The Lean Approach in Web Development
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- 7 min
- Nov 19, 2015
You’ve probably heard about the Lean Startup methodology, which describes how to release products in less time and with lower budgets. In this article, we explain how a web development company can take advantage of the lean approach and its fundamental principles to build better software products and avoid wasting valuable resources.
Is the Lean Startup only for startups?
Even though the name of this methodology includes the word startup, it isn’t used only by startups. This approach can be adopted whenever there’s extreme uncertainty (a concept suggested by Eric Ries) concerning the target audience’s needs. And a company doesn’t necessarily have to be a small startup. When it comes to web application development, a large company can adopt Lean Startup principles to build new products too. As we can see, the Lean Startup works best for building high-risk products.
A central concept of the Lean Startup is the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. The point is to develop a product quickly and put it into users’ hands to receive feedback. This feedback is then analyzed to discover what features customers actually want and to let the company see if the product has demand. This approach helps companies make data-driven decisions. If there’s demand for a product, it can be improved further. Then the process is repeated to receive user feedback on the new features. If there’s no demand for a particular product, it can be redesigned according to the market need.
This approach helps entrepreneurs avoid situations when they spend years building a new product only to discover that nobody wants to use it. The Lean Startup methodology helps companies avoid adding unnecessary features and spending more resources than a product actually requires.
How does the Lean Startup approach work with software development?
There are some fundamental principles of the Lean Startup that can be used in software development. They include building a minimum viable product (MVP), A/B testing, and using validated learning. Let’s see how these practices can help when developing software products.
Minimum viable product
An MVP is a prototype that includes only key features. As Eric Ries notes, an MVP is about getting validated learning with the least effort. So the main goal here is to release a basic model of a product in order to get and analyze user feedback. This will help you realize what changes you need to make to improve your product. With an MVP, you can start learning and adapt your product to users’ needs as early as possible.
However, building an MVP shouldn’t be taken too lightly. An MVP should be good enough to let users see the potential of your product. It’s easier to find early adopters when you offer a high-quality and usable product.
Things to remember about an MVP:
- It should include only the most necessary features.
- It should provide enough value to demonstrate future benefit in order to retain early adopters.
- It should help to gather user feedback.
Lots of today’s influential tech companies have managed to create popular products by developing MVPs first.
For example, the founders of Buffer ‒ a social media scheduler ‒ started their business by testing whether people needed their product. To find out what people thought of their idea, they launched a two-page website, keeping it as simple as possible. It was just a landing page explaining what the app would do. After discovering that people were interested, the Buffer founders needed to find out if people were ready to pay for their product. So they added a page with pricing. Then they analyzed the results and moved on to building the first version of the product.
The concept of A/B testing lies in offering several versions of a product to users at the same time. A/B testing can show if a change, even a slight one, has an impact on customer behavior. And if it does, you can measure how big of a difference it makes.
In terms of web development, A/B testing can help to test different versions of pages to see which is more effective. The result can be analyzed by calculating the conversion rate or other metrics depending on your goal.
The aim of an A/B test is to check a hypothesis and measure which version of a product works best.
Upworthy, a viral content portal, turned to A/B testing to test layouts and designs for recommended content on their news and media website. They wanted to provide users with recommended content but were afraid it would decrease the number of social shares. Upworthy took a two-step approach to check that assumption. First, they tested out seven different layouts with their users. Once they found which one performed best, they moved on to the second phase, testing different designs. As a result, they found out that with a right sidebar and a minimalist design, Upworthy could increase social shares by 28 percent.
We rely on testing to just make better decisions. People are really fascinating and interesting… and weird! It’s really hard to guess their behaviors accurately.
Building an MVP and performing A/B testing leads to what’s called validated learning. An essential part of the Lean Startup methodology, validated learning helps with making data-driven decisions.
The process of validating product-related ideas is iterative, where testing one idea is one iteration. Results are measured by metrics. Validated learning happens when ideas and features are improved and there’s a positive change in metrics. Website features and their impacts can be tested by tracking visitor behavior.
Spotify, for instance, created an MVP and iterated, taking into account user feedback they gathered to improve the product. This approach helped them realize what their customers wanted and avoid risks.
The Dropbox founders adopted the Lean Startup methodology at the very beginning. They first made a demo video explaining how their product would work. This video helped them generate interest at the early stage, engage users in the development, and learn how to improve the product. For Dropbox, the key to success was giving customers the exact product they wanted.
Pivot or persevere
When you test a concept, there are basically two outcomes. In the first case, you find out there’s a need for the product. So it makes sense to persevere with the same idea and keep on improving it. In the other case, you discover there’s no need for this particular product. That means you need to pivot to test another hypothesis, repeating the Build-Measure-Learn loop.
There are several options when it comes to pivoting. For instance, having analyzed feedback, you might need to consider building the entire product around a single feature. This is called a zoom-in pivot. Sending money by email became this feature for PayPal. When they discovered that their customers preferred using email for payments, they did a zoom-in pivot.
A zoom-out pivot is in the opposite direction, making an existing product one of the features of a new bigger product. There are other options you can opt for as well. It all depends on what you discover during the process of validated learning. For instance, you might need to consider changing the problem you address, targeting different customers, or changing the technology you’re using.
It can be a difficult decision to make. But sometimes it’s necessary to look for a better way to reach your goal. In any case, your decision to pivot or persevere should be based on data, not an assumption.
Why use the Lean Startup in web development?
As you can see, the Lean Startup methodology can help entrepreneurs see if they’re on the right path. Using the principles of this methodology enables you to determine if a particular feature is worth spending time and money on.
Implementing Lean Startup practices can help you:
- Understand if there’s a need for your product
- Get feedback in order to improve your product, meet your target customers’ needs, and maintain loyalty
- Avoid adding unnecessary features and wasting resources
- Develop your product faster
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