These days, exceptional user experience isn’t a nice-to-have; it separates the winning businesses from the middling ones. Building a great user experience means understanding your customers through research. Conducting research doesn’t have to be a long, exhaustive, or expensive process. Like technology, research is evolving, too!

When UX researchers use terms like “lean” and “agile” we are wading into murky waters because these terms mean different things to different teams and organizations. This post will NOT provide a prescribed formula for you to follow in order to implement “Lean UX” or fit research in an agile process. What it will provide are guidelines for successfully inserting user research into your agile or lean organization.

These guidelines are based on my experience as a researcher in lean organizations. In a former life, I wore the product and project manager hats at two different start-ups where I was responsible for implementing agile throughout the technology and product organization. More recently as the head of user research for a start-up, I had to figure out a way to match the existing lean and agile process of the product organization. This forced me to call on my agile roots and figure out how to elegantly fit UX research into leaner development processes.

First things first, realize the commonalities between the UX practice, lean and agile methodologies. Both agile and lean encourage building user-focused products. Isn’t this what we UX professionals have been preaching? Now it’s time to embrace and align our UX goals with these fundamentals.

Fundamentals of agile = collaboration, transparency, teamwork.

Ask yourself and your teams – how can we make research more collaborative, transparent, or better work into our teams?

• Collaboration. Invite people into your research. Have them help, take notes, or ask questions. Before your team joins you on this journey, teach them some best practices of research, such as listening and how to ask non-leading questions.

• Transparency. Show what you’re learning, even before final findings, and invite internal conversation. At a former company, my team would take over a wall and post our latest findings, we’d share learnings in the company newsletter, or proactively reach out to specific teams to tell them about what we learned. Of course, you want to remind your colleagues that you’re still collecting data, but taking them on the journey will substantially increase the likelihood that they include research findings into their product.

• Teamwork. Bring teams together to make sense of, learn from, and collaborate on the research. Once you’ve done all of this illuminating research, invite product team members, executives, and other stakeholders to join in a brainstorm or Design-Thinking sessions. At AnswerLab we’ve facilitated these sessions and have found that in addition to generating great ideas, it’s an excellent way to bring teams together and get them onto the same page.

Fundamentals of lean = constant feedback from customers, reduce waste.

Ask yourself and your teams – how can we get constant feedback and reduce waste?

• Constant feedback. You already know that you need to listen to your existing or potential customers, but are you operationally set up to have a constant stream of customers to talk to? Set your team up so that if they needed to, they could call someone in the next 10 minutes. Consider building a database of people who have opted in to speak to you.

• Reduce waste. Working in a lean environment, you need to get to the point fast. Three ways to do this are: get focused; iterate; and simplify your deliverables.

o Get focused. Need to get information to your team quickly? Perhaps reducing the scope of the project will help you get answers faster. Of course, doing so might only let you scratch the surface of the deeper learning. So, be sure you understand and explain the tradeoffs to the team. In my experience, the best time to get focused is when the team already understands the problem their product is solving, and therefore they are making incremental improvements to a UI.

o Iterate. Consider using techniques such as the RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing Evaluation) method. At AnswerLab, we’ve helped our lean-practicing clients conduct a round of sessions and then facilitated a debrief meeting to discuss our recommendations from the round of research. Then while the team is adjusting the prototype, we gear up for the next round of research sessions. Rinse and repeat as many times as the team needs to determine if they’re building the right product.

o Digestible deliverables. There’s a time and place for a comprehensive, detailed report. In a highly collaborative, transparent environment, this requirement is not needed as often. For AnswerLab’s clients that operate in this kind of environment, we typically facilitate a debrief meeting right after the last day of research sessions. In that debrief, we have all of the observers discuss what they saw. As a researcher, if we need to dig deeper, we can, but the team can take any immediate learnings and get to work.

By looking at the commonalities with UX practices, lean and agile can become your advocate, not a stumbling block to serving your users’ needs.

How are you practicing lean or agile UX? If you’re in the SF Bay Area and want to talk about ways research, lean and agile can play nicely, come to Thursday’s UXPA meetup panel discussion – Putting Lean UX into Practice this coming Thursday, 2/28 at 6:30pm.