From the Ground Up: UX Lessons from Startups

Mar 14

User experience, or UX, dictates the strength of the connection between your product and your user—both from a functional standpoint, by how easily the user can accomplish a task, and from an emotional standpoint, which is a sum total of experience during and after using the product. It goes way beyond just the aesthetics, though that is an important part. It’s really about how well the user’s expectations and objectives are met and fulfilled. Sometimes, unexpected delights become even more important to create a loyal base of customers. Therefore, a vision of any new product should include a user experience strategy at the outset—and such a strategy is likely even more important for startups, as they have only one or two shots at success.

As a user experience design agency, we find it challenging, but a lot of fun, working with startups. There is a larger canvas for creativity amid crazy timelines and ever-changing requirements.

We’ve learned some useful lessons from working with startups that have been more strategic, and therefore more successful, at achieving a stellar UX. Here are the most valuable insights we’ve gathered:

1. Appoint a UX champion: Ideally, a co-founder or a key member of the startup should be articulating and driving the UX. We worked with a startup trying to connect service providers to consumers, and one of the two co-founders succinctly articulated his design vision at the beginning of the engagement. From that point, he was actively involved in all design reviews and made the final call on any design conflict. He never compromised on the UX during development, even when less user-centered alternatives could have led to faster implementation.

The UX champion doesn’t have to be a founder or co-founder. Sometimes a product manager trusted by the founders will don this role. That project manager then becomes the seed of an internal design team.

2. Hire a design consultant: Because recent intellectual property battles are being fought over design rather than technology, startups especially desire a certain degree of control over UX design. They have to make a decision about whether to build an internal design team or hire a specialized design agency. For startups where UX is central to the product, our experience suggests that it is difficult to find good talent within a short time frame, even if there is enough money in the budget. Not only that, it takes time to build a culture conducive to inspired creativity.

An outside design agency can help identify the UX vision, establish a user-centered mindset, and create initial patterns and templates with the idea that an internal team can evolve eventually. In essence, a good external design partner can serve as the mold for a future internal design team. Sometimes, due to security concerns, startups hire designers for short-term contract work on-site. This may provide a quick solution to buffer peak demands on internal teams, but does not support creating great design.

3. Define an explicit design process within the

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larger development methodology:

In startups, a lot of time and effort is spent on adopting the right development methodology and platform. Design is not thought of as a process, but rather a supplement to the chosen development process. Good design, however, involves an iterative process and incorporates feedback from stakeholders from multiple disciplines.

If a high-level design exists and is supported by solid user research, then adopting a Lean UX approach fits well within an Agile framework. Alternatively, when starting from a blank slate, allow for completion of high-level design (using traditional Waterfall) before enforcing a development process. (More on pros and cons of each in a later post.)

4. Attempt to measure ROI from UX decisions: Our mantra is to test early and test often. Any and all design decisions should always be supported by some, even incomplete, data. Conduct quick, informal or hallway usability tests that measure ease of use to validate designs early using low-fidelity or even paper prototypes. Then graduate to more formal tests with high-fidelity prototypes. Even post-launch, A/B tests are common before releasing any major UI enhancements. It is always a humbling experience to see a user stumble on what we thought was good design. Also, with inexpensive tools like Visual Website Optimizer, calculating the impact of design decisions is much easier.

In other words, it is difficult to replicate anything that is not measurable. There are now tools to measure the ROI of UX, a sphere that has traditionally been thought of as art rather than science.

We understand that every startup—or, for that matter, every company—is unique and has different priorities. However, a compelling UX should be an integral part of your strategy.

(This post was previously published on ProductNation.)


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