them with users; and best of all, listening to their customers.

There’s nothing lean about it. The dictionary definition of “offering little reward, substance, or nourishment; meager” simply doesn’t hold. What they are doing — which ultimately comes down to design thinking — has tremendous reward and endless impact on the relevance of their products, the success of their companies, and the health of their egos.

“Lean UX” implies that less UX is being done. That couldn’t be further from the truth, nor is it something we should encourage. And anyway, UX shouldn’t be measured in time spent conducting activities or producing activities; it should be measured in its depth of integration in a company’s philosophy and culture.

Caring about your customers and working to make their lives better is the most honorable thing a company can do. Let’s teach these companies more and better UX methods, give them ways to adapt the methods to however they work best, and encourage them to keep the needs, attitudes, and motivations of their customers at the core of everything they do.

Some Lean UX links worth reading:

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  1. says

    While I think the “Lean” concept has gotten a little out of control, I think the origin of the word has a lot more to do with another definition of lean:

    “thin, esp. healthily so; having no superfluous fat”

    We’ve inherited it from Toyota-style “Lean Manufacturing” techniques via “Lean Software Development” and “Lean Startups.” As you pointed out, the core concepts sound a lot like design thinking.

  2. says


    You’re setting up a straw dog here. Lean has a few meanings, and you’re picking on the one that’s easy to pick on, instead of the one that’s intended by folks who are building a practice working with Lean Startups.

    Kind of like saying, “I hate French. You know, French’s Mustard.”

    Lean has a long and useful history in manufacturing. Among the key ideas that emerge from that practice is waste reduction. In other words, it’s not about doing more or doing less. It’s about doing the right amount for a given context. As you point out, UX methods can be selected with that in mind, (for example, by choosing lightweight methods when appropriate). UX methods can also be used to help teams reduce wasted effort by bringing a user focus to the team.

    For more thoughts on how this idea is helpful, see my “10 Questions and Answers…” post http://joshuaseiden.com/blog/2011/02/10-questions-and-answers-about-lean-user-experience/


    • says


      Lean’s history in manufacturing is more targeted at optimizing the manufacturing process and quality.

      While UX often has the benefit of improving product quality, that is not it’s aim. Good UX improves business strategy, the business model, internal and external marketing, advertising messaging, customer engagement, and customer relationships.

      The wide-ranging impacts of good user experience in an organization with a high design literacy mean that lean concepts like “just in time” and current memes toward less documentation can (and do) have a negative effect on the organization’s and the UX practitioner’s ability to make the changes they need to make.

      To be clear, UX experts are well aware of the time and the value activities provide, just as they are well aware of the time and value more formal activities provide.

      Whitney was not setting up the straw dog. She was kicking the straw dog the lean movement is starting to set up.

  3. says


    Your explanation of the way UX should be done in startups is right on the money. However, you may be misinterpreting the meaning of “lean” in this context.

    Lean as in “lean startups” and now “lean UX” is derived from manufacturing a more specifically from Shewart and Demming’s work adopted originally by Toyota.

    The way definition of lean in that context is more has to do with reduction of “muda” or waste rather than the dictionary definition. Lean in that setting is about just-in-time thinking and performing necessary tasks quickly.

    Otherwise, keep writing. Love the blog!

  4. says

    Hi Whitney –

    Thanks so much for including a link to my presentation about Lean UX. I’m glad to see this topic start to catch on and get debated.

    I wanted to make a couple of points:

    1. I believe Josh and Jackson are spot on when they point out that this approach to UX design is about reducing waste. It doesn’t limit the tools at our disposal nor dismiss the value of a good visual articulation of a problem or solution. Instead, when I talk about Lean UX, I ask those practitioners to think about which tools are most relevant to the team’s work right now and to utilize them at the appropriate depth. In fact, my Lean UX presentation talks about the bulk of the activities that fall under our “umbrella” and how/when it makes sense to use them. As you point out, each org is different and the methods should adjust for that.

    2. You said,”…[UX] should be measured in its depth of integration in a company’s philosophy and culture.” – while this is a niceto have measure many folks work in huge monolithic orgs that will take a long time for culture to change. I would actually argue that showing incremental improvements in the customer’s experience and how that benefits not only the customer but also the business is the way UX should be measured if we truly want to influence. We create experiences and that is what should be measured and valued — not the artifacts that got us there.

    I hope you’ll join my session at SXSW on Lean UX so we can continue the conversation in person.


  5. John Labriola says

    While I understand Josh’s, Wade’s, and really liked Jeff’s presentation…

    The problem I feel is that when you talk to the general community they are thinking of Lean UX as a way of doing less UX, like your putting UX on a diet of some sort. Because in reality Lean as a term is being used that in the general public.

  6. says

    Great post Whit!

    I agree with John. Maybe, Lean UX is something different in a large, unchanging/hard to change, organization vs. the world of startups, small businesses? Who knows… but I do agree that people are using it to mean do less UX aka “i already had no idea what this was, now I can spend less on it!”. I like Jeff’s point about using it to prioritize and validate process/deliverables or lack there of, but maybe another name that isn’t tied to a development methodology might help us out.

  7. says

    Great observations, Whitney. I couldn’t agree (and disagree) more.

    Others have already commented on the misinterpretation of “lean” based on its dictionary definition rather than its origins in Lean Software Development and earlier Lean Manufacturing / The Toyota Way. It’s a reasonable and common misperception, and one that isn’t going to go away for all the “that’s not what we mean” we can debunk it with. I’ll just add to this by pointing out that lean means less fat, not less muscle.

    Ultimately, I see Lean UX as a retronym, as designers continue to figure out how to successfully couple their work to the new normal of agile development practices and it simply becomes thought of as the way we work. “Lean UX” today gives us a moniker for the approach to UX that trades a surplus of up-front hypotheses for more targeted, testable, transparent methods. This is *not* throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but a calibration of UX tools for a more nimble development and customer environment.

    This summary of the 14 principles of the Toyota Way (PDF, sorry) http://icos.groups.si.umich.edu/Liker04.pdf could double as a recipe for a thoughtful, strategic UX-centric organization.

    • says


      I think the bit I bristle at is the thought that a given UX practitioners decisions about what work should be done is “waste”.

      If I ever sat with the dev team, listened to their proposed work on a project and then suggested that they get “lean” and stop being “wasteful”, I’m not sure how it would be taken. I think we’ve optimized our work processes to be about as lean (non-wasteful) as they can be.(Of course, constant improvement is what separates the professional from the lame.)

      I suppose a real-world example is in order. I have never worked in or seen an organization where the UX team had enough time to do everything they needed to do for all the projects — tactical and strategic — ever. UXers spend their entire careers learning how to do more with less. The first thing to go in the UX professionals process is waste. The next thing to go is testing. Then research. Then validation. And so on and so on until you’re left running from meeting to meeting making sure developers aren’t building something that will out and out fail, and that the business isn’t asking that you build something that will out and out fail.

      As Whitney mentions, the best part about Jeff’s Lean UX presentation is that the team is doing a FUCK-TON of UX. They document a ton of stuff explicitly on the walls and implicitly in shared understanding among team members.

      The bit that’s missing is that this process is only manageable for certain kinds of projects of a certain project size with a certain project duration. You change any of those variables and whiteboarded deliverables start to fail you. UXer immersion with the team becomes less complete. You star to need more research or more testing or both.

      Lean is a kitten word. Everyone likes kittens. Everyone wants to be lean. I don’t want to speak for an entire diaspora of overworked, under-appreciated, eternally optimistic schlubs who care too fucking much, but someone says I need to “get lean” when I’ve spent 13 years living the Irish potato famine…

      Well… I’m kind of getting tired of just laying back and thinking of England.

  8. says

    Consumer Internet unleashed competition for attention by way of UI/UX

    Eric Ries management science is based on solving for the startup equation:

    Problem Unknown
    Solution Unknown

    Lean UX will be like a kitten chasing its tail when you’re solving for:

    Problem Known
    Solution Known

    But as CI competition drives higher speed in established business, Solution tends to Unknown.

    And Lean UX goes hand in glove with testing and gaining feedback from a minimum value product (MVP).

  9. says

    Coming from the manufacturing engineering field in my past life and practicing the “Lean Manufacturing” for 7+ years (running Kaizens, 5s, Standard work, poka yoke…blah blah), I know the “evil side of Lean”…and definitely got out of it because of what I saw…so I know where the negativity is coming from.

    A conglomerate corporation that I worked for basically bought out companies, implemented lean to the point they trimmed out the “fat and muscle” and people became numbers of efficiency on a chart…and made their ROI within 2 years or less because of the head count they would cut. Of course most of these companies never experienced natural growth since innovation is a difficult thing to achieve once you are so lean.

    This is the manufacturing world (which has basically moved offshore) …so I think many of the things that are talked about with Lean UX is good…just the fact you have UX in the term shows that UX is infiltrating in all parts of a product’s (or company’s) process and that makes us UX’ers feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

  10. says

    Whitney, apologies I said I’d post this up a while back, and stuff got in the way….
    I only started to understand the world of ‘UX’ last year, when I was asked to review the development process at the company I work, with view to making recommendations to support new Digital projects. Ever since, like I have with agile/lean and other topics of interest (Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints..) over the past 15 years, I’ll avidly read as much as I can on the subject. I’ll always be a UX novice of course.
    The first thing that struck me when I started seeing ‘lean UX’ articles was a fear that yet again it seemed like someone else was trying to create an industry out of common sense. I’m not knocking lean/agile gurus here, but a whole host of people have tried to capitalise on something so simple. From my interpretation, UX is in itself iterative already, so I wasn’t really clear on how you could make it ‘lean’ anyway.
    My recent interest has been in how to blend UX into an agile/lean process, in an environment that hasn’t had the benefit of UX skills at all. Obviously, there’s lots to learn here, and we see that one of the hurdles is how developers and a UXD (for example) linked up in a sprint. I’d wondered how the UXD was able to work on the sprint goal within a 2 week cycle, effectively enough to give direction to the developers, who would be ready to cut code straight away. I’d thought that maybe the UXD had to split themselves in two; one looking ahead at the requirements for the next sprint, whilst supporting development and retrospectives for the current sprint. This interesting article was sent to me, and I’ve found more since. Any further suggestions are always welcome. http://tinyurl.com/3wz7wlt

  11. says

    I actually really liked what Makoto K had to say, above. I love it that you’ve started this conversation, Whitney. The conversation needs to continue, folks: as a conversation.

    Nobody’s right or wrong in this, but there are many points of view to consider. Listen more, talk less. Nobody’s an expert because of book sales & popularity.

    As an industry, we have come so far in recent years: let’s keep our ears open to perspectives, attune to filtering out the cacophony of bullshit in our business domain, and lets keep crafting solutions!

  12. Tom says

    Wow I’m late to this party. As ever, Whitney, you rock. I really see where you’re coming from and I completely see the danger of companies who get the idea that Lean UX means they can spend less and cut corners.

    But to give the idea a chance, it has another meaning for me. It’s like a totem. It reminds me that I shouldn’t try to redesign everything all at once. It reminds me to begin by trying to invalidate my research-based hypotheses with UX MVPs. It lets me make more impact for the equivalent amount of effort.

    Reading this back, I realise that my natural tendency is to read the Lean UX principles in a way that resonates with my science background. Perhaps a better term for the way I like to use it would be “scientific UX”.


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