Lean UX, Product Stewardship, and Integrated Teams

Several emergent themes in software design and development are converging into a new way of working:

  1. Entrepreneurs understand the strategic value of user experience design in the guise of Steve Blank’s customer development and Eric Ries’ lean startup
  2. Management are entrusting designers with product management responsibilities as frustrated designers are seeking them out
  3. Agile teams are coming to recognize the contribution of UX as designers learn to function in agile environments

Each of these ideas have significant impact on the way user experience designers approach their work and how businesses structure their design and development efforts. Together, Lean UX, Product Stewardship, and Integrated Teams define a cross-functional, balanced approach to delivering software and services.

Lean UX

Traditional User Experience (UX) design techniques were developed in waterfall environments. Designers conduct research, develop models, derive frameworks, and specify detail with the understanding that they have to get it “right,” because once the product enters development, changes are difficult and costly.

Lean UX leverages the highly fluid nature of modern lean and agile development practices. It focuses design and development effort on high value users, features, activities, and experiences, and in so doing, reduces the wasted effort and cost of spending time on issues that don’t really matter (or don’t matter right now). Teams work to shorten the time between forming design hypotheses, testing them, and learning from the results, accelerating delivery while improving quality. Designing and building from the core out helps tune your product vision in response to stakeholder, market, and user feedback.

Lean UX is not interaction design shoehorned into agile frameworks. Product vision, user research and modeling, and truly evolutionary iteration are central to this approach. It stresses lightweight, collaborative, right-fidelity UX techniques to generate, test, and evolve the design of your product.

Product Stewardship


The responsibilities of an agile product owner are vast, difficult, and conflicted. Typically a role derived from product management, product owners are tasked with fulfilling business objectives; they’re expected to identify and represent user needs; they must define and drive the product vision; they need to understand and prioritize development efforts and represent the team to business stakeholders. This is not a job one person can do effectively.

Product stewardship relieves pressure on the product owner bottleneck. A UX strategist assumes the role of Product Steward, pairing with a Product Manager to share the mantle of product ownership. The product manager has a bias towards representing the business, the product steward towards satisfying the user, with a recognition that an interplay of these forces drives prioritization of the team’s activities.

Integrated Teams

UX has had difficulty finding its footing in agile development. Design work doesn’t always fit the cadence of weekly sprints; designers can feel their job becomes a perpetual state of reactive, tactical design; iterations designers thought meant cycles of improvement turn out to mean a progression of micro-deadlines where “done” means “good enough to move on.”

Integrated teams extend full membership to interaction designers, visual designers, content strategists, and anyone else who contributes to shaping the product. Most importantly, these cross-functional teams work in pairs: often as like-disciplined partners, but also as designer/developer pairs. This format reduces communication issues and documentation overhead, develops cross-functional empathy, and gives the whole team increased understanding of product vision.

What you can do

I’m terribly excited to be part of this movement to bringing balance to software development teams. You can get involved as well and, in fact, we need you to drive this change in your organizations. I’ve posted a deck to of a talk I gave at a side event of IxDA11 in Boulder, CO on Feb 8. Feel free to use it to help start conversations at your office and in your communities about how to improve your ways of working. Join a local meetup to talk with others about the integration of design into lean and agile development. Read blogs and follow the emerging voices in the community of lean user experience and balanced teams. Most of all, trust In the power of user-centered design to inspire, delight, and guide your teams forward.

Other resources

Tim McCoy

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