Lean UX and Rapid Innovation

January 7, 2013

Earlier this year, I worked for a client, in a start-up environment, who needed extensive user research to validate their product concept and bring it to market. We conducted lean UX research continuously throughout the development process and quickly took the product to market. The results of our research were incredibly significant.

To get an innovative product to market quickly and efficiently, follow a lean UX process during each iterative development cycle. A lean UX process lets you validate business goals and identify market needs and affords opportunities for innovative change.

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For the purpose of this story, I’ll change the client’s name and domain and instead explain how this process might have worked for a media group publishing digital content.

Enchanting Tales, a start-up media group within a larger enterprise, was looking to build a new product. They owned their own content, which was incredibly competitive in the market and quite valuable to the company. Through market research and business initiatives, they had identified an opportunity for the creation of a product that would present their content and act as its distribution vehicle to customers. This opportunity opened doors for user experience research and lean UX methods that would let them quickly deliver product innovation.

Lean UX

What is user experience? What is a lean UX approach? The goal of UX design is to create a seamless experience for users. Many different methods and processes support this goal. They are highly dependent on the development environment, but the ultimate objective for a UX designer is to understand and support users’ needs. This end certainly justifies the means. For a UX designer, there are two approaches to UX research and design: lean and fat. I’ll use the concept of body mass to help explain this idea.

There are two aspects of a healthy body mass: fat mass and lean mass. A healthy human body requires 6% to 25% of body fat for men; 12% to 30% of body fat for woman. A person’s body fat percentage is the total weight of his body fat divided by his body weight. The human body needs this fat to create tissues and produce chemicals such as hormones. The human body uses good fats for energy, to protect the organs from injury, cushion the skin, and build myelin, which makes it possible for nerve cells to fire electrical messages that enable people to think, see, speak, and move.

Lean mass, on the other hand, comprises everything else except fat—that is, bones, organs, and muscle. You can determine a person’s percentage of lean mass by subtracting his body fat percentage from 100% of his body mass. In summary, a human being has a healthy body mass when he has low fat mass and high lean mass.

Why does any of this matter and how does it relate to lean UX? As body mass comprises both fat mass and lean mass, user experience comprises fat UX approaches and lean UX approaches.

Fat UX Approaches

You can think of fat UX approaches in the same way that you think of fat mass in the human body. Fat approaches are healthy for user experience and integral to the viability of the overall product. As fat body mass builds myelin to help the body to function, fat UX approaches build deliverables to support a product’s longevity. Their output is high-fidelity prototypes, wireframes, pixel-perfect comps, large requirements documents, and other design deliverables. While these deliverables support the product-development process and are often necessary, they’re only a part of the creation of a user experience.

Lean UX Approaches

Similar to lean body mass, lean UX approaches are less about creating deliverables and more about delivering a user experience. Lean UX approaches involve the creation of low-fidelity prototypes, concepts, maps, internal validation, usability tests, and plenty of design and development iterations. These are necessary, even essential, but discrete from the user experience itself.

So, while UX designers use both fat and lean UX approaches, since the end goal is ultimately the rapid innovation of great, healthy user experiences, that end justifies only a minimal amount of fat in a superlatively lean process.

The Story of Lean UX at Enchanting Tales

For Enchanting Tales, lean UX was essential to get their product to market quickly. They wanted the new service to house their published magazine content and upset the market in a way that kept them competitive within their product’s market space. The product team had plenty of ideas about who its users might be and what they might want, providing a starting point for the project. They needed to generate cheap, but valuable ideas quickly, so the team had to conceptualize, communicate, develop, and test quickly.

Once we had conducted a contextual inquiry and aggregated the available marketing research, we developed personas, then focused our research on the first area of knowledge that Enchanted Tales defined as a business goal. Our goal was to provide data to users in multiple facets.

After conceptualizing solutions with the business, we wanted to learn about the market response, so we sketched a low-fidelity prototype. We used this prototype to test the concept with users in the marketplace and learned that data organization was very important to them. During our interviews, which were part of a contextual inquiry during which anthropologists and researchers visited users in their natural environment, we experienced users categorizing different types of information from the magazine to facilitate better understanding.

Using our lean UX process to iterate on our prototype, we then validated the business goal of providing data to users in multiple facets. Our low-fidelity prototype categorized the following overarching data types: articles, videos, and photos, displaying them on multiple device types through responsive Web design. Once usability testing had validated this business goal, we developed our UX design solution. It met the needs of users by organizing data effectively and fulfilled the business goal by segmenting data, then providing it to users in multiple facets.

Once the development team had developed the actual code, using an agile process, we went back out to test the build with users. On our second go round, we learned that users tended to access the Web site from multiple devices. Therefore, while they were pleased with segmented content, the site’s information architecture did not sync with their mental model of the magazine. Users were looking for content, not by type, but by date of publication.

Luckily, our lean UX process afforded us the ability to sketch a revised low-fidelity prototype and validate it in the marketplace with real users, then provide the results to the team. We were able to redesign the information architecture, while also remedying problems in the responsive design that may have caused some usability issues during our first round of testing. Using lean agile practices, the development team was able to code our latest designs quickly for a new round of testing and validation.


To get an innovative product to market quickly and efficiently, it’s best to employ a lean UX approach during each iterative development cycle because it lets you validate business goals and identify market needs and provides opportunities for innovative change. For Enchanted Tales, a lean UX approach validated the business goal of providing data to users in multiple facets, identified the fact that the organization of magazine content is incredibly important to users, and through iterative UX design and development, enabled this startup to stay ahead of the curve, while discovering what might come next. 

Associate Director at Pivotal Labs

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Riley Graham LongoRiley has a passion for creating innovative, engaging user experiences. She is a firm believer that the best innovations stem from overlapping disciplines, thinking outside of the box, and adapting to change. Riley received her Masters of Science in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University and is local leader of the Chicago chapter of the Interaction Design Association.  Read More

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