UX crash course for startups, lost ones and random newcomers

Wojtek Kutyla
Jan 24 · 5 min read
A thinker. Photo by Luca Ambrosi on Unsplash

What is UX _really_ about? A compendium for the brave.

Warning: reading this will require you to smile and recognise irony. If you can’t cope with irony, go and read some other nonsense.

An end of a year — and the beginning of a new one — are always characterised by the emergence of countless ‘UX trends’ articles. We’re all getting excited about new ideas; designers exchange links to the newest tools and methods, and managers roll up their sleeves in anticipation of commanding. Despite the UX hype (which is still prevalent within our industry), clients that I often engage with, and my students as well, need a bit of help in understanding what this whole thing is about.

What the UX is about. Yes, I know, this was discussed hundreds of time before… But bear with me, please.

If you start googling for it, you’ll find all kinds of definitions. I’ll spare you the quotes. Then, after reading those, you can proceed to look at almost meme-like images with bold statements such as ‘UX is not UI’ or ‘There is no UX without research’. Neat!

And so boring. If you’ve never practised UX within your organisation — or if you’re simply new to the game — then it helps you only a little bit, if at all.

Therefore, I decided to share with you a number of short definitions that I use to describe what the UX is about to my new clients (often startups or organisations that are a bit lost) and participants in my workshops and teaching classes.

Knock yourself out, fasten your seatbelt; this is what UX is really about. No bullshit.

UX is about making you think

You can have the best tools in the world — Sketch, Framer, Axure, the whole Adobe Cloud, Wordpress, Microsoft Sharepoint (who would call this best in any category?), put_yours_here — and methodologies such as design thinking at your disposal but hey, notice the ‘thinking’ bit. If you are not prepared to think about things that your organisation is dealing with and approach them from a critical perspective, you’re not doing UX, you’re simply shuffling pixels or ticking boxes. Naysayers, critics, embrace! This is your chance to shine (no irony here, actually — I do really think that).

UX is about fairness

The only way to make products and services work for your customers is to be fair to them — to all of them. This means speaking to them in the way they would understand and ensuring that information you want to put across finds them just as they would like it. It means giving everyone an equal chance, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, brainpower levels and choice of clothing. It also means giving your staff (your designers — and all the people who work for you are designers, for they sum up to the wholeness of the service) a right to work, enjoy themselves and leave when they please. No one is your slave. This could come as a surprise to many managers I’ve worked with.

Oh, and it’s to do with understanding, that each byte of code costs the planet something. And costs you air to breathe (or smog to inhale).

Yes, it’s hard.

UX is about looking around you

It really doesn’t matter what Google or Facebook are doing (and often they’re shit at UX — but great at generating revenue). Look around you; do your customers really like being at the centre of the attention economy, dominated by another crap app or website? Or would they prefer to live happy lives, quietly improved by what your company does? If you think it’s the latter, then you might be marching towards doing it right. Congratulations.

UX is about knowing that you might be wrong

In fact, UX is about assuming that you are wrong. Until you prove that you are not. You can run a test — or you can put something out there and measure whether it really works — but unless you push yourself and do it, your choices and ideas are nothing but fairy dust. Often contaminated with your own beliefs. Do you know how many startups I have seen that had no clue about their value proposition being completely wrong? Mostly just due to assuming that their ideas are the best and freshest and that everyone will like them. And here we’re getting to…

UX is about you being able to articulate your idea

Even more; UX is about you (and your organisation) being able to clearly articulate your idea and providing a rationale for it. Read this again, please, and see if you can outline in one simple sentence what does your organisation do and what is the reason for it (other than scoring a zillion bucks, of course).

UX is about understanding the value of your service

Why would anyone like to use your service or a product? What’s in it? What is the true value that it provides someone? Is it to do with them spending less time on boring tasks? Someone that I value a lot told me once: ‘focus on things people don’t like doing, not on the things they like doing’. Think about that.

UX is about asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’ or ‘what’

A new front-end framework? A new tool? A new system? Super-cool. And, most probably, completely useless (or even burdening you and, in effect, your customers) if you haven’t asked yourself: why am I doing this in the first place? Ever measured your customer satisfaction rate with NPS (you can google it, it’s a simple scale that means nothing) without asking about the rationale for the score given? Well, ask again, or in fact, drop the ancient and overused measure and simply start asking: how does the stuff we make work for you and why?

You’ll learn much more from that… Hey, put that new shiny prototyping tool on a shelf and read once again! Good.

UX is about abandoning mediocrity

We live in the culture of mediocrity. We’re thriving in it; half-baked digital services, solutions rolled out prematurely just because we can (and should — accordingly to meaningless deadlines set up by bosses who have never seen a customer in their life) and sacrifices in user experience caused by sheer ignorance (‘disabled people wouldn’t use our service!’). Good UX is about abandoning that and doing the best you can (not the most convenient you can) to satisfy your customer and your organisation.

Lastly…

UX is about you not being a dick

It’s so easy to be a dick in the digital world. To others, but also to yourself. To work stupid hours in order to build a piece of software that makes lives of other difficult. To overload yourself with worries not knowing, what your customers really want. To be a marginalising, sexist, closed-minded individual who would push their interest above rest. I am sure you are not one of them, and in that case, hey, you’re winning it.

Let’s sum it up

UX, which is an abbreviation for ‘User Experience’ is simply a way of taking collective responsibility for what your organisation squeezes out its development pipeline. Whether it’s a service, a web app, a mobile brick, or a box of chocolate.

It might even put a smile on a few faces — but only if you do it right.