Agile UX? Lean UX? Customer Development? A multiple discovery moment

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.

This past weekend in NYC, a small group of designers, technologists and entrepreneurs came together at Pivotal Labs to talk about this phenomenon. In this third meeting of the group, the goal was to help ourselves better understand the practices and principles behind this way of working and to figure out how to share our experience more broadly. (A year ago, Cooper hosted the first retreat. This summer, Atomic Object hosted the secondJeff Gothelf has a nice write up of this third meeting. And here are some more write-ups.)

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.)

Designer? Developer? Entrepreneur?

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.

That’s why this moment is so exciting. A year ago at the first Agile UX Retreat, Lean Startup wasn’t on the radar. (Credit Janice Fraser and the excellent work she has been doing at LUXr with bringing the notion of Lean to the working group.) The Retreat group originally came together to discuss the recognition that UX and Agile could work well together, and the ongoing frustration the two communities felt trying to make this happen. That weekend produced a real breakthrough–Agilists and UXers found lots of common ground. Even so, the notion emerged that more was needed beyond bringing these two separate practices together. Johanna Kollmann captured this nicely on her blog:
‘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.

5 comments Write a comment

  1. He Josh,

    Nice post….

    This POV is / has been called Design Thinking by many. Three pillars are Viability (business), Feasibility (development), and Desirability (design). Diverse and small teams have been part of this from the start as well.

    Where what you talking about is new is the introduction of Lean principles across all disciplines. Bias for making, focus on limited sets of things to start, fail early, iterate, test etc.

    There is tons of evidence in the valley culture now that design is gaining similar value to engineering skills and business acumen in the formation of viable start-ups, (i.e. vc’s are tracking design talent).

    If you look at the dschool curriculum at Stanford they are running students through a very similar process.


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  3. Great post bringing all of this together. Similar thoughts have been rattling around in my head, but you have crystalized it all very nicely.


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