Harvard Business Review

This is from 2015 | 8 minute read

Lean Doesn't Always Create the Best Products

Our current silver bullet is Lean. The Lean movement began in manufacturing, then took the startup world by storm, and now the methodology has crept into companies of all kinds and sizes, both in practice and in jargon. Plenty has been said and written praising the benefits of the Lean approach. But what is lost? Not nearly enough attention has been paid to this question.

As a practitioner of a design-led form of product development, and in my own research and writing about an empathetic approach to product design, I’m overtly critical of the Lean manifesto. The two methodologies may appear to share much in common on the surface, but if you dig deeper, there are fundamental differences in process that lead to very different outcomes. Here are some key points of distinction:

Generating Ideas

Lean demands that you “get out of the building” – that you leave the comfort of your office, and engage with people who might be potential customers. In the Lean approach, it’s tempting to spend lots of time on the whiteboard, working through edge cases, what-if scenarios, and countless hypothetical situations, in pursuit of perfection. But the constant churn and strategizing often leads to two fundamental problems. First, it’s easy to talk yourself out of a good idea. The buds of innovation are fragile, and are easily squashed by critique or a view of the competitive market environment. More importantly, it’s easy to talk yourself into a bad idea. When you whiteboard with people who share your passions, interests, and expertise, you often gravitate towards an idea that you would use, you would like, and you would buy. But that perspective is frequently flawed, both by hubris and also an expert-blindspot. While many startups fail because of poor execution, I would argue that the majority fail because their product has no market.

An empathetic design approach also demands that you get out of the building. The difference is in intent. Lean urges you to go looking for problems to solve, so you can build a business around your solution. Where is the workflow cumbersome? Where are there broken products and systems that lead to unwanted pain or unnecessary churn? As Eric Reiss describes, “The goal of such early contact with customers is not to gain definitive answers. Instead, it is to clarify at a basic, coarse level that we understand our potential customer and what problems they have.” (emphasis mine) Compare this with the empathetic approach to design, where the goal is to build an emotional connection with people – to feel what they feel, and to build a human relationship with them. Empathy is about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes; this ethnographic approach is not about uncovering a particular problem in an existing product or service but instead building a tacit sense of what someone else is like, what they value, and how they experience the world. Empathetic research uncovers cultural themes and areas ripe for behavior changes.

If you go looking for a problem, you will probably find one, and then, as a problem solver, you will work to fix it. But if you try to build an emotional connection with a group, you’ll find that you can create products that do more than “solve problems.” These products become intimately tied to identity. This provokes an internal dialogue – a relationship – between a person and the product, system, or service.

Attitude Toward the Big Picture

Lean focuses on building the smallest possible piece of a product in order to test it. Lean prescribes: don’t build all the features – build just a few core capabilities, and then test and measure them. This is the “M” in the “MVP” rallying cry: identify the tiniest piece of functionality that is “viable” (leads to the intended market adoption, or supports users achieving their goal) and then launch only that. The goal of this MVP approach is to move as quickly as possible without wasting time on irrelevant or unnecessary effort. And creating an MVP is fast, precisely by definition of “minimal.” The utility tools that emerge from this process exist as small, discrete pieces of functionality, solving discrete problems.

But the majority of products, services, and systems are considered in the larger context of an experience scaffold – an ecology of thinking that needs to consider how a person experiences a given product in the context of the rest of their life. It’s impossible to drive a desired end-to-end experience without considering, and planning for, an interaction design framework that works across an entire system. Uber’s mobile app – as lean and feature-light and easy to use as it is – can’t work without a driver’s app, a customer service and support story, and a direct strategy around the larger policy and infrastructure environment of the taxi lobby. Failure to acknowledge and plan around a larger (and often ideal – and far away) system leads to people having peculiar and often frustrating experiences. Startups – like large companies – need to have a story around the narrative of use, and it often means ignoring minimal in favor of thoughtful.


Lean proposes a “test and measure” process of product development. Leverage A/B testing to compare variations. Build an analytical framework to gather taps or clicks and make design changes to better achieve goals. When taken to extremes, some Lean aficionados recommend including product hooks to capabilities that don’t even exist yet, and then see if people use them. Buffer, an automation service for social media, describes that they posted pricing information before they even built their product: “The result of this experiment was that people were still clicking through and giving me their email and a small number of people were clicking on paid plans. After this result, I didn’t hesitate to start building the first minimal version of the real, functioning product.” Coin, a startup coming out of the Lean-driven Y Combinator accelerator, actually took people’s money ($50,000 in 40 minutes) before they had anything more than a sizzle video. This “test everything – even vaporware” approach is often intimately connected to the phenomenon of growth hacking – building a massive community based on informed trial and error through this iterative approach.

An empathetic design approach also calls for an iterative process of product development, and avoids the “hatch an egg” style of traditional waterfall process for many of the same reasons. But in this case, the design-led process recasts both “minimal” and “viable” in favor of “emotional.” Our process leverages something called “hero flows” – narratives that show the primary, complete path through a product. “Complete” implies that users can achieve their goals, but also that they experience our emotional value proposition. A value promise that supports “viable” is framed as a statement of transaction: “If you use our product, we promise you will be able to do these things.” But an emotional value proposition is framed as a statement of feeling: “If you use our product, we promise you will feel this way.” Our value proposition at my last startup, MyEdu, was “We promise to help college students succeed in college, tell their story, and get a job.” But our emotional value proposition was “We promise to minimize anxiety around the academic journey.”

In describing the iterative process, Reis leans on the word “science”: “With scientific learning as our yardstick, we can discover and eliminate the sources of waste that are plaguing entrepreneurship.” The empathetic process doesn’t claim to be scientific, and may actually generate this “waste” of emotional thinking. That’s part of the benefit of the process.


And with this, we arrive at perhaps the most important distinction between an empathetic design-led approach and Lean. Lean is fast. Design is slow. Design is more contemplative, reflective, and because it demands systems thinking and marinating in the ambiguity of cultural data, it simply takes longer. The benefit is in producing emotionally sound products: products that people love, not just products people use. Increasingly, people expect more from the products and services they engage with. They expect quality, and use it both as a selection criteria for purchase and as a constraint for sustained use.

There are all sorts of contexts where speed is more important than this form of quality, and that means that this design approach isn’t for everyone or every situation. But I don’t believe that startups, by definition, need to move as fast as possible. Many pre-funding startups – the primary audience of Lean – are built on nights and weekends by entrepreneurs who are driven by a need to change the world. They are impatient to make a difference, but they don’t have a financial runway limiting their time to market, and they certainly don’t have a board breathing down their necks demanding a hockey-stick rate of growth.

Similarly, large companies are finding themselves equally burned by loose and lean as they were by agile or long-launch waterfall. My clients, exec ed students, and those at my own company are ready to take on a longer go-to-market process, if it results in a product that is differentiated by design.

Lean is a process, and so too is empathy-driven design. When process is a hammer, the risk is that everything becomes a nail. I support empathy as a process driver not because it’s a silver-bullet for bringing new products and services to market, but because it drives a longer, more sustained improvement in culture. Our world is littered with both physical and digital garbage, and we need to encourage anyone in a creative, innovative setting to focus their efforts on changing culture for the better. I’ll take any process, method or theory that supports improving the human condition. Empathy has to be at the heart of that solution.


Kolko, Jon (2015), "Lean Doesn’t Always Create the Best Products". Harvard Business Review, 5/14/2015.
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