Product Design

Three Tactics for Adapting Lean UX to an Agency Environment

In Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf, the agile approach is combined with design thinking to outline a method that champions a lean process conducive to creating user-centered products in a highly iterative fashion. Throughout my agency career, I’ve read books and blogs on this topic that are inspiring but not actionable because the workflows they put forth all assume the model of a product company. I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff at the UI20 conference last month and posed the problem of Lean UX and its incongruencies with standard agency processes. His advice was to, “Rework your business model to move away from the deliverables business. Don’t commit to a fixed scope with features. Instead sell value, client collaboration and user outcomes.” In other words, partner with clients who can trust in your process and portfolio enough to sign on for outcomes-based projects, or transition clients that you already have a good working relationship with to open-ended projects.

That’s a great goal to work toward, but until we reach that state of ultimate client nirvana, here are a few strategies we use at WillowTree to help streamline work and improve communication and flow: holding UX/dev “office hours,” leveraging tools to automate style guides and workflow, and taking small, incremental risks to minimize the overall project risk.

Office Hours

The agile approach breaks client projects down into feature releases or at least sets of feature releases. But let’s be honest, this rarely happens with client business constraints. At best, you might have all parts of your project estimated together, at worst, you might have separate strategy, design, and development phases, forcing you into a waterfall workflow.

If your client wants to work waterfall, get feedback from your entire project team early and often. At WillowTree, each team (Android, iOS, Web Apps, UX Design and UX Strategy) has weekly office hours so designers and developers can receive feedback from other team members on their work throughout the design and strategy phases of projects. That way, even if you don’t have any development resourced for your project, you can check on the feasibility of your designs before sharing them with the client. For example, on a recent project, I assumed we could dynamically refresh the view as info was entered by the user. However, the client’s API wasn’t written to allow this functionality. Getting that feedback while I was in the process of designing, rather than afterwards, saved me a lot of work on a technically infeasible solution or saved the client the stress of having to rework their API.


Lean UX suggests creating a Wiki where you keep a living style guide for your project. When used by developers, style guides save time by not requiring designers to render every pixel of the project in high-fidelity. However, the tedium of actually creating them is a huge pain point for UX designers. You’ve already finished designs for two platforms with multiple screen sizes and now you have to go back and annotate every minute detail. I don’t know about everyone else, but by that point I’m ready to move on to something new. So we can all agree that creating style guides is really painful and slows down our workflow tremendously. Instead, you can just pop those Sketch files you’ve been working so hard on into Zeplin , which creates a cloud-based living style guide and does all of the annotation for you. Easy peasy.

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Another tool to speed up your workflow is InVision. It’s a solution that gives you the ability to store, view, and present your designs online. It also allows you to create interactive prototypes, and it streamlines your feedback loop by giving clients and developers one place to make comments on the design as opposed to comments scattered among meeting notes, Teamwork threads, email, and phone conversations. InVision is a dream.

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Minimizing Risk

An integral part of Lean UX is having the security to take risks to find creative solutions — risks that are bound to fail at some point. Pitching to the client is the last place you want to tank, though. Instead, “shift your focus from a culture of delivery to a culture of learning”   by taking small risks earlier and minimizing your risk of rejection when making the big pitch. These small risks can be tests to gauge the popularity of your ideas with your personas using targeted Facebook ads and advance signup to capture interest. Or test the execution of your ideas in the wild using a prototype made with InVision on Minimize your need for deliverables and increase client buy-in by keeping them up-to-date on your tests’ successes and failures throughout the design & strategy phases.


There are a few strategies agencies can adapt to help guide us toward a more agile process with design thinking at its core, specifically by supporting team collaboration and project iteration, in-person, through our tools and our culture. What have you done to move toward a leaner UX process within your agency? Leave a comment for us here, or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

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