Learning from Lean Canvas

LeanCanvasGraphicContributed by Jim Bodor

At WGBH Digital, we have been using the tools of the entrepreneur to create better digital products for public media.

Ash Maurya is an author, speaker and digital consultant who recently visited WGBH to talk about his latest book and a tool he’s created called the lean canvas. A lean canvas is simply a matrix used for business modeling. If you haven’t used one before you can easily find one like this one here on the web.

I must admit I was skeptical at first as Ash began to introduce his tool. Similar tools seem to emerge every few years, most of them derivative of Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to be Done product development research of about 10 years ago.

Ash certainly owes a debt of gratitude to Christensen’s work, too, but I find the lean canvas to be a more practical hands-on tool, seemingly informed by Ash’s personal experience as someone who has developed products and put them into the marketplace.

Explained simply, a lean canvas makes you challenge your assumptions as you prepare to launch something new. It forces you to simply and clearly state, in a series of boxes all visible on one sheet of paper, what your product is, the challenges it may face, and whether it will succeed.

I wrote one recently for a classical music app we’re developing, and found it incredibly useful. The canvas forces you to describe the problem your product addresses, and the potential solution; what market advantages the product has and how you will reach an audience; the costs, both ongoing and initial, and the potential revenue.

Use of a lean canvas should go hand-in-hand with an iterative approach to developing a product. Ash argues that the assumptions within a lean canvas should then be challenged and tested as early and as easily as possible. Rather than invest in the full development of a product, consider something as easy as testing high-fidelity designs with a focus group, he argues. Or, develop a lightweight prototype and get that in front of a beta-group of users. Only then do we learn whether our product is working for the target audience. Take your learnings, and iterate.

We’ve used this approach in our development of our classical app. Early on in the project, we created a simple prototype, and demonstrated that to a group of local students at an event. As they listened to classical music in a casual setting, we showed them some of the base features of the app and got their feedback. That initial focus group both confirmed some of our initial assumptions and led us to reconsider a few others.

The lean canvas approach may not work for everything. I don’t find it too useful when adding features to a well-established existing product. In those instances, a number of other factors likely drive the decision of whether to add a feature or not, and you also probably have reams of data available to you about whether a feature might work.

But when you’re about to launch something truly from nothing – where you have nothing but what your instincts are telling you might be a good idea – a lean canvas can do a lot to focus your thinking.


Jim Bodor is Director of Product at WGBH Digital, the team of developers, designers, projects managers and producers who build digital products for Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Masterpiece and many other beloved public media brands. WGBH is headquartered in Brighton.

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