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Q&A with Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX

The author of Lean UX and Sense & Respond talks shop.

Kate Bennet
Jun 27, 2017 · 5 min read

Lean software development has been fashionable amongst startups for some years, but it’s still a no-go for many companies and industries. Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX and Sense & Respond, shares his advice on making conversations meaningful and always explaining why.

Q: What advice do you have for companies who have failed trying to implement lean?

Explain the reason for the change

If people don’t understand why things are changing they will revert back.

Change must be all-encompassing

To implement lean properly you have to change everything- culture, performance management, etc.

Experiment first, then scale up

Take a team, with a small scope, for short amount of time (month/ quarter), and let them figure out how to work in a lean way. When it works, scale up.

Throughout the process showcase wins and be transparent about what’s happening. Explain “this change made this difference because of xyz.

Get an executive sponsor and a coach onboard

You will need an executive sponsor to clear the path and shield the team. One of the toughest parts of making this change is getting an executive sponsor to step up.

You will also need a coach for the team. The coach will inspire, motivate, help the group get through the tough days and get to greater efficiency and productivity.

Q: How do designers get to a place where they have authority, budget or strategic influence?

There are very few places where the head of design has a strategic say and budget.

Know your audience

UX 101 is know your audience, and career progression is the same: know who you’re working with and what they’re about. Assess the company for their attitude to design by looking for clues such as who reports to who and who leads designers and engineers.

Make it meaningful

Work out how you can translate your audience’s needs and motivations to design, in a way the audience cares about- such as through language and metrics.

Take a page out of Eric Ries’ book

Example: Lean Startup is a business book, using the language business people use and published in places business people look. When Lean Startup was first published the UX community was in uproar because they had been saying some of what it said for years and no-one listened- because they didn’t communicate it in a way their audience cared about.

Q: How to sell yourself to a founder during the hiring process?

Start with the business end of the design process by asking the founder “How does the company measure a product’s success?” Push for specific metrics- if their answer is vague, ask “How would we know?

When you have an answer, assess the current state and how to get to the desired state. Based on this assessment, tell the founder “I would create x based on y.” This process elevates the conversation to something that’s meaningful to them.

As a follow up question, ask the founder “How would you measure the success of a design hire?

Q: How do you convince clients to work this way?

The client must be part of the team from day one (non-negotiable). Set the time commitment from the very beginning, stating expectations in your sales pitch.

Keep the client engaged throughout the process: they should participate in stand-ups and feedback reviews, and are responsible for prioritization of the backlog. Try to bring the client on site. If that’s not possible, meet with them via video every day.

Active participation helps prevent the client from checking out then questioning every decision, but can be a tough sell. Often companies hire agencies so they don’t have to deal with the day-to-day process.

Q: How do you deal with tight timelines and high demands?

You can fix time or scope, but not both. If you try to fix both you’ll be in continuous crunch mode which will lead to burnout. Ask why a deadline exists then plan and compromise appropriately.

Q: When does it make sense to start doing thought leadership?

Assess your industry and peers. Work out what you need to do to stay relevant, in the industry, and employable.

At age 35 Jeff was worried that he would soon be overpaid and unemployable because designers entering the industry could do better work for less money. He needed to choose between management or something else, and decided he was never going to look for a job again- jobs would find him. He then:

1. Looked at what people with a personal brand are doing

Thought leaders are writing, speaking, and being active in the community. People always looking for another point of view.

2. Started submitting talk ideas to conferences

Eventually you start getting talks and articles accepted.

3. Found his niche

Find a subject that catches on (this may involve some luck). In 2008, nobody had figured out UX + Lean/ agile yet. Jeff wrote about the subject and started speaking at meetups.

4. Got scouted for a book deal

Book publishers go to conferences to scout for new topics. If you’re the expert in a topic, speak at lots of conferences and you may be approached.

Q: Why write another book?

When Lean UX was published, Jeff and his co-writer Josh Seiden received consistent feedback from designers that they loved the theory but would never be allowed to implement the advice because their industry or country doesn’t allow it. They wrote their second book (Sense & Respond) to address this: the book is a manual for managers, to convince them to think differently.

Sense & Respond is based on two theories:

  1. Whatever business you’re in, you’re in a software business. There are case studies on this from agriculture to automotives.
  2. Many managers aren’t equipped to deal with running a software business. Managing a software business is very different to manufacturing. With software you can’t predict for the future and there is a lot of uncertainty. Managers aren’t taught to deal with this which leads to friction.

Find out more about Jeff on his website or via Twitter.

Session recorded at on the 3rd November 2017. Photo credit and hosting thanks to Tradecraft.

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