An introduction to Lean UX

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we explore Lean UX with Adam Babajee-Pycroft and ask whether it is nothing more than shortcutting the design process.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This episode of the Boagworld show is sponsored by Media Temple and Headscape. Please support the show by checking them out.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast for those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul. I am being joined as always by Marcus. Hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?

Paul: Very well actually. Very well indeed. We’ve also got Adam. Adam, I was just about to say Adam Pycroft is on the show and realise that you have a double-barrelled name. How posh is that?

Adam: It could be that I’m posh, there is also another alternative and it may be the latter. Let’s find out.

Paul: What’s the latter?

Adam: I’m a married and I actually had a double-barrelled name prior to marriage.

Paul: So you swapped one double-barrelled for another double-barrelled?

Adam: Yes essentially. Basically it may have been that my parents were not married at the time of my birth or it may be down to the fact that I’m very posh. We’ll find out today.

Marcus: If you kept all three then you’d be really posh.

Adam: Well you see if I wanted to live in Germany apparently it’s illegal there to have a triple barrelled name. Although actually I did a track day at a BMWi fairly recently, I know this is slightly off-topic.

Paul: Welcome to the podcast.

Marcus: That this podcast.

Adam: And it was somewhere near Loughborough and the people in the stately home which had the track next to it had a triple barrelled name. So I got very excited about that.

Paul: So it’s Babajee-Pycroft?

Adam: Babajee-Pycroft. The Babajee part, that’s the interesting part is from my wife’s side of the family. She is half Mauritian.

Paul: Ohh Mauritian. That sounds nice. Does that mean you get to go lots of holidays to Mauritius?

Adam: I’ve been there once so far and yes I’d say that’s definitely a perk, I can’t complain.

Paul: That was obviously the only reason you married her wasn’t it? Because you thought you might get a holiday in Mauritius.

Marcus: There was no response to that is there?

Adam: It was one of the many possible benefits of my lovely wife.

Marcus: Just in case she might listen to this, she never will, will she?

Adam: She will, she works in digital marketing for a major heritage charity at the moment. Digital marketing and digital contents so she might listen to this.

Paul: That’s either English Heritage

Marcus: Or the National Trust.

Adam: Both of whom are based next to each other in Swindon.

Paul: Yes I know, how bizarre is that? We used to work for the National Trust back in the day, we used to do work for the National Trust just before they moved to Swindon, didn’t we Marcus?

Marcus: Yes, because I remember the move to Swindon was one of those things that organisations do to rationalise and it meant that a lot of our contacts who are London based didn’t stay with the National Trust. So it was kind of like, well that’s that then.

Paul: That was the end of our relationship with the National Trust. Never mind, these things happen. So we know all about your wife Adam, but you want to tell us a bit about yourself and what it is you do?

Adam: So I run a user experience consultancy or agency depending on what we’re calling ourselves on a particular day called Natural Interaction. And we really specialise primarily in Lean User Experience.

Paul: Hence you are on the show.

Adam: Yes.

Paul: So how many of you are there in your little group?

Adam: As of today we’ve actually signed up our latest employee, Elizabeth Boey who is an extremely experienced user experience consultant. She is joining us as principal UX consultant, but in total to answer your original question, there is four of us.

Paul: Oh that’s a nice size. Keep it small. I’m a great believer in that. Weren’t things so much easier Marcus when it was just three of us and Chris Sanderson?

Marcus: When we went up to 19 people I didn’t like it at all and now we’re back down to 8 full-time it’s lovely. It feels like it’s the same as four really. It’s manageable.

Paul: I’ve got to say actually after I just said that comment, actually I was working really hard when there was four of us. Far harder when there was eight of us. So Adam, you actually work for a living? We’re not used to that.

Marcus: You might not be.

Paul: Hey, talking of my hard work, I’ve just got back from a brilliant conference in Philadelphia. I had such fun. Don’t judge because when I tell you it’s a project manager conference you’re going to wonder why I had such fun, but it was really good.

Adam: Is that where they keep phase 2?

Paul: Yes. That’s funny. Ha ha. But no, a digital project manager conference, really enjoyed it, a really good group of people called the DPM summit. And it was really good talks and stuff that were there. So if you are a project manager, because project managers always like the ugly stepchild of the digital world. Everybody goes oh, what do they do? We know we have to have them but really?

Adam: I don’t know I like to make the ones I work with work hard for a living. In defence of project managers which I suspect you guys didn’t expect me to say, I actually think they are fantastic. They are fantastic for helping have those frequent interaction with clients. I think they are brilliant.

Paul: See, even a Lean UX man thinks project managers are worthwhile. No, my entire talk was in some ways project managers are the best people for improving user experience. Because they may not be UI designers but they can help with all those other areas of UX where a lot is about collaboration of lots of different people coming together. They are really good may be challenging some of the underlying business processes and all that kind of stuff, so I think they play an immensely valuable role. So they are very cool in my opinion. Which is why Marcus, you must never be a project manager.

Marcus: What, because I’m not very cool?

Paul: No.

Marcus: Straight back at you Paul.

Paul: You used to be cool, I’ve never been cool so that’s the difference.

Marcus: So therefore I am slightly higher up the rung?

Paul: Yes I never claimed that I was cool we know our place is what I am saying.

Marcus: I really like project managers as well. They make my life, basically because I spent the first six months of this year project managing, and I don’t like it. Now Emma has joined us I am doing much less, so I am really happy.

Paul: We need to get Emma on the show!

Marcus: Yes, I’m sure she’d be up for that.

Paul: She’d be brilliant I reckon. I reckon she’d be good on the show. We’ll get her on at some point. Now that Pete’s left will replace him with Emma. How dare he leave? While we’re talking about how cool I am, because that’s what really matters on this show, I was on the BBC News website this week!

Marcus: Yes you were, and they said you were past it.

Paul: No they didn’t.

Marcus: Yes they did!

Paul: No they didn’t, they described me as a veteran.

Marcus: Damning with faint praise Paul, I believe that’s called.

Paul: Well at least they came to me.

Marcus: True.

Paul: Me and Mark who is the journalist at the BBC, we are like ‘that’. So that was very exciting, all about ad blockers and the mobile web and whether ad blockers of a good idea. What do you think about that Adam, what is your opinion about this controversy around the ad blockers?

Adam: I think providing they don’t disrupt the user experience, I think it’s right for users to be able to control which content they see. Having said that I think we all appreciate free content and I think my view on it is ad blockers are fine, people are entitled to use ad blockers, but at the same time I think people should use them responsibly and think about the fact that some of the great free content that’s out there to consume, someone has got to produce that.

Paul: Absolutely and I’m all for people making money. But I’ve got to say I think adds, in my opinion are shipped way of making money. I think they’re also a sheet form of advertising as well. They are massively ineffective, they take up loads of space, and they ruin the user experience.

Adam: They also damage credibility.

Paul: Exactly. We can do better than ads. You’ve got a couple of routes, you’ve got the Smashing Magazine route who have diversified, yes they still have ads, fair enough but they don’t have people block them because that’s only a small part of their revenue stream. They make money from books, from conferences, from workshops, all these other things. So there are alternative models and anybody could do those kind of things, that’s not unique in any way to Smashing Magazine. And then the other option is to do the approach that I occasionally do, which is sponsored content posts. For example I’ve just posted something about open source content management systems which was sponsored by a group called Acquia who provide all kinds of support stuff for implementing Drupal based content management systems. And that provides really valuable good content and is advertising for them. I just think it’s going to force digital marketing to evolve a bit really, that’s my opinion. But that wasn’t what the article is about, it was more about the fact that mobile web is slow and painful, and that’s largely because of advertising and tracking.

Anyway talking about sponsorship, oh I’ve just done a really bad thing. A pop-up just came up on my screen saying would you like to update Evernote and I clicked yes without thinking and my show notes are in Evernote, so I can’t continue with the show until Evernote finishes updating. And I was about transition so nicely.

Adam: You could open it in a browser.

Paul: I could of but it’s up now, and it was quick. So talking about advertising are making money – sponsors. Media Temple are back on the show again and sponsoring a whole season which is very generous of them. In fact they sponsored the speakers dinner at the digital project managers summit that I was just at, and very nice it was to. Marcus you would have loved it, I know how you love your food.

Marcus: I do.

Paul: Except the trouble with Media Temple speaker dinners is that they are so generous and so nice that there is this constant stream of wine the whole evening. And the waiters could just keep going round topping up your glass so you’ve no idea how much you’ve drunk.

Marcus: Nothing wrong with that.

Paul: Well not if you’ve got to speak the next day, it isn’t.

Marcus: Talking of food, I noticed on Adam’s blog there is a recipe for cookies which I thought was a rather nice thing to see when I first looked into who Adam was and what he did.

Paul: Are you a big cook, Adam?

Adam: I cook everyday actually, but the reason the cookie recipe is on their is that from the ages of about 15 to 17 I worked part-time in a cookie shop that but also did coffee as well which is where I learned my elite coffee making skills.

Paul: I love the idea that you got elite coffee making skills, that’s awesome.

Adam: We see their very useful because when it comes to getting developers on board with the type of processes we use or try to get designers to buy into things, most of our industry runs on coffee. So if you could make a decent cup of coffee is a good way to win people over.

Paul: That is very true, I cannot deny that. And somebody that cannot make coffee because I don’t drink coffee, that’s held my career back Adam, if I am honest.

Adam: I’ve got to admit though I did suffer to learn those skills. My boss in those days was a very angry Italian.

Paul: I hope that’s in your LinkedIn profile, that you have elite coffee making skills?

Adam: It might be, I’m not sure. I haven’t looked down at the endorsement section for a while. I think it’s in one of the recommendations on there.

Paul: Anyway, what were we talking about?

Marcus: We were talking about Media Temple.

Paul: No we were talking about why there was a cookie recipe on there, because you worked at a cookie place.

Adam: So recently after a long, long hiatus from making cookies because I was quite bored with it. A good 12 years had elapsed and I decided to make some cookies again and it worked out really well. A couple of people asked my wife, who brought them into work, for the recipe and I thought I’d blog it. Also I am trying to keep that more than is a personal blog and were working on a new Natural Interaction website at the moment which should be up shortly, which would also have a blog on it. Meanwhile I’ve been blogging on Medium a bit about the professional side of things.

Paul: Yes that’s really interesting because I’m the other way round. On my own blog, Boagworld which started off as a personal blog, that’s now work-related and Medium I use for personal stuff. It’s weird isn’t it? I don’t really quite understand Medium. I don’t understand how it fits in. I can understand how if you don’t have a blog where it fits in.

Adam: I found actually though with blogging, when I’ve cross posted stuff to both LinkedIn and to Medium, LinkedIn gets far more engagement in terms of comments and shares.

Paul: Yes it’s true. I ought to put more stuff on LinkedIn. But I don’t know there was a little bit of me that can’t help but not like LinkedIn.

Adam: Is full of recruiters which are excellent and contribute valuably to our industry and never annoyingly phone ever.

Paul: Beautifully described. Totally false but beautifully described.

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Discussing lean UX with Adam Babajee-Pycroft

Paul: Anyway, sponsorship. Media Temple, I need to talk about these guys. The most popular hosting platform for designers, developers and creative potentials. They offer a VPS, virtual private servers that have a guaranteed uptime of 99.999%. That’s just showing off. But what I don’t understand, Media Temple, you can explain this to me. When you say it’s guaranteed what does that mean? Does that mean if its uptime is less than 99.999% you give me cookies?

Marcus: They’ll say that.

Paul: Is that what it is?

Marcus: Is because that’s what they all say.

Adam: I just like to think they’ve got the admin’s treasured pet at gunpoint and they will have 99.999% uptime or else.

Paul: Yes so basically if the server goes down too much, the kitten dies. That’s a lovely thought Adam. Makes me feel much better when my site does occasionally go down, that a kitten has died as a consequence.

Adam: Well you see it doesn’t with Media Temple, with their fabulous uptime.

Paul: Well I host with Media Temple and I have known for the site to go down but it’s almost always because it’s always my fault. I’d honestly don’t ever think it’s been Media Temple’s fault. So probably a kitten hasn’t died. Perhaps I ought to start that myself, when I cock up I kill a kitten.

Marcus: There is absolutely nothing to say to that Paul, stop now.

Paul: So they’ve got high performance solid-state drives on the servers, scalable ram, as much as you need and it comes in three flavours.

Marcus: Strawberry.

Paul: Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. Because those are the three most boring flavours. No, because they have exciting flavours. You’ve got a self-managed version which is for the Linux experts out there, which is a complete barebones installed that you can configure in any way you want. That is not for me, I should not have that and I don’t have that. What I have instead is that I have the managed VPS which gives you a control panel that you work with. Again, truthfully that should not be for me and that’s where things go wrong. What I really need is the fully managed server where the Media Temple team manage everything for me. Probably even then I would manage to break it because I have a remarkable ability in that. So those are the three different versions and basically you can have it set up however you want. You can get a special discount as a Boagworld listener, using the promo code BOAG for 25% of your web hosting and you go to and you can enter your promo code upon signup.

So, discussion time. What are we here to talk about? Ah yes, Lean UX. So this was a conversation that we had, wasn’t it Adam, ages ago. I can’t remember how we got onto Lean UX because it was what we were talking about.

Adam: I think it was a business consultancy discussion, wasn’t it originally?

Paul: Yes I think we were doing one of my mentorship things. But we got onto the subject of Lean UX and you suddenly got really passionate and enthusiastic and I’ve been waiting for an appropriate time to introduce the subject so I could get you on, and when better on a season where you were talking about user experience? So Adam, what’s Lean UX? Give us the potted version from Marcus.

Marcus: And everyone listening.

Paul: Everyone listening knows.

Marcus: Oh right, okay.

Adam: So Lean UX is about delivering the benefits of the work we do, faster. So the way we go about that is working in smaller batch sizes and validating with users and stakeholders more frequently rather than doing big designs upfront. That’s Lean UX in a nutshell.

Paul: Did you read that? Because that was very well structured. You read that from somewhere didn’t you?

Adam: Well I may have read it of my show notes. It’s a question I am asked a lot, so I am quite used to answering on-the-fly.

Paul: It was a very smooth patter there. I’m immediately going to challenge you over this because I got mixed feelings about Lean UX. I love the principal, right, don’t get me wrong. Working fast and efficient, but isn’t there a danger that you’re basically cutting corners? Doesn’t it feel a bit like that?

Adam: Not at all. I think with Lean UX, the whole thing is about really taking a more robust and scientific approach. So actually we are validating early and validating frequently. So if anything we’re probably cutting less corners, we might be removing waste which is completely different.

Paul: Now what you mean by waste then?

Adam: Quite often I think as an industry we have a tendency to spend a lot of time on producing beautiful documentation and often that documentation has a purpose and communicate something. But the question is what happens to that after the project. Sometimes you can invest a lot of time and effort into producing something that someone might look at once, such as a big research report, then it may be goes in a folder on someone’s shared area for evermore. About six months of effort and investment have gone into producing that.

Paul: Yes, I do know what you mean actually. Because I feel like I do that sometimes stop I produce these documents which have a value in convincing stakeholders and getting agreement and bringing people along but you do feel sometimes that beyond that their value is fairly limited. So what in Lean UX, I presume you would use a prototype instead as a way of getting others on board in the process?

Adam: There are a few different ways that we could go about it. Generally at the start of projects will tend to make assumptions which is perfectly normal and healthy but often those assumptions can be fairly incorrect and so often we’ll assume a user will use a feature and we don’t really challenge that. Those assumptions quite often, a project can succeed or fail based on those. So often we may not find that out until the end of project, so really it’s about trying to build the smallest possible thing to validate those assumptions as early as possible.

Paul: Yes, it’s kind of works in most situations, I’m a great fan of building a prototype as quickly as possible but sometimes you get into needing to convince stakeholders of the value of the project in terms of business objectives or justifying user needs and you can’t always do that through some reusable delivery. There is a need in some situations for some kind of documentation don’t you think?

Adam: I do but at the same time I guess there is also documentation you can produce as part of getting the project done. So for example, if you got a block of time and you need to convince some stakeholders, is it worth just actually running some quick remote user tests for user research, whatever we’re calling it as I know some people have issues with the term user testing, but basically run a few quick user tests and share the findings from that actually validating those assumptions or maybe just talking through it. I think there are quicker ways to getting those answers.

Paul: No I accept that.

Marcus: I was just trying to summarise what Adam is saying here, is that you should always look for the quickest route. Sometimes it might be that you need to create some kind of documentation, but not always. And you should be trying to find the leanest way of doing it.

Paul: Do you think agencies focus too much on the deliverables of the project rather than the final working website? For example when we write a proposal, sometimes our proposal has as a deliverable in it a set of personas or a report or whatever. And I guess we saw those kind of things rather than necessarily focusing on selling the end final working site.

Adam: Yes I think that’s a fair assessment really.

Paul: I think where I struggle with it a bit is that one of the nice things about of the working relationships that are increasingly have with clients, is taking it in little steps. Sometimes they don’t want to. If I went to one of my big clients, when we start working with them they don’t necessarily know what it is that they want. They don’t necessarily know what the in deliverable of insight is, or web app or mobile app or whatever it might be. So you have to break it down into little stages and one stage might just be a report or a strategy document or something like that. I you saying those kind of things are wrong or?

Adam: I don’t think they are necessarily wrong. When you are going into a project and maybe the client doesn’t know what they want to build or alternatively they might come to you with a massive list of requirements, it’s actually worth just trying to convince them to have a bit of a workshop with you where you work how to turn those ideas into hypotheses that are testable. To give an example, often you get these massive requirements documents at the start of the project, specifying everything down to the nth degree and a big list of features that lots of different stakeholders have come up with. What you need to do is start talking about the business benefits and the outcome they are hoping to achieve with those ideas and then write it down in a form that you can test.

Paul: Okay, I guess that turns it into a step. It’s basically minimising the number of steps along the way isn’t it really? Marcus what you think about it?

Marcus: I think, going back to what I was saying about trying to find a) the quickest route to an effective result and b) being able to change what you’re doing stuff. I like to think that we do that anyway, but we just don’t call it Lean UX. I’m just listening in here, listening to James last week from Clearleft I certainly picked up some useful stuff there and I think I am here as well. It’s not like you do UX design all you do Lean UX design, I think the two overlap and is just a question of, I really like the idea of trying to be as quick and as effective as possible, I think that’s what I’m taking from this so far. Any examples of that you can add would be really helpful.

Adam: Okay, so going to a practical example is, earlier this year I worked on a redesign of a network of dealer websites for a fairly major car brand. I can’t name them yet because it’s not live. But essentially what we did was have a very quick discovery phrase, so a couple of weeks start where we just went round and spoke to the relevant stakeholders there to understand a bit about what they are hoping to achieve with the project. But then we got very early into prototyping. A lot of assumptions had been documented in that two-week discovery phase, that they thought that for example displaying certain things prominently would have a certain effect. So what we did was really quickly, we wrote some tasks, we put together a high fidelity prototype but it was very early and we just began to test those assumptions. And what we were able to do within the first two week sprint we were then able to go back to them with some results from the testing, with some videos of real users interacting with it and that easily allowed us to, and allowed the client to understand whether some of those assumptions were correct in the first place, how people understood their range of cars, and that allowed us to make some decisions early on rather than going down a route where perhaps we would test after six weeks or 12 weeks when a lot more work had been done and actually we taken the project in the completely wrong direction.

Paul: I totally agree with the idea of testing early, I think that’s absolutely vital. I know I am sounding a little bit hesitant and it’s not. The goal obviously taking the shortest distance to a final deliverable, I absolutely agree with you can’t argue with that. The idea of testing early and often, again you can’t disagree with that. The idea of avoiding too many assumptions or testing any assumptions you make again its common sense. I think where my hesitancy is coming from is twofold. One, that there is may be a danger of swinging too far in that direction so it does turn into an excuse to keep the price low and get things out the door quickly. So there is a danger there, it doesn’t mean that you should avoid this entirely, but it’s something that you need to bear in mind. And I think the other concern is may be dependent on the type of clients that I perhaps work with that are much larger organisations with highly complex internal processes and that creating a great user experience is about a lot more than actually the final user interface that you are creating. A lot of it is about governance and business processes and those kinds of things which are complex issues that do need reports and thinking about and discussions and meetings and all the boring stuff that perhaps people avoid in other situations. Does that make sense?

Adam: Yes I would say when it comes to changing the way that organisations work and looking at things like governance and how they service their customers, you can still run experiments there as well. So for example, you could take a segment of their customers and maybe treat them in a slightly different way and see what the impact is.

Paul: That’s a really nice idea, actually, and not something that I’ve ever done. I like that one. It’s almost creating a pilot project or a prototype, but not for necessarily use interface. But just in how you’re dealing with a certain number of people. A pilot project that you’re trying out. Nice.

Adam: There’s a technique used in lean start-ups called Wizard of Oz where basically they would put up a page that promises a service that does something. There was one recently, forgotten the name of it, that basically offered an app where you could text and it would do anything for you. The idea was that eventually it would be automated and they gave the impression to users that it what’s but what was brilliant was actually they just sat a load of people in the room and prototyped this service by just putting up a page that let people do this and then actually did it for them, did it manually, looked at what the common requests were and then prioritised what they would automate. The whole thing was really about testing, which features people would use. And it was very easy to setup, all they did was put up an instapage, and that it’s clever with the text messaging. I think there was a service called Twillo which can parse SMS and then I think they just put all these onto a Trello board or something and just did the requests sequentially. So it’s really easy. I think prototyping is definitely one way, when we are talking about web user interfaces, it’s a really sensible way to go about testing assumptions. But actually there are number of different ways if you are looking at fundamental ways that the client is business and you want to help them innovate faster and lots of different ways that you can experiment, it doesn’t necessarily have to be just a webpage.

Paul: Now I am beginning to get it a little bit more, and seeing how that can work in practice because for example, I have got a customer journey workshop meeting for a major charity on Monday and I know out of that will come, what we want to do is look at the future. What we want to do is look at the future, what the future customer journey would look like and how that experience could be different from what it is now. That will involve all kinds of organisational changes as well as new user interfaces along the way. But yes, what you described there is perfectly possible. That you do a quick and dirty behind-the-scenes testing of a new system and see whether it could work in practice, and how it would work and whether it’s worth the investment etc. That makes a lot of sense.

The one thing that is really important as I understand it with Lean UX is a good engagement with the client through the process. Because you’re making a lot of decisions on the fly and because you don’t have this big specification that defines everything upfront, how do you guys get around the problem of the client not being constantly available to see your work in progress, because that’s got to be a big issue is it not?

Adam: Yes. It has been on past projects and we’ve learned quite a lot from the first couple of times we’ve done this. So we tend to work in time block sprints. Usually they will be two weeks just because often we collaborate with developers in two weeks seems like a decent amount of time to tackle any task. What we do is when we agree with clients upfront that we are going to work in this way, we make them commit to giving us a certain amount of time every week. It is good to try feedback loop and have really frequent conversations with clients as well. Something we’ve had great success with recently is we’ve set up clients as single channel guests in Slack. We’ve set the expectation of course that it’s not necessarily like texting as we went always instantly respond but we’ve been doing a big project for an educational supplies company recently and we’ve been running the project I think for about six weeks now. They’ve sent us three emails and all the rest of the conversation and communication that hasn’t been face-to-face or over the phone has been via Slack.

Paul: And are finding that they’re responding faster than they would via email?

Adam: I think so because when you write an email it’s actually quite a big bonus task. As lots of conventions associated with emails where you have to sign it, you have to really think through how you articulate things. Whereas with instant messages people seem to have a tendency to respond quicker. It may be that we just got a great client who is really engaged with the project. But I think the other thing as well is that when they begin to see how fast we are progressing and how fast we are learning from users and learning a bit more around the business as well, I think actually that excitement can really help get your clients engaged in the project.

Paul: Do you include them in daily stand-ups or anything like that?

Adam: They are always welcome to join in although having said that with a lot of our stand-ups I like to try and make it so, when I think you invite clients to daily stand-ups sometimes people might be reticent to say what’s the true status of the project is. We try to encourage everyone on our teams and often work with multiple agencies as well those kind of culturally fairly different to what they are used to, so I do want to create a no bull-shit environment where people would just be honest with me about how things are going as I think that’s how the point of a daily stand-up really. What did you do yesterday? What did you do today? Is there anything I can move out of your way before you progress?

Paul: So what is your minimal expectation of clients availability? Do you do a call with weekly or biweekly?

Adam: Depending on the project we would always do a sprint demo day.

Paul: And how do your sprints last?

Adam: Our sprints are two weeks. And we will always expect to spend some face-to-face time with a client, two or three hours every two weeks. On top of that it depends again on what they have asked us to look into. If their organisation is very hierarchical and they need lots of involvement and need to feel they are approving things, we’ll agree a time upfront so that maybe they’ll block half a day of their calendar out once a week to review work in progress. But we do have a habit as well, especially with prototyping work, we tend to give them a URL is frequently updated. We usually get them to do one for stakeholders but then also one for where they can check-in and see how things are progressing.

Paul: So when you say a face-to-face meeting once every two weeks at least I you talking literally face-to-face? Do you work with a lot of local clients then or do you find yourself travelling around a lot?

Adam: I travel a bit. We made a conscious decision as an agency to try and generally deal with clients outside of London. The reason behind that is that we’ve nothing against London but at the same time going into London and coming out of London regardless of where you are in the country can really assume time. We do use Google hangouts and Skype as well though. I think sometimes the problem is if you’ve got people behind a screen they can’t necessarily sketch something down as easily. It does maybe increase the distance. But having said that is really good if you need to frequently stay in touch with clients, but we do like to meet with them regularly face-to-face.

Paul: So how do you go about costing these projects that? Or even for that matter pitching for them? What is it you are selling because you know what clients are at like, they come to you with a brief and the brief says, we want exactly this. This is what we are after. And you have to effectively turn around and say, well we don’t think you should go for this specific thing, I think we should test your assumptions etc. and we don’t know what the final defined deliverable is. So had you crossed it? How do you deal with all those kinds of things?

Adam: We cost primarily on a time and materials basis. But when it comes to selling the idea to clients usually we will send a response to a client usually if we are invited to respond to an RFP and they’ve asked for specific format. We will say, I’m sorry but we work in a different way and then we give case studies and evidence explaining the benefits of that approach. So there are case studies where we’ve had significant success in projects, they also explain about the methodology we use. So in terms of estimation what we do is basically agreeing with the client what the rough deliverable is. So they will expect to get a prototype of their website at the end of it for example. So we agreed that we will tackle all of these different items in that space of time, but we agree with them that basically if something needs more time such as a product page needing more care and attention or there’s more internal conflict of politics around something that is the homepage, that we can adjust the time as we learn.

Paul: So essentially what you are doing is giving them an estimate of how long you think it will take but you make no guarantees for that.

Adam: Absolutely although we do intend to build into our estimates small project completion on time bonuses. So it tends to be something small around 5% of what that factually is that 80% of our projects have run on time and on budget. Which I think is a pretty good track record for a UX shop. And that’s including projects where we’ve collaborated with other agencies and done a bit of design and front-end development as well in line with this methodology.

Paul: That’s a reasonable figure. I struggle to imagine, I suppose it depends on the type of appliance that you work for again. Again with some of the stuff that Headscape does that would just kill it dead, wouldn’t it Marcus?

Marcus: Yes. I find myself avoiding so-called opportunities to tender for big projects because more and more I realise, it’s not say that you would never win, there is normally a connection why somebody is invited you to tender for something, but if you just receive a ‘we’d like you to tender’ and that’s it from the procurement department, usually it’s not going anywhere. Therefore if you are able to actually talk to people, the good opportunities of the people talk to you before there is any kind of RFP release, then you can have conversations about budget estimates, that’s what they want to find out from you.

Paul: I accept that Marcus but could you honestly imagine, let’s say Mike McConnell from the University of Aberdeen, could you imagine a scenario where he comes to us wanting us to do some work and we turn around to him and say, okay we’re up for the work but it’s time and materials. A) I don’t think he would swallow that because of the culture of the University of Aberdeen and b) if he did, I don’t think you would get past the procurement department, would it?

Marcus: Probably not, although they will hire legal people who will charge only on a T and M basis, so. It depends on the type project. We just been doing some work for the University of Hull which has been a semi-agile sprint based project where we are saying for sprints one, two, three and four it will cost X. But because it’s that type project we can’t guarantee what that prototype is going to be at the end of it. So more and more this way of pricing is happening even for old-timer agencies like us. That’s not to say I don’t receive an RFP that states we want you to do X and this is the budget, we basically have to take a view on if we feel we can do it within the budget. And of course they will only accept a fixed price.

Adam: As opposed we have the same thing as well, at Natural Interaction. The client has got to find that pot of money usually to achieve something. So the way that we usually explain that is that we will achieve the best possible result we can for that amount of money. So then we can keep exploring these things but they have to accept that there is a finite amount of time to do it.

Paul: Yes that makes more sense to me. I think you are never going to get around the fact that they have a finite pot of money and the idea of time and materials I think can be quite scary to a lot of companies if they don’t know that there’s a upper limit to that and that they are going to get something working within that upper limit. Yes you can quibble over the nice to have features or exactly what that will be etc but they are not going to agree to pay an unlimited sum for a website of some description. And equally they are not going to say we get to the end of 50 K’s worth of expenditure and find that we’ve got a half working site. They are going to want something that’s operational. That’s not a massive issue with agile anyway because you work in a sprint format which means delivering deliverable code often anyway. But it’s just a bit of an explanation isn’t it really?

Marcus: My experience of, because a lot of the ongoing work that we do for existing clients is done on a T and M basis. The way I’ve observed that over the years is that the client get a lot more for their money doing T and M than they do if they insist on a fixed price.

Paul: Oh yes absolutely. Because you don’t have to build the contingency in.

Marcus: Maybe for larger projects that might not be true.

Paul: What about designers Adam? Because this isn’t just something you have to convince clients about, it’s also something you have to convince designers about because they go from going away into a room and preciously producing their design to a situation where they are having to show their design often and early when it’s not finished and things are half done. They might show something and it gets ripped apart in the start again. Now I know some that was a designer for years, is that you can become quite attached to the design that you’ve produced. So do you find problems bringing designers around to that with thinking?

Adam: I think I have in the past although I’ve got quite a tried and tested method for doing this now. So thinking about how traditional advertising agencies work, generally people going to client meetings looking for a ‘Ta-da’ moment. They are looking to whip the dust sheet off something and the clients to weep with joy, angelic trumpets playing.

Paul: Which never happens.

Adam: Yes precisely. Has that ever happened to anyone?

Paul: Will I did produce some pretty stunning designs when I was younger.

Marcus: I obviously didn’t see those ones.

Paul: Before your time Marcus.

Marcus: Before my time? That is going back some.

Adam: I challenge anyone, I will bake a batch of cookies for anyone who can give me evidence that that has ever happened on a digital project. Weeping is required though.

Often designers who are reticent to show their work early, I think they are just prolonging the inevitable moment where a client is going to say no. So the way I tend to explain it is, using this Lean UX methodology, we can actually get the beautiful design past the client with fewer amends. The way that we do that is because we are testing early, we are testing this assumptions early, we are ideally getting users on their and the discussion with clients turns into something much more valuable because then we are talking about how to solve user problems, they will see that when we present the design we present it in the context of users interacting with it. So they will see a video of Marcus trying to find their really important product that’s been buried under lots of text or instantly finding it, but then we start discussing the problems but challenges that user had and often the clients’ need to feel they’ve contributed. It’s their job, they are spending a lot of money and it needs to be justified. I’ve been on the other side of the table as a client in the past as well when I’ve worked client side and there is a pressure and need to contribute. So you need to do is channel that need into something constructive. And that’s will really help sell it to designers.

Paul: Yes I do totally agree with it. I may have expressed some concerns about documentation stuff earlier in the discussion, but when it comes to the practicalities of building a website, Lean UX just makes so much sense from the prototyping through to the way that a designer works. The worst thing you can do is go for a ‘Ta-da’ moment. It just is disastrous whenever you do because it’s inevitable that it’s going to come as a shock and a surprise to people. And people don’t like shocks and surprises. But if they see the mood boards, if they’ve seen the sketches, if they’ve seen the user testing and if they’ve contributed to the discussions then when you show them a final design concept is just going to be obvious. It’s just what they were expecting.

Adam: The other consideration as well is that I think is an industry sometimes we have a tendency to kill client ideas without giving them a chance to succeed. And actually we make a point of when we run these assumptions workshops for start-up products, sometimes the clients come up with ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with, certain things you do have to still shoot down because you show evidence that proves it’s not worth doing but ultimately putting a few the ideas that clients come up with into test and see how users react to them is a lot easier to get someone else to call their baby ugly than doing it yourself.

Paul: Beautifully put. That’s the glory of usability testing. It does exactly that because you can guarantee that users won’t pull their punches.

Adam: On the flipside though we have been proven wrong on that basis as well. Definitely I thought things wouldn’t work with users and actually I think we do need to accept that often our clients will have a certain amount of domain knowledge. They are not always completely divorced from customers either and sometimes they will know what will work so giving their ideas a chance to succeed helps them feel involved in the design process.

Paul: That’s good to hear. Marcus you often say that, that clients have good design ideas too.

Marcus: Absolutely. You never know until you get into a project, that’s the problem.

Paul: Yes it does vary doesn’t it. Before we finish up I do just want to ask if somebody’s starting out in Lean UX, if they were trying this for the first time and using that prototyping mentality etc., what advice would you give people to stop them off.

Adam: I think be honest with your clients about it. There’s plenty of resources online, probably a good place to start would be to read Jeff Gothelf’s book on Lean UX. Read The Lean Start-up as well to get a bit of an understanding, because I probably explained it fairly ineloquently but get a bit of an understanding of it first and then start with something small. If you are just doing a small experiment for a client or a small project is probably not worth if you are inexperienced with it. Also if you are learning on your client’s time then you are probably going to have to put an extra few hours in yourself as well. Because it don’t think it’s necessarily fair to make clients fund our learning.

Paul: Oh I don’t know. I’ll make a client fund anything I can if I can get away with it. But then I am unethical.

Marcus: He only works for not for profits and he’s unethical.

Paul: Yes I like ripping off charities. It’s what gets me up in the morning.

Adam: Well a percentage of your profits does go back to charity doesn’t it.

Paul: It goes round in a circle, that’s very true. Going back to Jeff and his book, he also wrote a quite nice introduction in Smashing Magazine about Lean UX as well see might want to check that out if you are too tight to buy these books. Read that and then by his book.

Thank you Adam, that’s really good.


This is where we normally move into our second sponsor slot, and before Marcus tells his joke. But I did a deal with Marcus very rashly a while ago and I said that you could actually have Headscape as a sponsor. Bearing in mind you didn’t pay me a penny for this, which I am very bitter about although I am still a Director of the company so I don’t quite know why I am saying that, because I am unethical probably as we have already established. So Marcus, go on, this is really interesting. Blatant advertising for Headscape. I’m looking forward to hearing this because I used to be the marketing and sales person for Headscape so I am now looking forward to seeing what Marcus does. I’m going to judge you on this.

Marcus: I am somewhat worried about the stick I am about to receive, or I am already receiving because I’ve been a bit unkind maybe to some of the sponsors on the show in the past.

So, why am I doing this?

It all harks back to the time when Paul abandoned us.

Paul: I’m still a director!

Marcus: Yes, but we’ve been around for a long time. We got a very good reputation but that isn’t enough and this podcast is really Headscape’s only window to the world. It used to be Paul, you talking around the world and writing many times and a lot about the work that you did and the work that we did promoting Headscape, and that happens less now.

Paul: Much less, you’re very bad at it.

Marcus: Yes true. So I wanted this slot to remind everyone what Headscape is and what it does.

Paul: So is that it?

Marcus: Well it’s a bit more than that.

Adam: This is an appeal on behalf of Headscape. Since they were abandoned by Paul, they will need opportunities. They deliver amazingly but will need your help to work their way.

Marcus: I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Paul: To work their way out of poverty.

Marcus: Yes, honestly. That’s how it is.

Paul: You’ve got more work than you can shake a stick at.

Marcus: We have at the moment, it’s true but you never know what’s round the corner. But anyway I got to spread this out over four weeks Paul isn’t it? So I am not going to talk about the ‘what we do’ in any great detail this week, I’ll save that for later episodes. But just in a nutshell, what it says on the home page of our website is that we do digital strategy web design and development and that covers it at a high level. It’s worth pointing out though that we tend to focus more on the first two of those although we do a lot of development work but we tend not just do technical only work. We do a lot of consulting and a lot of design projects.

We working a number of different sectors and have a lot of different clients but it is worth saying that our biggest sector would be higher education that is closely followed by not-for-profit and the charity sector. But we do work with a wide array of commercial clients in many different parts of the world over the 13 years that we’ve been around.

We work with very large organisations like Nestlé and Merck and we work with global charities like MSF and Awid but equally we work with many local organisations like Hampshire Fire and Rescue Services and the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

But why does the listen of the show care? And I guess that depends an awful lot on what you do. But many times in the past we’ve said that we are hired often by people who work within the web teams of these large organisations to get their ideas listened to and to make them happen. So I guess we’ve got a lot of experience, we are a highly skilled and highly experienced team who have done some great work over the years and hopefully this podcast is testament to the fact that we’re pretty approachable and we like to have fun when we work. So that’s about it really for this week and I’ll add more about what we do next week.

Paul: That was very well done Marcus.

Marcus: How condescending can you be Paul?

Paul: You did very well. And it is worth saying that there are other website agencies available, Natural Interaction is one. And also if you want digital strategy you are much better coming to me.

But other than that, that was great. I’ve got nothing but huge respect for the guys at Headscape. Ed is one of the best designers that I’ve ever met. He is just phenomenal. Dan is an amazing front-end coder who is far more fussy than is good for any human being in terms of the quality and stuff, so it’s a really great team. I really could go on and name everybody but that would get boring. So okay that’s Headscape’s sponsor slot between not done with you Marcus because we are reliant on your joke.

Marcus: Okay, well this is one of the top 10 funniest jokes from the Edinburgh fringe.

‘When the clowns divorce, there is a custody battle’.


Paul: I like that one.

Marcus: That was from a Simon Munnery. I’ve never heard of him but that’s an excellent joke.

Paul: It is an excellent joke. Well Adam, thank you so much for joining us and there were some real gems in there that’s going to change the way I work definitely which is always encouraging. Next week we’re going to talk about user research with Lisa Reichelt who used to work for the government Digital service here in the UK and who has now gone across to Australia to do the same thing. So she’s not going to be joining us for the whole show because to be frank it would be like the middle of the night for her when we record the show but I am going to record a chat with her next week. I have to get up at 7:30 AM to record an interview with her!

Adam: You have to flip the audio the right way up afterwards.

Marcus: Two jokes in one show!

Paul: That was a better joke than yours Marcus. So on that wonderful joke will call it for this week. Join us next week but for now thanks for listening.