How Lean Design can help you optimize value and minimize waste in your digital business

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

At Cogent, we reckon running a digital business it doesn’t have to be complicated. In the end, every business wants two things; to optimise value and minimise waste – that’s where Lean Design comes in.

If you’ve spent any time thinking about starting a digital business (or are currently running one), you’ve no doubt tried to read a bunch of books, or listen to some podcasts, or watch some videos about how to run your business in the best possible way. There are tons of ‘best practices’ and free frameworks for businesses to use. But, it’s difficult to work out which one is right for you and why. So, in an attempt to hedge your bets, you end up trying to use all the frameworks, even if they contradict each other, and, well, it ends up in a bit of a mess.


A quick note about Lean.
The concept of “Lean” has been borrowed from “Lean Manufacturing”. It was a concept developed by Toyota for their manufacturing production line for their cars in the 90s. As it turns out, this philosophy is easily transferable to the digital world, specifically, digital design.


Design vs Lean Design?

In software, there’s a ‘typical’ design process that is used to solve a particular business problem. That problem might be, “How do I acquire more customers?” or “What should we build next?” or “Why aren’t people paying for my product?”. The problems that a design process can solve are far-reaching but no matter the question, the process to solve that problem looks something like this:


Typical Design Process:

  1. Team identifies questions/concerns/priorities
  2. Designer gathers evidence from people
  3. Team invents some solutions
  4. Team or Designer builds a prototype
  5. Designer tests those ideas with real people
  6. Team iterates and improves solution
  7. Designer completes visual design
  8. Designer and Developers implement

The problem with this design process is that it can take a while and it can be expensive.

Take step 2 ‘Designer gathers evidence from people’. That could be something like asking 3 people on the street, or it could be doing a global survey of millions. Even design needs a way to minimise waste and optimize value.

At Cogent, we work with digital businesses of all sizes but often, we’re working with those in the early stages of their life. These are the stages of a business where minimising waste and optimising value could mean the difference between the business even surviving through to next week. We’ve had to get really good at focussed attention and effort, strong prioritisation and a ruthless analysis of the way we work.

So, we decided to apply lean principles to the design process.


Cogent’s approach to Lean Design

Here’s how we make sure that our Design process makes sure that we stay focused and deliver razor-sharp value for businesses who need it.

The Lean Design Process:

  1. Team identifies focussed questions/concerns/priorities
  2. Designer gathers just enough evidence
  3. Team invents some solutions
  4. Team or Designer builds a lightweight prototype
  5. Designer tests those ideas with real people, quickly
  6. Team iterates and improves solution
  7. Designer adds just enough visual direction for developer
  8. Designer and Developers sit side-by-side to implement

We know you may read that and maybe thinking, “um, that’s pretty sensible and there’s nothing special about it.” But when a team is in problem-solving mode, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees and it’s really easy to burn a lot of time and money in ‘doing design.’

You can see that I’ve bolded the key differentiating words between the ‘Normal’ approach to design, and the ‘Lean’ approach. We do this to emphasise and remind us that we need to prioritise ruthlessly. We need to do ‘just enough’ in order to make better decisions together.


So how to go Lean, quickly?

No matter what design process you follow, whether it’s the one we’ve described or another, we’d still recommend that the mantra of ‘minimize waste, maximise value’ is at the core of every decision you make with your team. With this in mind, we’ve found that these four working practices make the biggest impact in any team.

  1. Razor-sharp goals and priorities: It’s fun and easy to get carried away solving problems. But if you’re not solving the right ones, then you’re not minimising waste and maximising value. We spend the time up front to make sure that everyone is working toward the same (and most important) goals to achieve for right now.

  2. Co-location of the team (or always available for truly distributed teams): There’s nothing that saves more time and money than having the team sitting together, side-by-side. Our distributed teams use tools like Slack, Screenhero and Google Hangouts to make sure that their distribution doesn’t get in the way of fast decisions made collaboratively

  3. Open and honest communication: This is harder to do than you might think. But, with a core company value of Transparency, we lay everything on the table. The good stuff and the bad stuff, because it means we spend less time trying to get to the bottom of things and more time getting stuff done.

  4. More conversation, less documentation: It’s tempting to want to document things. For posterity, for board members, for a sense of safety and decision tracking. We take the approach that the business you’re building, the software that we’re working on, is the living document. Often, the more you try to document, the more time you end up having to update versions as the software evolves and nothing should slow down how quickly your software can respond. Documentation like this bogs down the team. That’s not to say we never document anything? But if we do, it’s always in service to either minimising waste and maximising value.


Is Lean Design right for you?

Every business is different. We spend our time building successful digital ones of different sizes across a broad range of industries. We’re constantly evolving our processes and we’re not afraid to borrow from any domain in order to help us deliver with less waste and more value. So, in short, yes, some aspects of Lean thinking are probably right for you. The Design process is pretty good place to start.

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