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Episode #156 Jeff Gothelf - Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business A Virtual Seminar Follow-up

January 20, 2012  ·  22 minutes

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The goal of Lean UX is to take the focus of user-centered design off of documentation and put it squarely on the experience. The way to do this is to view any design idea as a hypothesis. With a focus on the experience, you can validate or invalidate this hypothesis much quicker. The sooner you reach this validation, the sooner you can focus on designing and building the correct solution.

Show Notes

The goal of Lean UX is to take the focus of user-centered design off of documentation and put it squarely on the experience. The way to do this is to view any design idea as a hypothesis. With a focus on the experience, you can validate or invalidate this hypothesis much quicker. The sooner you reach this validation, the sooner you can focus on designing and building the correct solution.

Jeff Gothelf is a firm believer in the Lean UX process. One of the key aspects of Lean UX is how collaborative it is. Jeff says that the separation between design and development really needs to be broken down. That the people who are collaboratively building this experience or product need to be collaborating with each other much more frequently. Jeff discussed the idea of Lean UX in his virtual seminar, Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business, and the audience posed a number of great questions.

In this podcast, Jeff and Adam Churchill address the questions that there wasn’t time for during the live seminar.

Tune in to the podcast to hear Jeff answer these questions:

Full Transcript

Adam Churchill: Welcome to the SpoolCast everyone. Jeff Gothelf recently stepped away from his busy role as the Director of User Experience at and joined us for a virtual seminar, Lean UX: Getting Out of the Deliverables Business.

We know Lean UX is an important topic and, quite frankly, one that some folks are still trying to get their head around.

We had lots of good questions and comments during the seminar. We decided to have a follow-up conversation that we knew we could make available as a podcast for you.

Jeff has graciously offered to come back and tackle some of the questions that we didn't get to address and some of the ones we thought were worth talking about again.

If you didn't get to listen to this particular seminar you can get access to the recording in UIE's growing User Experience Training Library.

Right now we've presently got over 80 recorded seminars from wonderful topic experts just like Jeff giving you the tips and techniques you need to create great design. Hello, Jeff, welcome back.
Jeff Gothelf: Hi. It's great to be here.
Adam: Jeff, for the people who weren't with us for your seminar earlier in the month can you give us an overview of what they missed?
Jeff: Sure. We talked about this idea of Lean UX. Really it's a way to rethink about the way user-centered design is being done by taking focus off of the documentation.

Instead of the end goal of the design phase of any project being an actual document that describes an experience and focusing more on getting to that experience as quickly as possible to validate your designs.

The idea was any design idea, any user experience focus of a project is initially a hypothesis, regardless of how experienced you are or how much subject matter expertise you have.

You have a hypothesis about how to solve a particular business problem. And so the sooner that you can validate or invalidate that hypothesis, the sooner you can be designing and building the right experience, the right product for your customers and your business.

The focus is taking user experience design practices, taking a look at the entire toolkit, and figuring out which tools to use at the right time and at the right depth.

Now in addition to that, it's about taking those tools, using them at the right time and at the right depth, and collaborating much more openly and much more frequently with the team that you're actually building the product with: with developers, with product managers, with QA, stakeholders, and subject matter experts and really building this culture of shared understanding of where the project is going, where the product is heading, so that as much parallel work can take place.

In other words, instead of waiting for the IA to finish their work and the interaction designer to finish their work and hand it off to the visual designer who then hands it off to the developers to build, how much of that process can happen collaboratively and how much can happen in a parallel track?

That's a lot of what we talked about is different techniques and ways to work more collaboratively as a team with UX design driving a lot of that focus.
Adam: Great. Let's get to some of those questions. John wanted to know how do you validate with the engineering team what they're going to need before the project starts and during the project do you need to circle back with them? Is it enough?
Jeff: That's exactly what I meant by collaborative. This separation of dev and design really needs to break down as much as possible.

The project teams that are working together to build a particular product or a particular experience need to be collaborating much more regularly and much more frequently.

That's really what this whole Lean UX idea is about. It's about designers reaching out and saying, here's what I'm working on, here's the direction that I'm heading in, here's some lightweight ideas.

I want to get your feedback and I want you to know what I'm thinking well before the pixels are dry on the page, if you will.

By maintaining this active conversation, by engaging the other members of the team, especially engineering, in the design phase, in the user research, in the stakeholder meetings they're always aware of where the project is, what changes are being made, why those changes are being made.

Their dependency on UX as a maker of documents so that they can do their work diminishes greatly just by having that open air of conversation and collaboration.
Adam: If you're going to be good at Lean UX are there new tools or skills that you need?
Jeff: I think the main skill that you need is the ability to collaborate and to have frequent conversations with your team.

And that potentially is a new skill in that there's a certain comfort for a designer to be handed a particular problem and for them to go off and sit behind their monitor for a period of time, whether that's a day or a week or a month, and then come out and say, "OK. I've solved it. Here it is."

The different skill is to be proactive about the direction of the solution of the design that the UX person is creating and to do that much earlier in the process.

You have to get up, you have to get out, you have to circulate your ideas in what perhaps historically would have been seen as an unfinished form of the design and is now indicative of the type of direction that you'd actually like to head in.

By sharing those early and often you're building that culture, that transparency, into the design process and with that transparency comes trust.

The one new skill, I would guess, beyond obviously all the other UX skills we already have, is proactive communication. If you're not doing that today I would say that's key to the success of Lean UX.
Adam: There were certainly some folks that were curious as to how things get done at One of the questions was who tends to build the prototypes there? Is it the UX team or is it the developers?
Jeff: It is almost exclusively the UX team. We use whatever tools we are either comfortable with, and that varies from person to person, or whatever is available to us in the time that we have to create those prototypes.

Occasionally we will test live code that's in production with users and of course then it's not necessarily a prototype, that's actual production ready code.

But for the most part it's the user experience team working either in markup, in HTML or CSS, in Fireworks in the past, we've even done some Flash prototypes, and we're experimenting with some new and different tools these days.
Adam: There was a question that was in the seminar but I think we agreed it made sense to circle back on. The team at Piehead made the comment that it seems like a Lean iterative process works really well for small or new clients but maybe not so for larger clients like big, corporate systems. They were looking for your thoughts on that.
Jeff: So, I tend to disagree with that. I think the Lean UX approach can work on any size project in any environment.

One thing, though, there's definitely a lot more upfront work that needs to get done in these larger legacy environments.

I actually wrote a blog post about this on my blog, which I've got at, called "Lean UX Let Me Down".

Which was, we took on a legacy project, perhaps overzealously, and didn't dig into the existing systems and the architectures that were affecting the piece of the experience that we were there to fix.

As we peeled back the layers of that onion, the scope of the project grew and grew and the pitfalls and the different directions we had to go to fix things really came back to bite us.

So yes, I think it can definitely work in larger, more legacy projects but the goal would be to get a very clear sense of what's affected by the piece of the project that you're currently working on.

You really need to get a sense of the entire system, perhaps at a high level, and ensure that when you're digging in with these rapid iterations there aren't other pieces of the application that you're breaking.
Adam: Jeff, one of the things I know you and your team do pretty religiously is that every week you're talking to and watching your users with your product. Shaw wants to know what to do when you can't get at your end users.
Jeff: That's a great question. If you have no access to the end customer the best thing you can do is launch software quickly and iteratively.

Now obviously you need to be in an environment where that's possible. If you can get software out into the marketplace quickly, or at least into a beta test, at least you have people using your ideas and you're getting quantitative feedback on what you've put out there and how well it's working.

At least you get a sense of what people are doing with it and if they're actually succeeding at whatever it is that that particular experience was supposed to solve.

You need to do that regardless of whether you have access to your end customers or not but that provides the quantitative feedback and some insight.

Ultimately, if you don't have specific access to a person if you can put surveys on the site itself or in the experience that allow the customers to actually reach back out to you via those mechanisms, anything you can put in that gives customers some sort of an opportunity to give you that some of that feedback.

But ultimately their usage would be really helpful.
Adam: I guess a related question, let's get you to say more about that. Jerome wanted to know where you place user research in this process.
Jeff: We place it as often as possible. We found a system that works well for us where we test every week. For us it's on Thursdays, it's Thursday mornings, and we bring three users in every Thursday.

We run multiple teams so what happens is that testing that happens on Thursday is not unique to any particular team. There's not one team that owns the testing that week.

That is usability testing for the week and if you have something to test regardless of what team you're on you can bring your material to that test on Thursday.

Obviously, we do plan that a bit in advance and make sure the test plan is written out at least a day in advance and that there is a decent flow to the script that we have with the participants on Thursday, but that is a shared resource that happens every week and that anyone can hop on as necessary to validate their thinking.
Adam: How do you overcome already set expectations for wireframes?
Jeff: There's two ways. It's qualitative feedback, so every Thursday you've got people looking at the experience and they're giving you feedback on something.

With a short video snippet or a usability report you can show that this is working or this is not working. We thought this was a good idea and this was not a good idea.

Qualitative feedback, in other words, usability testing, is one way, especially if you're doing it often.

If you've got a regular track of communicating qualitative feedback to the organization. Even if you designed a wireframe on Monday if it bombs in the user test on Thursday you've got that feedback to get right back to it.

The other is quantitative insight and to say we've set these expectations, we've actually built this, and we've got people using the product and there's data coming in saying that people are succeeding with this or people are not succeeding with this.

What we initially thought was a good idea is actually failing in the marketplace. We want to iterate on that. So it's really customer validation is the key to continually improving and encouraging an evolving point of view on what the right experience should be.
Adam: Sarah's looking for a little bit of insight on what Lean UX does to man hours. Does it actually decrease the number of hours you spend on a design when you're using Lean UX or do you use the same number of hours just in a more collaborative or productive way?
Jeff: So it definitely does not decrease the amount of work or the amount of hours you're spending. It just simply distributes the time more evenly over the course of a project's life cycle, whether that's in iteration or a design phase or however your process works within your organization.

It just distributes those hours in a different way. Whereas traditionally in a waterfall, gated process design was heavily, heavily concentrated upfront.

What you're doing is you're taking the heavy concentration and you're distributing those hours across the entire project life cycle.
Adam: Ty asks a question and so I don't butcher it I'm going to ask it exactly the way he wrote it. At scale, multiple teams of developers, product people, designers, et cetera, is there a greater risk of inconsistency in interaction patterns or brand application?

Is there a mechanism built in to protect this or is it a lesser consideration because this is really small? Again, that assumption that it's for small teams or in start-ups.
Jeff: Yes. Great question. The short answer to the first half is yes, there's absolutely a risk of inconsistencies and different patterns being applied and different approaches to solving the same problems manifesting themselves in the experience.

That is absolutely a risk, especially if you're running multiple teams across a product suite like we do.

I've found two very effective ways to mitigate this particular problem. The first is having a centralized user experience team. What I mean by that is there is a UX team. Now, that team my be distributed out to individual Scrum teams if you're an Agile environment or individual project teams if you're in a Waterfall environment but there's a home base for the UX team to come back together.

They have weekly meetings, they share knowledge, they share project work, and they show each other, they're constantly talking to each other and sharing what they're working on and how they're solving the particular challenges that they're facing.

That can happen on an ad hoc basis, it can happen on a very formal basis in a weekly UX team meeting where there's work sharing and that kind of thing. That works really well as a knowledge sharing, kind of an informal solution to this.

A more formal solution is to codify a lot of these patterns in a style guide or pattern library or a component library where that is readily available to the entire organization so that if one team has solved how to do sign-up forms that is saved in a particular online environment.

It provides people with the ability to go and see how one team solved it and to take that UI and to take that code and to plug it into the pieces that make sense in their particular project.

That should evolve and grow as people change those solutions but that should always be the first place someone goes when they have to go build an experience or a product that uses existing components.

We've developed that at The Ladders and that's worked very, very well for us as a centralized hub and a starting point from which to maintain a consistent user experience across our entire product suite.
Adam: Jeff, tell us more about the participants that you have in those weekly tests. How do you do the recruiting, where do you get them, where do you get these folks? Do they come from a pool of users or customers? Are you rotating through the same folks? Tell us about that.
Jeff: We work through a two-sided ecosystem. We have job seekers and we have recruiters. The first decision we need to make is who we're bringing in this week and we typically make that decision on Mondays and we'll decide if we're bringing in job seekers or recruiters.

The next thing is we'll ask what are we testing this week. If there are improvements to existing work flows we will likely dig into our existing user base.

So whether that is a set of recruiters or a set of job seekers, and we'll make certain determinations based on the type of individual that we need to get in there to use the product that we're currently designing.

For example, we could say we'd like to bring in folks from the Midwest who earn $50,000 to $75,000 and work in the tech sector, for example. That could be something we decide to do.

At that point we could say we need existing customers or new customers. Now, we won't actually fly those folks into New York into our offices. We may do remote testing or we may just do phone calls with them.

Even in New York we're grateful for the large population there and create those segments very, very quickly.

Then we decide whether or not we want to bring in external users or people who are already familiar with the product to see if we've made improvements.

That really depends on what we're testing that particular week. We source those individuals, again, either from our member logs, we can create those queries and pull those usernames from our databases, or if we're looking for external folks we'll go to an external recruiter.

Our external recruiter, we can hand her a list of our names or we can ask her to provide non-Ladders members who fit this particular demographic profile or psychographic profile.

We use an external recruiter. She does all of the recruiting, the scheduling, the make-up, the finding folks when somebody bails on a particular session.

For us, given that our action designers do the usability testing at The Ladders, that takes a significant amount of work load off of their plate and we're happy to have that external vendor provide us with that particular service.
Adam: Carolyn poses a problem that I suspect a lot of folks run into. She says they're having a hard time integrating UX practices into their Agile approach and planning even with Lean UX in mind.

So she asks the question is there a way you found to be possible without having disconnected design sprints before a development sprint?
Jeff: Yes. Absolutely. That's really the core of Lean UX is how to bring as close together dev and design into the same timeframe. That's what we're focusing on now.

The way that we've done it successfully is there's an amount of upfront thinking, at the very least, that's done by the product and design teams before we plan the next iteration.

There's a little bit of heads up that says here are the things that we're likely going to be working on in the next iteration. Let's do at least a little bit of thinking around that. If there needs to be a little bit of illustration or visualization of that thinking, then it's very, very lightweight.

It could be a sketch on a piece of paper, it could be a very rough wireframe. We've gone into iteration planning meetings where we've drawn on the whiteboard and said here's how we're thinking about solving this problem.

What that does is it engages the entire team in a low-fidelity way of articulating how they think the problem should be solved. Because it's a sketch or it's a whiteboard drawing it's erasable. People can write over it. You can redraw it. You can redo it. That encourages that collaborative problem solving.

What happens at the end of that iteration planning when you've got everybody kind of tearing up wireframes or looking at sketches together is that everyone, when they leave that iteration planning meeting they understand what we're building, why we're building it, and what direction we're heading in.

There's an amount of shared understanding that you've built during that process that allows developers to then go and build that perhaps infrastructure layer so that you can continue to refine the design as a designer.

The other thing that's critical as you plan your iterations in Agile is to have the UX person heavily involved in the prioritization of the back log. The back log is just the list of the stories or requirements that you're going to build in a priority order.

The user experience designer has to be involved in the prioritization of that back log because they're the person who knows how they're going to design out or refine the designs they currently have as the iteration moves forward.

And so a developer may say, "I need this page, this tertiary page, in the experience design first." And the UX designer can push back and say, "Well actually I can't give you the tertiary page until I design the secondary and the primary page. Let's figure out a way. Maybe there's a task that doesn't require any UI that you can work on first while I design the primary and secondary pages and then I can get to the tertiary pages."

It's critical for the user experience designer to be present and active in the prioritization of every iteration in an Agile environment.
Adam: That's great, Jeff. Thank you for giving us more of your valuable time. I appreciate it.
Jeff: My pleasure. I hope that was helpful.
Adam: It was. To our audience, thank you so much for joining it and your support of the UIE virtual seminars. Goodbye for now.