Main Principles of Lean UX for Startups

The Lean Startup philosophy has been around for quite a while now and has been adopted by many tech companies together with agile methodology as a new, more productive way of running business. And it has proved to be really successful in shifting the focus from lengthy design documentations to actual working products. But how does it apply to user experience in particular and can it really improve the quality of UX/Usability outcomes?

I believe it can.

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What Is Lean Startup Method All About?

The main idea of lean startup method is to minimize and hopefully eliminate wasted time, effort, energy and funds through the product design and development process. This philosophy comes from a manufacturing revolution in leading Japanese companies, like Toyota. You have probably heard of just-in-time production, inventory control and shrinking batch sizes. Well, it is all designed to discover and eliminate the sources of waste and thus significantly improve productivity and the quality of outcomes.

These ideas have been adapted to the context of startups and that’s how the Lean Startup method was born.

There are a few fundamental aspects of this philosophy that put a different perspective on not only the design and development process but startup management as a whole.

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Validated Learning

Learning should be the core, most vital function of working on a startup. Although it sounds too bookish, it is true. Startups operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty and if you want to succeed you need to constantly adapt to the changing factors by learning what works and what doesn’t. Eric Ries, the founder of Lean Startup method and editor of Lean book series, calls it validated learning.

Validated learning is the process of demonstrating empirically that a team has discovered valuable truths about a startup’s present and future business prospects.


Every startup has a vision and a business strategy. The latter doesn’t always prove to be successful, because our initial assumptions about the market haven’t been tested in real life. So there is a need to experiment without the fear of failure. You need to test your business strategy as early in the process as possible to see which parts of it are brilliant and which are not. It takes courage to put your thoughts and ideas to the test, but the sooner you get a realistic picture the better. You need to treat the experiment as your first product.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

In order to run an experiment, you don’t need to build the ideal product, with pixel-perfect design and tons of features. The whole idea is to get rid of anything that doesn’t contribute to learning the core truths about our product. So what you need is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which is built with minimum effort and development time and is designed to be tested in the market with real customers. Its goal is to test the initial business hypothesis and give valuable data to adapt it.

The Main Principles of Lean UX

By now we all know that design and user experience are not the same thing, although it is sometimes difficult to clearly see the borderline. However, when it comes to lean philosophy, we don’t need a fantastic design to build an MVP, right? But then how can it deliver the desired experience with poor design? This is a controversial feeling, which is sometimes difficult to overcome. But the thing is that it’s not all about design and your MVP can have as little design as a clickable prototype! After all, there are many websites with almost no design at all that still manage to deliver excellent UX. Think Wikipedia.

But user experience as a part of the design and development process also looks a bit different through the lean startup lens and here are some of the main principles of it.

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Collaborative Teams

Lean user experience requires a higher level of collaboration between team members of different disciplines, including developers, designers, business analysts, marketing specialists, project managers and even the CEO. It’s all about getting feedback on the project as early and frequently as possible.

Early Validation

As said above startups are built on a business hypothesis or just a cool idea that may or may not prove successful. It is based on a number of business assumptions that need to undergo real-life testing. First of all before designing a product, you need to make sure that it solves a customer’s problem, but not just any problem. It must be painful enough for customers to bother fixing it. That’s why you need validation at every stage of the process.

IDEA -> validate ->DESIGN-> validate->PRODUCT

Problem Focused Design

In order to eliminate unnecessary tasks and steps from the design and development process, the team needs to focus on the customer’s problem, instead of a set of features to implement. This way we can shift our efforts from deliverables to actual outcomes (the progress).

Get Out of the Building (GOOB)

This phrase was made popular by Steve Blank and it encourages entrepreneurs to get out of the office and start learning by actually communicating with people. This principle goes hand in hand with validated learning. Startups need to keep close contact with real customers, as well the client himself. The lean UX is all about getting feedback from the client and users as early and as often as possible.

How to Apply Lean UX

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The lean startup method is basically all about saving time and effort. When applying lean UX principles to the actual product development process you have to keep in mind that the user doesn’t care how much time and effort you have invested in a product. The only thing that matters is if the product solves his problem. So make sure not to waste your time designing interaction that doesn’t directly contribute to solving user’s primary problem.

So what I would suggest is to start with interactive prototypes as your first MVP and test the main tasks before writing a single line of code. Although prototypes can be of different fidelity and eventually it may take even longer to work on an interactive prototype, but that’s when you have to decide the minimum set of tasks that you need to test. And most importantly try to use a tool that will let you make any iterations fast and easy. When you are ready, start testing the prototype with as few as 3-4 people. For a first prototype 3 users are quite enough to identify the main, most severe usability issues. And when you have discovered the issues, it’s time to fix them in the prototype and start the process all over again.

This is just one example of how you can use lean UX principles to quickly validate your interaction design and move forward with visual design. There are still many questions on how to apply the lean method to particular startups with more complex products, but knowledge comes with experience. So never stop experimenting and giving permission to your team and your self to fail, because if you don’t fail, you won’t learn.

Armen Ghazarian
Armen Ghazarian
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