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  • Writer's pictureallisonsarno

The Risk of Over-simplifying Your UX Design Process: How Lean is Too Lean?

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In the magical land of startups, where efficiency reigns supreme, Lean UX has been embraced by founders, designers, and product managers alike. With a strong focus on team collaboration, rapid iteration, and minimal documentation—what's not to love? But can you have too much of a good thing? Can you be too lean?

To really appreciate Lean UX, it warrants looking back at how it used to be. If you partook in UX design in the twenty-teens you might remember late nights slaving over tragically-long design presentations, and the effort it took to document every last design detail and interaction. If you did not tediously document every detail, the unthinkable might happen: you might actually have to discuss or explain a desired interaction to members of your team. Your colleague might have to THINK or even worse ASK YOU about said interaction and you would have to discuss it. (Oh the horror!).

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This is me working on a ridiculously long agency design deck. The deck is hanging in the background along with an inflatable yellow duck.

Eventually it was discovered that collaborating with your cross-functional team members was actually a good thing and no one really WANTED to create those massively labor intensive, decks or read them for that matter. Lean UX is now the norm. (Yippee!)

But, as we embrace the efficiencies of lean user experience, we should ask ourselves: Can we have too much of a good thing? How lean is too lean? When does this approach hinder rather than help our path to success?

First, the essence of lean UX

Lean UX, the term coined by now famous author Jeff Gothelf, is an adaptation of his Lean Startup methodology where Design Thinking and an Agile Development come together. It emphasizes the importance of eliminating waste, optimizing resources, and continuously learning from users. It's a mindset that encourages cross-functional collaboration among product managers, designers, developers, and marketers. There are countless tools to help this process along and when implemented successfully... it's truly magical. (Or at least a heck of a lot more efficient and enjoyable than previous methods)

What are the main advantages of Lean UX

1. Speed to Market

Lean UX encourages rapid prototyping and testing, allowing startups to get their product in the hands of users sooner. This accelerated development can give you a competitive edge and help you respond to user feedback and changing market conditions quickly.

2. Cost Efficiency

By focusing on essential features and functionality, Lean UX minimizes unnecessary development costs. You can allocate your resources more effectively, ensuring that every dollar spent contributes to the product's value.

3. User-Centric Design

Lean UX puts the user at the center of the design process. Regular feedback loops with real users help refine the product, ensuring it aligns with user needs and preferences.

Too much of a good thing? The dangers of being Too Lean

While the principles of Lean UX are invaluable for startups, there are potential pitfalls when taken to extremes. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

1. Sacrificing Quality

Being too lean will indefinitely lead to major compromises in quality. Rushing through design and development cycles can result in a subpar product that fails to meet user expectations. Developers also need time to set up and test properly. Go too fast and important details may be overlooked and bugs may go unresolved.

2. Neglecting Long-term Vision

A laser focus on immediate features and functionality without proper planning may cause startups to lose sight of their long-term vision and what their product or company strives to be, far beyond the MVP.

3. Ignoring UX Research

In the quest for speed, startups often cut corners on UX research and forget that lean UX depends heavily on a Design Thinking framework in which user feedback is critical. Skipping this step or pairing down user research to such an extent that it no longer provides value can result in misinformed design decisions, lost opportunities for innovation or even worse a product that "misses the mark" completely.

4. Unclear business goals

No matter how lean you plan to work, having clear business goals is an absolute must. It's impossible for a team to design and develop a product successfully without understanding the strategy behind it or what criteria would determine success. This lack of clarity can lead to needless cycles of iteration which will actually takes more time in the end.

Misconceptions about Lean UX Design

Lack of Process is NOT Lean UX

One of the biggest misconceptions, is mistaking a lack of process for Lean UX. Just like you would never build a house without floor plans or build out the interior architecture before the foundation, in UX design there is a certain sequence of activities that need to happen and ground work that needs to be done in order to inform your designers and team sufficiently. In Lean UX, these activities still happen. They are just done in a more efficient and agile way. It's often tempting to "jump" right into into design as a way to gather ideas or expedite the process. The danger of of doing is this you very likely get side tracked by the pretty visuals rather the the essence of what you are trying to build.

I've certainly experienced this on more than one occasion. One particular scenario comes to my mind where I where I was tasked to design out a booking tool for an e-commerce website. I had very little information to go on, outside of a few competitive references. Without clarity around requirements, or user needs, I was trapped in an endless cycle of iteration.

Roles and expertise matter

With Lean UX, it isn't uncommon to bring cross-functional teams together in a way that everyone has a chance to weigh in on topics outside of their immediate domain, brainstorm ideas or problem solve. So by all means, bring a developer into your brainstorm sessions or creative meetings. Don't however, expect your team members to fulfill roles outside of their area of expertise in an effort to cut corners or stay "lean".

Lean UX is an all or nothing methodology

One of the first tasks required after setting up a team to build your product is establishing a workflow- basically determining how best to work together. Depending on the type of product you're creating, certain part of lean UX may not be the best or right approach. In these instances it is optimal to pick and choose which aspects of Lean UX fit into your product design and development process and where it makes sense to rely on more traditional UX methods. In designing medical devises or software for example, traceability is mandated so more documentation is required and a lean approach may only be applied to certain parts of your process.

Finding the Right Balance

So, how do you strike the right balance between being lean and too lean in your startup's UX design process?

  1. Always start with clear objectives: Define your product's goals and vision early on. This ensures that your lean efforts are aligned with a broader strategy.

  2. Seek regular user feedback: Continuously gather user feedback in a way that is both informative and manageable. Prioritize feedback that aligns with your product's vision and focus on critical pain points first.

  3. Iterate wisely: Don't hesitate to iterate, but do it with purpose. Each iteration should bring you closer to your product's long-term goals.

  4. Invest in UX Research: Don't skimp on user research. It's the foundation of effective UX design. Even in lean environments, allocate time and resources for meaningful research not just hallway conversations of "drive by" user-tests. Read my post on lean user testing for an example of how to gather valuable usability insights.

  5. Cross-functional collaboration: Encourage collaboration among your team members. A diverse perspective can help you make informed decisions and avoid tunnel vision.

  6. Stay flexible: Maintain the agility that Lean UX offers, but use it as a tool, not a constraint. Flexibility is key to adapting to changing circumstances.

  7. Apply Lean UX judiciously: Lean UX is not all an all or nothing approach. Customize your workflow and level of "leaness" to meet the needs of your product and industry.


Lean UX is a powerful approach for startups to create user-centric products efficiently. However, it's essential to strike a balance between being lean and sacrificing quality, vision, or research. By understanding when and where to apply Lean UX principles judiciously, you can harness its advantages while avoiding the pitfalls of being "too lean." Remember, your product's success is not solely determined by speed but by delivering meaningful value to your users.

About the Author

Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializes in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at


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