Steven Johnson writes in Where Good Ideas Come From about the notion of the adjacent possible. Coined by Stuart Kauffman, this phrase describes the idea that at any given moment, the game board of life allows certain moves. As civilation has developed, certain ideas come into being, founded on the ideas that came before them. This opens up new moves on the game board. The adjacent possible explains why no-one invented a car in the 1600’s–it wasn’t just that the technology didn’t exist. The basic conceptual building blocks weren’t there either. This idea also explains the notion of multiple discovery. (The most famous example: calculus was “invented” by Newton and Leibniz at roughly the same time.)
I’m telling you this because we’re at a multiple discovery moment as we speak. The time has arrived that three communities–the business, design, and technology communities–have independently discovered the same thing. That the best way to build new technology products, services, and the businesses that deliver them is to work in small, cross-functional, highly collaborative teams. To use lightweight, informal methods. To use rapid cycles of designing, making, and validating in order to test and learn and improve. To focus on the customer. There’s no agreed-upon name for this way of working yet, but you hear the different communities talking about it in their own terms: Agile Software Development; User Experience Design; Customer Development; Agile UX; Lean Startup; Lean UX.
In the year since the group started talking, the separate conversations have started to come together into one. The business community–especially the entrepreneurs–is excited by the Lean Startup movement. Lean Startup begins with the idea that a startup is an organization designed to find a repeatable and scalable business model. To identify that model, the startup must go looking for an unmet need. And while there are lots of methods for problem solving after you’ve identified the problem, there are fewer methods for identifying problems that need solutions. Steve Blank, the founding father of Lean Startup says that the solution to this is the Customer Development methodology, which, stated briefly is all about this: “focus on customers and markets from day one.” (VentureHacks has put together a great summary of Customer Development.)
User Experience Designers will recognize Customer Development. The core method within Customer Development, “getting out of the building,” as Blank calls it, is the kind of basic design research that UX designers have been doing for decades. (It’s both frustrating and validating all at once to see the business community embrace this kind of method. But get over it: UX designers, this is an opportunity. There are businesses out there that get what you do, value it, and need your expertise. You only need to meet them where they are and be flexible enough to adapt your methods to the entrepreneurial environment. Good things will happen.)
Lean Startup is not just about customer development. It’s also about learning through rapid iteration. You form a hypothesis of what your customers want, you take it out into the field to see if works, you learn, you adjust, you repeat. It’s no accident that another core component of Lean Startup is Agile software development. Lean Startup relies on Agile methods in order to create software in a quick and responsive way. And again, this should sound familiar to designers. Sketching, testing, and repeating are core to our approach.
‘How can we create successful products in a post-agile, post-ux world?”. We discussed how to improve and continuously evolve ways of working together, and how a shift in culture and mindset can come about. If agile and UX evolve together into ‘the new normal’, we are in danger of a new ‘us vs. them’ – agile ux thinking vs. business thinking. While change can be influenced from the bottom-up, it won’t work without support from the top. Values of collaborating and removing barriers on a team level clash with organisational cultures that reward progress rather than quality, in a world of siloed structures and hierarchical decision-making. As a community, we need to advocate design thinking and agile values, engage with business and prove that our yet unnamed vision works. As Alan Cooper put it: “We have to tell a story of a happy place, where business wants to be.”
With the emergence of Lean Startup, it’s clear that some at least in the business community are in this happy place. We need to join them.
Years ago, when we had to pitch companies on the value of design, it was common to argue that a successful company needed three capabilities. It needed a business capability to find a profitable market. It needed a technology capability to create a working solution for that market. And it needed a design capability to define what that market found desirable. In this moment, as these three capabilities have found one another, the possibilities are tantalizing.