Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Lean usability as a design model

September 23, 2012 -- Gerry McGovern

Lean usability focuses on customer needs and quickly iterates its way to success based on evidence of customer behavior.

I’m just back from a very interesting conference in Denver, USA, about lean usability. Inspired by the whole lean and agile software development movement, lean usability is about fast, economical, iterative, evidence-based techniques to make a website or application better.

The Lean usability movement is the response to the failings of more traditional approaches of carefully planned, long-term projects. In a world that is rapidly changing and highly complex, these slow moving projects are having increasing problems achieving optimal results.

A classic example of the traditional projects is the website redesign. Sometimes redesigns are necessary. The current website is simply not fit for purpose. The navigation and structure are so poor that a root-and-branch redesign is required.

Often, however, the redesign reflects a rigid project-focused view of the Web. We need to develop an app, or we need to redesign the website, the thinking goes. Once the development or redesign is finished then the job is complete.

Continuous improvement is not something most organizations are good at, but it is an approach that is absolutely essential for success on the Web. One speaker at the lean usability conference told me about how his government can find millions every 3-4 years to redesign its main government website, but that in the intervening years it allocates practically zero resources for its maintenance and continuing improvement.

I have been involved in designing websites since 1994 and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it is that the Web is a work in progress, particularly for large complex websites. The job does not end the day you launch.

The vast majority of websites I have worked with would be 100 times better off to spend 50,000 dollars every year on improving their websites, rather than spending 200,000 every three years on redesigns.

Redesigns dominate because they visibly show to management that something has changed. Redesigns also dominate because budgets for projects are nearly always easier to find than budgets for people.

The Lean approach is about getting something basic up and running quickly. This basic thing is then relentlessly tested with customers. It may not survive and something else may need to replace it. If it does survive it keeps going through a process of rapid evolution, constant improvement, continuous care and attention.

The Lean approach is as much about taking away as it is about adding. It’s about simplicity, about having the minimum amount of stuff there. It is also highly collaborative, as Jeff Gothelf and Tomer Sharon stressed in their talks. It’s not just about engaging actively with customers but engaging actively with as many as possible stakeholders within the organization as well.

The tools of the Lean approach are not expensive. You can observe customers using Webex or GoToMeeting. There are excellent design tools like Optimal Workshop, and a whole range of analytical tools like UserZoom, webnographer, etc.

This is a tremendously exciting time for web professionals. The Web is like a giant human brain and we now have the tools and techniques to do continuous PET scans of that brain. We should use them so as to better serve our customers.