The differences between Lean UX and Agile UX

You have probably heard the terms Lean UX and Agile UX many times in the context of user experience but you could be forgiven for not being sure what the difference is between them. Superficially they do appear to have similar characteristics with Lean UX advocating a stripped down, fast approach to product development and Agile championing a strategy that enables quick response to market opportunities by using collaborative, flexible working.

Which of these is the better strategy – and, more importantly which is better for your organisation/product and the user experience – can be a difficult question to answer.

Let us look at each one in slightly more detail and then discuss which approach works better in given circumstances.

Lean UX and Agile UX have plenty in common

Because they share so many of the same hopes and attitudes, Lean and Agile UX design share a great deal of common ground.

  • Both focus on people, processes, and products to minimise resources and costs
  • They operate on continuous communication and collaboration
  • Each complete team holds regular meetings with stakeholders and users
  • They both operate through product planning, building and testing

With both practices casting a wide net over communication and collaboration, the fundamental difference is the driving goal for each process. With Agile UX design, it’s all about a customer journey. With Lean UX design, it’s about validating or dropping the base statements that define the reasons for the build.

Can we deliver the fundamental difference in a simple sentence? The Lean design process focuses on outcomes rather than deliverables. However, both provide a ‘learn–build–measure’ process to tweak each further iteration of the product until a definitive version is born. Here’s how.

Lean UX Design

Lean design is based on the principles of nimble collective development and user experience informing the process. In other words it seeks quick, unbureaucratic working methods that take user information and experience as starting points and develop products that can be swiftly validated against these principles. It looks for the simplest way of producing a minimum viable product and then lets users decide how it develops.

The Lean UX process

Lean design management stems from earlier systems in manufacturing that moved into software production.

It’s based around objects and deliverables, but it chooses to work with problem statements instead of requirements. These problem statements are known as assumptions.

Holding conversations about those assumptions early and often helps all operatives focus on the big picture throughout the process.

  • Outlining required outcomes through assumptions and hypotheses
  • Designing the product
  • Deciding on a minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Validation

1. Outlining required outcomes through assumptions and hypotheses

More often than not, software products result from considering their necessary features and making sure they’re delivered. Lean UX considers assumptions based around four areas:

  • Business outcomes
  • Product users
  • Intended user requirements
  • Product features

Using these four assumption types, we can create a hypothesis:

“We believe our product users are [x] who need a business outcome [y]. We will have succeeded when user requirement [z] happens through the use of our product.”

Each hypothesis will feature its own values for X, Y, and Z and each assumption needs to be proved or rejected to continue the process.

2. Designing the product

With a range of hypotheses to prove or disprove, the collaboration between entire teams allows discussions and investigations into how the product should work. Everyone has a voice, facilitating advantages and issues during meetings and conversations.

3. Deciding on a minimum viable product (MVP)

With a clear vision of what the end product should do and how it should operate, the next step is to create a minimum viable product for prototyping and testing. Each MVP should take the least amount of work to produce a wireframe, mock-up or prototype to obtain user reactions and feedback.

4. Validation

The questions here are, “What have we learned? Has this part of the process worked?” Proved assumptions are validated, and those that aren’t are rejected and removed. The results feed back into the system to re-assess the product. If the product meets all user and business needs, it’s ready for the next stage. If not, it’s back to the top with the next step of assumptions raised from what you’ve learned.

The benefits? Removing waste processes and dropping the most time-consuming practices. With constant collaboration and experimentation, MVPs drive learning while keeping everyone involved informed and updated.

Lean UX design is very much a rinse and repeat process. One further benefit is that it can be utilised within the Agile methodology—an ideal in many situations. Taking advantage of the merits provided by both practices provides an all-around win-win for so many organisations.

Agile UX Design

The Agile design model values individuals and collaboration over process and focuses very much on flexibility and response. It is intended to make the process user-centric and sensitive to input and feedback as the development proceeds and not getting bogged down in formality or paperwork if opportunities to innovate and advance present themselves.

The Agile UX process

Agile design breaks down each project into smaller, more manageable chunks and sub-projects, known as sprints. A sprint is as long as the project needs, allowing for time to plan and iterate as required.

The Agile process depends heavily on a cycle that incorporates iterations that plan, design, build, test, and review. When the sprint review outlines changes that need to happen to improve the product and better achieve the desired outcomes, a further sprint is set.

Each iteration of the product develops through close communication and collaboration.

  • Plan out the feedback points – Allocate suitable time to design and deliver the product and recruit testers.
  • Define the intended user story – What does the entire team hope to see based on audience research?
  • Create a prototype – Will a wireframe be enough, or will you need something closer to a final version?
  • Recruit users for testing – Each test user must align with target audience characteristics.
  • Complete the research and report the findings – Vital to both end-user and team members to consider further steps or moving towards the product launch.

An Agile sprint team typically features a Product Owner, a Scrum Master and Development Team Members.

  • The Product Owner is responsible for the product and delivering the required values.
  • The Scrum Master controls how the team works together to ensure efficiency and productivity.
  • The Team Members hold the necessary skills to carry out the work, whether design, development, UX or something else entirely.

As with Lean UX design, Agile provides the same type of ‘rinse and repeat’ process, with further sprints growing out of the results of earlier versions until a final model is realised.

Considering the differences and knowing which is right for you

It’s impossible to explain and outline each option’s merits in a few thousand words. To truly understand each process takes a great deal of research and reading. Only when you earn that deeper understanding will you have what it takes to know which system is the ideal option for your project and people.

However, what we can do here is provide an insight into the basics of how they differ, and hopefully, help you ask the right questions at the beginning of any UX design and research project.

The main difference between the two techniques would appear to be that Lean UX focuses on the user and meeting their needs in product development while Agile is more about efficient communication and cooperation in delivering the project.

Perhaps when it comes to the question of which process should you use it would be better framed as ‘which principles should I apply in different parts of the development process and in differing situation or circumstances’. There is a degree of commonality in the two sets of principles anyway with both seeking early customer input and validation and a dynamic, flexible approach being applied. There is also a significant degree of iteration in both styles.

Many projects will intuitively incorporate elements of both strategies as certain aspects relate better to particular types of project or context. For example, where the parameters and objectives of a project are pre-determined and fixed, Agile design might present the better solution as it offers a quicker defined route to completion and enables you to identify and structure the delivery steps.

Where less certainty exists in a project, lean design offers the opportunity to quickly test hypotheses on real users and develop successive interim products that increasingly meet user needs and preferences. It might take you longer to get to the ultimate product but it will have been thoroughly tried and tested when you get there. Lean design, therefore. Will probably work better where less is known about the ultimate user and their preferences or where the elements of the product are complex and numerous.

This is quite a difficult area with many subtle nuances and differences to understand. If you are interested in either Agile or Lean UX , why not ring us on +44(0)800 0246247 or email us at for an initial chat.

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