Much has been made of Lean UX. Recently built on utopian bubblegum pop dribble, Lean UX arguably came from the 1930s Bell Labs' Walter Shewhart "plan-do-study-act" (PDSA) phenomenon, and was later known as iterative incremental development, AGILE, and so on. It has been a boon for recent conferences, seminars, workshops, and books all heralding Lean UX. No doubt you will often see and hear about it in job descriptions and on HR checklists when seeking out a gig as a UX practitioner. This all invokes remnants of Magnolia's Frank T.J. Mackey, played by Tom Cruise, a rock star that people look to in an attempt to learn how to make a few bucks in today’s hot experience design job market—it’s all about surface, without any deep design sustainability. Lean was this UX generation's 1.0. I'm here to tell you it's time to evolve to Muscle UX.
The merits and roots of lean are very much still applicable in Muscle UX. I'll admit, I'm jumping on the "brand-my-style-of-UX" bandwagon, and I'll happily confess that once my book by the same name is available I, too, will look to speak on it—cashing in as much as others have on their "how-to" books. However, I'll also go as far as to say that Muscle UX is complementary to being lean. It's a stage, a chapter, a movement, a phase.
For a start-up, lean will most likely move things along, which always emboldens teams and investors alike. However, we must start the discussion around UX to no longer view it as a phase within a project, or even as a discipline that starts and acts around development and analytics. User experience exists because users react to narrative; it is during their experience with your product when they will decide whether they will engage it again. True, some experiences, like stopping at a red STOP sign are easily intuitive, but some are also learned, like pushing down on a prescription bottle to open its top.
Where to put the stop sign is not so intuitive, analytical information about traffic patterns, number of accidents, increased populations, and whether it's a rural or urban road all play a factor into the decision. Just as well, a concerned letter from a citizen might inspire a decision too. Similarly, a conversation with residents or business owners may inspire action to look at the data. These are not mutually exclusive, yet they are all antecedents of where the sign goes. Lean UX would lead us to just guess where to put stop signs and see how it affects traffic, never knowing that it may make commutes unnecessarily longer for drivers. A lean UXer may just wait for a complaint letter to come in before responding.
Muscle UX is lean UX reformed. To play on the word "lean," the method not only trims the fat in taking out over-produced documentation, for example, wires of every screen and action, but it also leans on everyone involved on a project, leans on everyone showing up on time and every day, leans on everyone knowing each other's shorthand. Lean supposes your UX lead will not be recruited away, hit by a car, or call in sick for a week. Lean leans on the same developers to come in every day and know your shorthand. Lean feels great when you're working with a developer in real-time, changing a call-to-action from blue to red. But like having a night of shots and laughs with friends, there's a hangover lurking. Lean UX is results driven, but also reactive, not proactive.
Content strategy seems lost in lean UX when it comes to metadata and the future of users seeking out the same content across several devices, known or unknown.
The principle of the muscle method is to put forth "study and experience" prior to planning. When planning, chart a course with possible variants in user behavior and technological advances, and along the way tracking with learned knowledge using total immersion in the field with iterative launches of a product.
Here are some guidelines to creating a Muscle UX environment:
1) All decisions are made with empathy—empathy for the stakeholder, for the user, for developers, for everyone on the team, for anyone targeted to use the product (and for those who are not). A focus group, a lab with a couch and a one-way mirror, will not share with you as much as actually living in someone's shoes. Observational, controlled research can be used to verify theories observed in uncontrolled environments; however, there's nothing like taking your tablet to a café and asking someone to use a competitor's app while thinking aloud. By the same token, empathize with the stakeholders, interview them organically to see what is really pulling certain decisions and create a rapport for future buy-in. We as users who EXPERIENCE practitioners have no place in the discipline if we do not EXPERIENCE the world ourselves.
2) Match narrative with data—analytics must be a part of the decision making process. Evidence will convince stakeholders to act. If evidence is needed for a new product, use academic research from your alma mater, which often has deep access to JSTOR, ProQuest, ScienceDirect, Lexis, etc. where Google Scholar may not. Think of evidence as only part of the user story. Like a lawyer presenting a case before a jury, a UX practitioner uses evidence to build narrative, setting up an order of events that is easily followed. This is key to how your team will collect more data as well. Yes, users will use products in ways not originally thought of by the stakeholders, but your metadata strategy will report that narrative back iteratively while the product is in the market.
3) Report on observations, adopt early to trending apps to study behavior, and post ideas 24/7, using the cloud and tagging everything—Forget the wiki. Use cloud services like Flowdock, Evernote, and/or Dropbox to record decisions. Take photos of whiteboard sessions, of users out in the field, take screenshots of the competition's product, or of a sketch on a napkin with your phone and post them, hashtagging the hell out of it. Easily searchable ideas, conversations, and files with a versioning in the name will keep team momentum and urgency. Even for yourself, if you capture an idea, you can recall it later in a working session with stakeholders anywhere in the world.
4) Content and data will outlive any device currently in market, plan your content strategy around ever-evolving user journeys—If you were in a car listening to this article, you wouldn't have been able to hear the parts marked in bold. Content strategy works best when it is adaptive to a user's journey enough that it is independent to the device. Planning experiences anthropologically will help for sustainability of the content. Therefore, it is up to the Muscle UX practitioner to design with metadata in mind.
5) Know when and how to document for a global audience—This comes with just as much empathy as your planning phase, but it is a crucial element in communicating with a global community of stakeholders; even if everyone is in the same building, we live in a very diverse world. This is why we wireframe, yet measure how much to document based on the fact that anyone from anywhere may enter the project at any time.
6) Make allies across the organization, but don't be afraid to be the lone champion—While working in lean environments, I noticed decisions were often implemented quickly before any leadership or certain stakeholders noticed, or decisions were frozen in stasis while waiting for others to review or buy-in. Whether in a start-up, in a large organization, or a multinational advertising agency, building rapport and learning which decision makers are immediately needed will assist your ability to implement UX best practices over the lifecycle of a product. It will also assist you when you must lead and advocate for a decision to be made.
7) Always be reflective while considering experiential expansion—E.M. Forster once said, "Expansion, that is the idea the novelist must cling to, not completion, not rounding off, but opening out." See your product's launch as writing the first chapter in a great novel; it will be about the transaction between your product and your user throughout the ongoing process of creating. Yet, the added benefit you have that an author does not, is that you gain knowledge through these transactions along each chapter.
8) Fail often—Celebrate the wins, but cherish the failures. Failure is the kale and bee pollen to Muscle UX; it is super food. This isn't just about product, but it's about speaking up or projecting an idea on the wall just to get more insight to where stakeholder's minds are when the room's too quiet. Do not lament failure, but prepare your stakeholders for possible disappointment on unproven theories. Like in a gym, doing repetitions until your muscles give in makes you stronger. (Following the previous tenets will make any failure a win.)
In Muscle UX, I am proposing that we extrapolate the lean process and grow by flexing our minds, building from our own experiences, and molding into sustainable experience design. I have yet to see the lean method be strong enough on a global scale, when your developers or stakeholders are in several different time zones, cultures, and holiday schedules. Similarly, and perhaps too soon to tell, I've yet to see lean UX be sustainable without having to completely redesign a product "from the ground up." Meaning, in the end, going lean may cost you valuable resources and the one thing we all try to maintain: our users' trust.
Denis Griffith (@griffopolis) recently led global UX initiatives for Emirates Airline, launching iteratively this year, while XCD/head of UX at Atmosphere Proximity. Denis also served as director of UX with Havas Life, helping to create one of the first presentation builder and sales aid iPad apps. He is currently working on a book about Muscle UX due out in spring 2014.