Book Review: The Lean Product Playbook

July 20, 2020

Cover: The Lean Product PlaybookOver the last several years, I’ve noticed a shift in the adoption of User Experience within organizations. This is encouraging, but might also require UX professionals to consider the skills and the roles that we bring to product teams. There are two key factors that are now impacting the way UX professionals work with product teams.

First is the adoption of new project-management methods, as well as the integration of UX deliverables into those methods. Early in my career, most software and Web projects followed a waterfall methodology, which is still common in manufacturing industries. The difficulty I frequently encountered with this approach was that it rarely allowed sufficient time for the integration of new knowledge. UX research often got squeezed out because it didn’t directly add business value. Often, from the beginning of a project, a product team essentially had to know exactly what they would deliver at the end of the project. The team’s inability to deviate from the original plan undermined the iterative nature of most UX design approaches.

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However, we now have a variety of project-management systems—each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The concept of Lean UX has been gaining traction, as well as agile methodologies, including Scrum. On the surface, these methods tend to give the appearance of allowing iteration and supporting learning.

Second is the rise to preeminence of the discipline of Product Management. While, in the past, Engineering or Marketing might have been responsible for the definition, design, and implementation of products, the leadership of product teams now resides with Product Management. Over time, I’ve observed that the need to integrate cross-functional skills and teams has led to the realization that the product manager, or product owner, is a necessary function. This role integrates market-research and design methods to lead the delivery of products that are viable in the marketplace. The obvious concern for me is that the focus on product could come at the expense of understanding users’ needs.

Dan Olsen’s book The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback provides a useful overview of the role of Product Management—in particular, Lean product management.

Book Specifications

Title: The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback

Author: Dan Olsen

Formats: Hardcover, Audible, Kindle

Publisher: Wiley

Published: June 2, 2015

Pages: 336

ISBN-10: 1118960874

ISBN-13: 978-1118960875

What Is Lean Product Management?

Lean is a concept that multiple industries have borrowed from the Toyota Production System, which has gained recognition in the UX community through books such as Eric Reis’s Lean Startup and Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX. The big idea from Lean is essentially to align activities around customer satisfaction through constant value generation. Lean organizations minimize or eliminate activities that do not contribute to quality production.

Product-Market Fit

Product-market fit is a pivotal element of Lean product development. While UX professionals frequently focus on design details and whether individual users or classes of users would be able to use a product or enjoy an experience, the market sets the expectation of identifying customers’ unmet needs and the opportunities they present. Simply put, if a product does not adequately solve a recognized problem—or one that would be recognizable with little effort—it won’t fit a market need.

Measuring Customer Value

A vital skill for designing products is having the ability to articulate and measure the value of features and functionality. While, as UX professionals, we tend to be very good at describing experiences in terms of user empathy, we might be able to benefit from taking more quantitative approaches.

In his book, Olsen provides several helpful tools for evaluating whether a possible product or feature would deliver value and how to prioritize the development of valuable products and features. A simple grid that compares the importance of a feature against potential customer satisfaction with such a feature might provide a useful way of focusing and prioritizing product-development efforts. Olsen thoroughly describes the relationship between importance and satisfaction, as well as between must-haves and delighters. His methods could be especially useful in developing consensus within an organization.

Interactions Between Product Management and User Experience

In Olsen’s description of Product Management, a product’s user experience is at the top of the pyramid. Beneath user experience lies its feature set and value proposition—both of which relate to the underserved needs of the target customer through product-market fit. This construct does not minimize the role of UX design in product design. Instead, it illustrates the fact that a market needs to exist for a product to provide a competitive user experience. In fact, Olsen advocates the inclusion of UX research throughout the product-design process.

Olsen describes a continuum for assessing a product as functional versus delightful to use. He also recognizes the importance of usability and its applicability to product design, referring to “Olsen’s Law of Usability,” which he articulates as follows:

“The more user effort required to take an action, the lower the percentage of users who will take that action. The less user effort required, the higher the percentage of users who will take that action.”

I have seen this principle in action when considering the effort a user must expend to complete a lead form on a Web site. One business unit had a very comprehensive lead-generation form on a marketing landing page, with many detailed fields that made various inquiries. As it turned out, a business-development person would again ask the very same questions when contacting a new lead. When my team analyzed the form fields and the conversion rate for each field, we made the informed recommendation to remove roughly half of the fields. As a result, the conversion rate for the form nearly doubled, almost immediately.

The Minimum Viable Product

The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) has gained traction in recent years. But achieving a common understanding of what constitutes an MVP has eluded many. Some believe that an MVP is equivalent to the first iteration of a full-featured product. Others think it is the same thing as a prototype.

Olson’s explanation of an MVP focuses on developing an experience that proves or disproves the assumptions of a given value proposition. For example, the original iPhone tested the theory that consumers were ready to invest in a premium smartphone. It is easy to forget that Apple eschewed many basic features of today’s iPhone models—such as the ability to install apps, copy and paste, send MMS messages, and change the wallpaper and lock-screen images—in favor of focusing on the core value proposition of the iPhone: integration of a full-featured mobile device with Apple’s ecosystem.


I’ve always had mixed feelings about the utility of personas. Frequently, teams use them as a method of cultivating empathy with customers. The challenge personas present is that they frequently include information that is irrelevant to design decisions and based on speculation rather than real research.

Olsen provides a reasonable critique of personas: They are most useful when they focus on a product’s painpoints, as well as the motivations that inform a hypothetical customer’s decisions about using or adopting a product. While demographic attributes could be helpful if a team intends to target a particular market segment, they are much less useful than considering customers’ expertise, knowledge, motivations, and attitudes.


The Lean Product Playbook provides a useful overview of product-management methods and even introduces some interesting methods for appraising user experiences within the contexts of markets and business strategy. Olsen does a good job of describing the various aspects of product management, while respecting the value that the different disciplines that participate in the product-design process contribute. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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