This is How to Implement Lean Design

Written by Misti Yang, Contributor for Lean Startup Co.

You want to redesign your company’s website to increase revenue. Three months later, you’re still sitting in meetings where PowerPoint is the feature presentation. It happens.

Designing the right new products and releasing them into the wild can be hard, but Lean Design can help. Lean Design combines the core principles of the Lean Startup Methodology with the practices of Agile software development and design thinking. When you put them all together, you end up with a design practice committed to creating value over waste, building cross-functional teams, and learning through rapid-fire experimentation. The goal is to get product prototypes into the hands of consumers as soon as possible so you can learn directly rather than speculate.

To better understand the challenges of creating a Lean Design culture, we recently did a webcast with Courtney Hemphill, a partner and project lead at the digital product development consultancy Carbon Five. We’ve compiled Courtney’s biggest insights regarding Lean Design into a simple post to help you implement the practice in your organization.

Good news: Lean Design works well with Design Thinking and software development practices

You are not to be blamed if you get a little cross-eyed keeping track of the latest theory on how to do development best. “There is a desire to want to find a perfect process that’s going to work across everyone,” Courtney says, but Lean Design actually does play well with others.

Here’s how Courtney breaks it down:

Start with Design Thinking: “What is the problem? Let’s unpack that. Let’s discover where opportunities are.”

Then, layer on Lean thinking: “Okay, now that we’ve seen these opportunities, how do we define them? How do we figure out where the product-market fit is? Where do we get our a-ha moment?”

And finally, employ Agile to actually build the product and get it to market, where you can measure and learn, completing the Lean Startup build-measure-learn cycle.

You’ll just need to rethink your design system

Typical style guides dictate the colors, fonts, and other brand details. Working in a digital environment requires a more robust design system that takes into account everything necessary to release a new product, including the tools and people.

“[You need to understand] how you can have a unified federation of design that can be harnessed and leveraged by all groups within a company,” says Courtney, “to keep the brand approach and design consistent as more and more products come onto market.”

Courtney suggests first breaking down design into three Ps — parts, people, and process — and then tackling the parts, which include the tools and systems currently in play. Focusing on the parts leads to this important question: “How can we experiment with the use of parts across the organization, and with the roles and responsibilities that are within the existing organization, so that we can now start to create products, take them to market, and experiment with them to find our product-market fit?”

And yes, larger organizations can adopt Lean Design too

With a small company, Lean Design may come more naturally, but in an organization with hundreds, if not thousands, of employees and well-established rules and procedures, reevaluating how products are designed and released may be tough. But given her experience, Courtney knows it can be done. Empowerment is key. You need to give people “the necessary tools so that they can be empowered to try things out,” she says.

Empowerment starts with having a strong design system and easy access to those parts we mentioned before — which include standard forms, logins, and animations. “If you have a system where people can really go, grab that stuff, and understand in the system what others have done, that will maintain the quality of the experience and make it unified across different products,” Courtney says. “It empowers groups and individuals. It also makes leadership feel capable of trusting their team because they know that they can trust that quality is going to be maintained.”

Her best advice for working with leadership: “Make sure you have buy-in from the stakeholders and be empathetic about how this risk might be very scary to them.” She suggests going to the C-suite or business managers and explaining: “This is something that we really think will be effective. This is why we think it will be effective. This is how we’re going to do it. These are the changes that we should be aware of.”

Lean Design tool recommendations

The answer to this question depends in part on the size of your organization. For smaller teams, Courtney recommends software project management tools JIRA or Pivotal Tracker to organize backlogs and milestone delivery.

She also speaks highly of GitHub and Usertesting.com. When working with a Fortune 500 insurance company, Carbon Five helped create a kind of digital style guide by checking in components to GitHub that developers could experiment with. “Developers had one place to go to see what a form should look like, for example, and they could grab the components for that and plop them right into the feature that they were developing. It cut out so much back-and-forth between the designers,” Courtney says.

Usertesting.com can eliminate some need for design meetings by getting a MVP to customers quickly and discovering firsthand if they really care if the text is blue or fuchsia.

So regardless of the size of your organization, Lean Design is doable. Start with a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve, and then, assess the parts, people, and process currently in place. Through that assessment, you should develop a clearer picture of how to move forward. After getting buy-in from your team, including higher-ups, you should be ready to build, measure, and learn your way into a great new product.

You can listen to the full webcast here.