UX Design for Startups — Improve your Product’s UX in One Day, Part 1

Many startups are under pressure to build a minimum viable product, and to get it in the hands of the public as soon as possible. That’s fine if there is an endless budget and all the time in the world. But, not everyone can afford to spend months on development and then launch to only discover they will need to start all over. That’s why a dedicated yet condensed strategic phase — that utilizes UX and design thinking methodologies — can help startups get to a viable solution much faster. Without having to invest or commit too much time, money and resource up front.

InVision’s documentary, Design Disruptors, features companies that are overtaking billion dollar industries through design.

In following successful companies who embrace design thinking — AirBnB, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Netflix or Twitter — startups soon realize that strategic and design thinking can’t be outsourced. While it’s easier to sometimes hire external designers or an agency, true long-term success requires design to be an integral part of the company’s culture. Therefore, startups often approach us to assist, mentor, and educate them on how to use UX and Design thinking to improve their product’s UX. As time and budget are often limited, a long term engagement is not always an option. Instead, we gather everyone in a room for a day to introduce key UX and Design thinking methodologies, along with a toolbox of practical exercises and processes.

Considering the design field is so vast, it’s impossible to cover all areas in one day. Hence, we tend to focus more on strategic (e.g. what is your value proposition) rather than tactical (e.g. what typeface to choose) aspects, that can help startups to make immediate improvements to their product’s UX. As such, we particularly concentrate on:

  1. User interviews
  2. Fragmenting data
  3. Value proposition
  4. Customer journey mapping
  5. Communication
  6. Generating ideas
  7. Validating ideas

In this article we will cover the first three items from the list, with the rest to be covered in Part 2 of the article next week.

1. User interviews

User research focuses on understanding user behavior, needs, and motivations via observation and other feedback mechanisms. The goal is to identify, early on, the elements needed to establish a good user experience, whether a concept works for users, and what problems may need solving. What you want to avoid, above all else, is having to rectify issues when you’re further along in the design process. This can not only be costly but also make it more difficult (or nearly impossible) to start over. When done right, user research can also provide a solid foundation against which to test prototypes, allowing you to check how successful you’ve been at meeting users’ needs.

There’s no better way to understand users’ needs than to watch them use everyday objects in their own environment.

A face-to-face interview is hands down the easiest tool to use. If it’s not something you’ve done before it can be a challenge at first. However, the good news is that with regular practice of conducting interviews, you’ll become a proficient user interviewer in no time. To get the most out of each interview, good planning and preparation is vital. To start with, make sure the sample user base is reflective of the target audience. While each individual testimony is invaluable, it’s only by looking at them collectively that you’ll find common patterns begin to emerge. But, you also need to create conditions for users to provide unbiased answers. Avoid common traps such as asking people what they want or actively selling a product to them. That’s an interview just waiting to go wrong, which will result in biased and subjective views.

Whenever we conduct an interview, the user is not told the real purpose of the interview. While subconsciously they may be aware that they’re being asked to test a concept, we don’t want them to explicitly focus on the concept.

What we are really looking for are honest and unbiased insights. We don’t want people to say something they think we’d like to hear, or whether they just hate a particular product or service. That doesn’t tell us much. Even if a user is disappointed with your product or service, they can still sugarcoat their answers if they know the purpose of the interview. Even so, the opposite can be true, too! On one occasion, we interviewed a user recruited by our client. As they were told who we were and the purpose of the interview, they spent the entire session complaining about the product price and its value. As such, we were unable to gain any useful insights apart from the product, in their eyes, being expensive.

When conducting an interview, it’s always best to adopt a casual and conversational approach. Forget about you in the moment and be genuinely interested in the person you are interviewing.

Get to know them and understand them. Ask open ended questions and let the user do the talking. For instance, when was the last time you did X? Can you explain your last five X? Why did you make that particular choice? Unearth why users do what they do, and whether any aspects of their lives influence how they do it. That way, you’ll to discover any unmet needs and new opportunities.

While some common points may jump out at you in an interview others may pass you by. It can be a lot to take in, especially if running many user interviews over a few days. Thus, we always recommend that you keep some record of each session. Either video-record sessions, or take notes. In the case of the latter, ask a colleague to take notes while you maintain the conversation.

Our notebooks of choice are Field Notes.

Finally, be aware that there could be times when a user has little or no interest in your product or service. Or situations where whole groups of users do not care much about what you’re trying to solve. While your first reaction might be one of disappointment, such feedback is still invaluable. If nothing else, these can be early signals for you to either seek an alternative approach to the problem, or to redefine the problem space.

2. Fragmenting data

Whether you gather data from user interviews, a survey, or internal systems i.e. a helpdesk, at some stage you will need to consolidate and then break down the data in order to identify any recurring patterns.

Don’t let the lack of whiteboards or cluttered tables discourage you. It’s perfectly acceptable to move sticky notes to the floor. Photo courtesy Web Summer Camp.

An Affinity Map is one of the simplest techniques you can use to help make sense of any data. The goal of the exercise is to find patterns that identify problems people have which are also worth solving. For each piece of data identified use one sticky note and spread them out on a wall. Next, sort and classify the data in different ways. For example, along a timeline, by category, by place or by touch points. The more you rearrange and sort the data in different ways, the more you’ll understand it and learn new things. In the words of information architect Christina Wodtke, you need to inhabit the data.

3. Value proposition

A value proposition is where your product intersects with the needs of your users. As a startup you need to distinguish yourselves from the competition. For instance, what makes your product better or unique from others, what will make people use it? If you have conducted any research and data analysis, could an identified pattern be turned into a new opportunity?

Peter J. Thomson’s Value Proposition Canvas applied to Evernote.

By defining a value proposition for their product, startups can segment their place in the market. Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas is a popular tool used by many start-up accelerators. Yet, we find Peter J. Thomson’s version to be better suited when working with startups as it places greater emphasis on user and marketing aspects over business aspects. In the author’s own words:

The value proposition canvas is a simple tool that quickly gets you to the ‘minimum viable clarity’ required to start building and testing.

A Value Proposition Canvas can also help challenge people’s preconceptions. When done for the first time, we find clients often come to the realisation that there’s perhaps not enough information available to answer a section as they first thought. Thus, it can help identify areas in need of further analysis and research. The best results are also achieved when including functions outside of strategy and marketing as in our experience, they tend to offer alternative yet useful insights.

Continue to Part 2.


Want to learn more about how you can improve your product’s UX? Tin Kadoic and Marko Dugonjic are running a UX for Startups workshop in NYC on November 11, 2016. Ain’t that a cool date?

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