Agile, Lean UX — What’s New is Old

I’ve been interested in recent twitters, posts, and presentations about the emerging and changing role of user experience.    Yet we’ve seen some resistance to the new terms or methodologies.  I’d like to suggest the current transition in the UX field is similar to revolutions in scientific fields.  Science historian Thomas Kuhn would say we’re in a period of crisis or revolution. (Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds).  It’s normal,  healthy.

Our field is going through change.  Change is normal.  I think this change is analagous to the changes and evolution of scientific fields described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962.  He showed that scientific fields go through cycles:

  • Pre-paradigm—Sort of a bright, green, new field of inquiry.  There are no established rules, theories, practices, or  paradigms.  There might be a number of competing ideas.
  • Normal —The field sort of settles on a general worldview (what problems are worth investigating, what tools are techniques are correct, etc).  An elite group of guardians usually emerges to lead the field, and determine what ideas are shared or published widely to the field.  If processes or findings occur that don’t agree with the established canon of the field, they’re regarded as anomalies.
  • Revolutionary—As the anomalies pile up, it becomes harder and harder to reconcile them with the old ways.  For awhile, the field is in crisis you have competing theories and processes again.  Finally, there is a paradigm shift (the new ideas explain more things more elegantly, or are more useful than old ideas, the old elite guard retires or dies, etc) and the revolution becomes normal.  Think of the Copernicus declaring that the Earth revoles around the Sun, or the beginnings of the atomic model of chemistry.

This phased evolution model neatly describes what we’ve been seeing in the user experience field.

Evolution of the UX field

Pre-paradigm UX

Twenty years ago we were talking about interaction design, usability, and user centered design.  Computers were for work, graphics were bad, networks were bad, and building and deploying new systems was hard.  I remember hating Windows 3.1 because it made me use a mouse…I could do things so much faster in DOS!  As usability engineers, if we could improve task completion rates and reduce errors, we were pretty happy.

Normal UX

During the dot com boom and bust of the late 90’s and early 00’s, we talked about User Engineering, and Outside-In Design.  I know it was around this time that I stopped being lumped in with the technical, programming team, and started working more with business users and stakeholders.  We all agreed to stop using <blink> and <marquee>, and started to focus on not just building software that optimizes performance on a work task, but designing things that people will actually want to use.  As we approached the late 00’s, we started building design patterns, and interaction frameworks.  We more or less agreed on a set of UX deliverables.  In the last two years there has been an explosion of user experience toolstemplatescompaniestechniquesandservices available. (Those are just a few that I use, that I could think of at the moment…there are hundreds more).  In essence, we all now have a robust set of tools and techniques to address our client’s needs.

¡Viva La Revolución!

Today’s new challenges and assumptions that make us reconsider how we approach user experience.

  • Networks are fast and ubiquitous (except when they’re not).
  • Users are not only generally familiar with standard computing metaphors, but are innundated.
  • Websiteswebappsmobiapps are all relatively quick and cheap to stand up and deploy to millions.
  • Screen size is variable, and tasks may span screens.
  • Apps are social — they know you and help you interact with your friends.  Storage is cheap, data is abundant, and is available from the cloud.
  • Location and context are unknown, and may not take place behind a desk.

While we’re still responsible for creating usable experiences (time on task, error rates, mental models, Fitt’s law, etc) the bigger challenge today is figure out exactly what provides value and delight to users.  Developers need designs before the end of a 2 week sprint, it now may be as fast or faster to build experiences in an integrated team than to do visual comps.  So we’re talking about UX in new ways, using new terms: Agile UX, Lean UX.  We’re doing more more lo-fi prototyping.  We’re doing lots of design workshops, story mapping, ethnography.  We’re doing more of everything, however we can, so that our products and designs are things people will actually want to use.

At the end of the day,  practitioners are looking for ways to redefine the field, and exploring new ideas to address today’s realities and assumptions.  I don’t think we should disparage these efforts.  It’s a normal cycle that one sees in healthy, evolving fields.

I’m seeing people on the leading edge of the User Experience field are having some success truly integrating user experience methodology into corporate culture and product development cycles.  I don’t work for a startup.  I’m not a consultant (anymore).  But I’m excited because history tells me the current UX revolution will eventually become normal UX.  It will eventually get to my  UX team of one, nestled within an excellent team of web designers, in a conservative company, in the midwest.

In a follow up post, we’ll apply some systems thinking to find a way to bridge the old UX and the new.—


2 thoughts on “Agile, Lean UX — What’s New is Old

  1. Fitzgerald, thanks so much for this thoughtful post. Just to clarify on the “resistance” post of mine you linked to, it’s the term — NOT the approach — that I don’t agree with. The “lean” approach to user experience is the way I’ve always practiced it in 5+ years of consulting. That’s why I’m taking issue with the term — I think it gives businesses the wrong impression that “common” UX practice is bloated by nature, which it isn’t. Bloated process is bad practice, and it always has been.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Whitney!

    I hear what you’re saying there…we don’t want to give the impression that we’ve been wasting time all these years. I don’t necessarily think the new terminology implies that, any more than lean manufacturing implies that all manufacturing was crap before that. Lean is more of a brand name, or more accurately an encapsulation of a set of ideas, tools, and processes.

    Of course, none of this matters to our clients. We can call it lean ux, agile ux, or chicken noodle soup. Our clients just want outstanding UX for their customers.

    This reminds me of Mike Cohn’s recent blog on the 10 year anniversary of the Agile Manifesto. We have all these labels for different philosophies of agile: XP, Scrum, Kanban, etc. He says some day, we’ll stop splitting hairs and it’ll all just be ‘agile’. And then later, it’ll stop being ‘agile’ and it’ll just be ‘software development.’

    I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happens in UX…

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