The Forgotten Link: Validate to Succeed


We’re busy in here, don’t bother us!

In a startup environment, there are a multitude of everyday responsibilities and challenges that face companies as they pour their hard work and determination into creating an influential, impactful product. Many of these fall under the moniker of what happens “inside the building”; in fact, to many on a team this may be where they see “work” happening — outside of the confines of their team, company responsibilities exist primarily in the realms of customer support, marketing, distribution, and other goals that work with a product that’s taken shape.

Introduction to Lean UX

The scenario described above is not an uncommon one, and frequently teams are so consumed with features and ideas that they center their vision of success solely on the existence of their product. In her book “UX for Lean Startups”, Laura Klein writes that

“Lean UX centers around validating hypotheses. This is quite a departure from traditional design, which often revolves around fulfilling a designer or product owner’s ‘vision’. Instead of thinking of a product as a series of features to be built, Lean UX looks at a product as a set of hypotheses to be validated.”

Notes from the Field

A couple of months ago, I was involved doing some consulting work for a startup in San Francisco that had at its foundation a strong emphasis on photography and visual presentation. While the execution and abundance of the visuals were flawless, business was not growing as the team wanted. My team was asked to consult, and so we began an investigation. We examined the beliefs, perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes of different people who were using the app. Although we tested three different hypotheses, one glaring attitude became apparent across nearly everyone we spoke with. Users commented that,

“The…pictures seem like they could have been taken at a studio or something…I like a little more context”

“[Would like] pictures that show what the actual scene is there”

“…Would be nice to see some consumer feedback on here…”

These distinct commentators all revealed the same common theme over the course of the interviews: there was an inherent desire to feel more trusting of the application. Without a real context to relate to and an element of human narrative, the strong photographic elements and design were lost on the users.

The Need Emerges

While in this situation, the need desired by users was for a greater sense of trust, in reality it could be a multitude of needs that users have. What, in fact, can be done to avert a situation like this? In the instance described above, testing a lower fidelity prototype before building out a more polished application could likely have raised some of the same concerns — even discussing the importance of reviews and customer insights in the interviews could have steered the app development towards building a feature to help users build trust.

Therefore, the need to begin with a clear hypothesis (or set of hypotheses) before the creation and distribution of a highly-functional application is demonstrated.

A Hypothesis is not enough…

In her book “Just Enough Research”, Erika Hall writes that during the interview process one should strive to

Ask open-ended questions that encourage the subject to talk, not closed questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” (Closed question: “Do you communicate with the marketing department often?” Open question: “Tell me about the internal groups you communicate with as part of your job.”)

If the subject doesn’t offer enough information on a topic, ask a follow-up or probing question, such as “Tell me more about that.”

Clearly, the formulation of a hypothesis is only the beginning of a successful and directed process to achieve a useful insight. The skilled researcher needs to also be mindful that they themselves don’t lead their subject to prove or disprove a hypothesis based on their interview style. Asking one-sided questions, confirmation bias, filling in silence with opinions, and even facial expressions can all affect the validity and quality of an interview.

Synthesize and Analyze

When interviews and other research is complete, the process of transforming all the data into patterns, trends, and eventually insights begins. Although there are certainly a plethora of user research techniques and methodologies, certain approaches are more appropriate for some situations than others. Each has nuances and details that deserve their own discussions to delve into — and that’s a great discussion for another day.

The Cost Outweighs the Savings

However, what can be maintained across the board is the serious consequences of trying to ideate and develop a product without paying attention to the attitudes and behaviors of its users. Although there may be short term benefits, these are easily dwarfed by the risks of “designing in the dark”. Without validation and momentum from users, the needle could easily be moving in the wrong direction.

A Call to Action

So, what are you waiting for? Your users need you — time to head outside the building and validate your way to a killer product!