Fight the dark side of Lean UX with the Experience Canvas

We’ve all been there. Those times where we realise that we’ve been sitting around arguing for hours over the small stuff, because we’ve forgotten about the bigger, more important stuff. Or to bring it into the realm of digital products: whether that interface should still have an accordion menu or should we change it to a set of tabs. But we’ve already shipped, and customers are used to it being this way! We can’t it change now… can we? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something that helped us steer away from these arguments while there was still time?

The dark side of Lean UX

As Lean UX becomes more mainstream in the practice of product design and build, more and more teams are coming up against an interesting problem: by focussing so much on results not deliverables, and shipping small and often, the product itself can be in danger of feeling like a loose collection of features added over time, rather than a cohesive, robust, well-considered experience. Joel Marsh over at The Hipper Element puts it bluntly:

The result of that is that you only make incremental changes in your product, because you’re not ‘allowed’ to make game-changing improvements. It ends up being a pile of little ideas that add up to nothing…

The other danger that our teams inside Atlassian always have our antennae up for is driving consensus for its own sake. It’s true that good Lean practice will encourage collaboration and shared understanding, but sometimes in the haste of wanting to ship, there’s the risk of pushing for a solution that feels right for everyone in the room rather than pushing for what’s right for customers. That’s not efficiency; that’s just expediency. And it’s definitely not user-centred.

It’s OK to storm together over the important strategic stuff. And it’s a lot better to storm over the strategy rather than the colours and placement of buttons. Arguing at the strategic level is healthy; at the interface level is wasteful.

The Experience Canvas: your insurance policy against the dark side

Put simply, the Experience Canvas is your ticket to getting the strategy right, both at the start, and whenever you have the opportunity to steer your strategy. It’s inspired by Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, and also borrows from Spark59’s Lean Canvas, which is itself a version of the Business Model Canvas optimised for lean startup operations.

The Experience Canvas is a framework for project teams of any size to ensure that the end result – whether it’s a minimum viable product (MVP), a new feature roll-out, even a process or other business initiative – is thorough, considered, user-centred and lean, without compromising on flexibility. The emphasis is on the experience to be achieved by that result; a minimum viable experience (MVE), if you will.

The Experience Canvas

It’s typically used as a big hand-drawn poster on a wall or drawn up on a whiteboard in a workshop. It is not a requirements specification, and it is not a roadmap. It is more like insurance: it helps us stay honest and keeps us on track to be lean and user-centred. It is excellent at being a catalyst for getting everyone on the same page; if there is any expectation alignment and storming to do, the Experience Canvas will reveal it! In this way, the canvas is driven by the whole team, not just designers or senior management, and it constrains the boundaries rather than the outcome.

A tour around the canvas

The diagram above shows the layout of the Experience Canvas, which has the following boxes:

The boxes in the canvas are different sizes to indicate how much effort and detail should go into each one. The solution space for example in our canvas is quite small compared to the problem space. This is because a lot more work should go into understanding the problem and telling/demonstrating end-to-end scenarios, rather than theorising about a solution.

How we fill in the boxes

The Experience Canvas is run as a facilitated workshop, in as little as two hours or up to a day. It can also be used as a strategic ‘refresher’ every now and then. There are a variety of ways for a team to bring all of the information together into each box:

It is very important that the canvas is explored by the whole team; it is after all a means to an end, not the end itself. It is a catalyst to generate the strategy, not a final deliverable.

Remember, too, that the idea is not to fill it all in for the sake of it. If the team gets stuck on one of the boxes, that’s a good sign that the canvas is doing its job. It can be tempting to focus on getting it all filled in rather than exploring the reasons why there are some parts that can’t be filled in, or are much harder to fill in.

Your turn

If you’re looking for a link to download a template, here it is! Experience Canvas PDF file to use as a template.

The beauty of it is, still, that you can draw it up (based on the image included above) to the largest size you’re able to, whether that’s a napkin or a whiteboard.

We’ll be following up this post with another one, with more details about facilitating a workshop using the Experience Canvas, using a real live example, but in the meantime have a go with your team, and share your experiences. We’d really like to hear how it goes!


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