Chuck out the brief, test the idea. How Lean UX is transforming ecommerce design

It starts with a vision for a new ecommerce platform. Everyone’s excited. Ideas are flying. Enthusiasm’s high. But then comes the hefty brief, the dry requirements documents … and then the waiting. Months down the line, the final product is presented, buried under reams of deliverables. There’s not much of the original excitement and creativity left, and no guarantee that customers are actually going to spend more on this shiny new platform.

It’s a scenario familiar to ecommerce decision-makers and designers alike. The final product might fit the brief to a tee. But does it deliver what was really needed? Does it have a positive business outcome? Do customers really want or need those features everyone thought were essential? A lot of money and time has been spent, but somehow, no one is completely happy.

The good news? There is a different way.

Lean UX is a new way of working that is revolutionising how ecommerce platforms are designed and delivered. It starts small, moves fast, embraces failure, delivers quickly and creates solutions that customers genuinely love.

What is Lean UX?

A Lean UX project kicks off with a basic question:

What is the right thing to build?

How do we know what the right thing is before a project has even got going? By chucking out that weighty brief and those interminable requirements lists and quickly building the smallest possible thing that can test our basic assumptions.

The beauty of this way of working is that it makes the most of that exciting initial phase of a project where creative, crazy ideas are flying around. Instead of getting shot down, those ideas can be turned into testable hypotheses, often uncovering innovation that would have been documented away in a traditional project structure.

Starting from the live end

Traditional ‘big design up front’ approaches tend to start with long lists of required features and a preconceived brief. But this inert way of working delivers a dead product.

Instead, Lean UX starts from the live end, the bit where the sparks fly. Design happens in a live environment, with users interacting with the prototype from the start so assumptions can be tested and corrected early. It’s like an open-plan restaurant where the normally behind-the-scenes kitchen magic is part of the experience.

The starting point for a project is the business benefit. What do you want the outcome to be, and how can we test that it’s going to happen, right from the start?

Of course, dealing with a live wire is risky, but that risk is part of the Lean UX approach – a series of small, fast, early failures means a quicker route to final success. It’s sleeker and more efficient.

Time capsules

The basic structure of Lean UX is; design, validate, launch. This means delivering stuff that works as often and as early as possible, testing it, refining it and launching it. Projects are broken into time capsules of a couple of weeks, with regular meetings to report back progress. It’s a faster way of working that keeps everyone in touch, from designer to client to customer.

When we started working with a major energy company, they were already embroiled in a long-term project to develop a new ecommerce strategy – but the process was taking so long that user behaviour was actually evolving while they waited. Half of their customers were using mobile to access the site, and a new approach was needed, fast.

Instead of getting bogged down in yet another brief, we moved quickly. After initial workshops and stakeholder interviews, we produced a responsive prototype that incorporated mobile. After just three testing rounds, the new Boiler and Heating Care journey, a proven approach to cross-selling non-energy products to customers, went live. Since then, sales have doubled.

Lean UX’s short feedback loop embraces failure as part of the design process,

ripping apart stuff that isn’t working and keeping the bits that are to build and test again. The result is a final design that sees the light of day more quickly with fewer amendments.

Your customers are designers

In ecommerce, one of the most important stakeholders in the design process is the customer, but the traditional approach rarely gets them involved. Lean UX learns from users right from the start, using them to test early prototypes to find out which features meet their needs and exceed their expectations. Business needs are also tested; does the product generate a strong commercial benefit?

On a recent project redesigning a network of dealer websites for a major car brand, our initial discovery phase uncovered a lot of assumptions about what the client thought its customers wanted, and what elements of the site would prompt which behaviours. So far, so familiar.

But instead of taking these assumptions for granted, we quickly produced an early prototype for the new site that was designed to test those assumptions. With the test results and video of real users interacting with the prototype, we could see whether those assumptions were actually correct.

The traditional approach might have wasted weeks developing a site based on false assumptions. Instead, we could be confident the project was heading in the right direction from very early on.

Lean UX; it’s time to chuck out the brief and test the idea.