3 key learnings from hacking lean UX in a Startup

A couple of years ago, I found myself operating in unfamiliar waters when I transitioned from SEEK to a start-up. However it was a little scary moving away from a company I was familiar with — that had many resources — to a start-up with considerably fewer. In particular, less time & less money.

During my time at the start-up, I’ve realised how important it is to be adaptable and to be able to align your thinking with the rest of the team. Plus you need to be able to embrace ambiguity. Read on, for my three key learnings from hacking lean UX.

First, a bit about our product. It’s based on the premise that hirers in the hospitality space are time-poor and need to hire often, due to high employee attrition. Our product would disrupt the traditional hiring process. We wanted to create a time-saving employment app so that hirers could match and connect with local candidates. As a result we took a lean approach to building the product and the business, focusing on product learnings (initially), not delivery. I was the sole UX designer working with a small, talented, cross-functional team. During our time together, we would move fast, fail fast, learn, pivot, build and grow.

The start-up team

Transitioning to a lean start- up

At SEEK we had the time to :

  • Build rigour into our design process
  • Produce polished finished design, flows and experiences
  • Test these before we actually launched in the marketplace.

At the start-up, we had fewer resources (money and time) and a stronger focus on speed to market. There was also a greater appetite for risk — for learning and failing. We were constantly experimenting, testing, learning and growing.

I always like to get things right the very first time. However, this mindset did not suit this new lean start-up environment. But I adapted and made changes to my design process and learned a new way to operate and execute design.

I gave up perfecting design and the rigour of a traditional user-centred design process.

We just didn’t have the resources to support it at the start-up. We figured out the lean process and rituals that would make UX work. We evolved the way we worked together. And we evolved the way design operates.

Which brings us to my first key learning…

Be Adaptable

Source — Pexels

I needed to adapt to the lean start-up methodology.

I learned to:

  • adopt a continuous experimentation and learning mindset
  • practice ‘Just enough Design’
  • find creative, strategic, smarter ways of incorporating customer insight into the product design process
  • iterate constantly with a continuous experimentation and learning mindset

Practice ‘Just enough design’
I design the least amount possible to communicate an idea or a solution. 
At times there is no tangible design output as it’s a conversation; a sketch; a reusable design pattern; a component from the living style guide; coding in browser; developer pairing and so on.

Be creative with your user research
We’ve found creative ways to incorporate lean user research and customer insights into the product development.

We conduct a large proportion of research by proxy via our very talented Sales and Support team. They are on the phones with our customers every single day and carry out a large chunk of the research work.

We also use tools like Inspectlet, Intercom and Help Scout to understand our users. Customer visits and interviews double-up as an opportunity to collate marketing collateral too. And I don’t write detailed research reports. Not even a one pager. All customer insights are shared with the team on Slack.

However, adapting most, if not all, of our work practices, wasn’t enough if the team wasn’t aligned properly.

Get Aligned

Source — Pexels

We discovered the power of aligning our team behind our processes and the way we make decisions. So, we aligned early with :

  • Design kick-off’s using my super lean kick-off canvas
  • Agreement on design fidelity
  • Ensuring everyone on the team was part of the design process

Design kick-off’s and my super lean kick-off canvas
We incorporated a new ritual — the design kick-off. See the super lean canvas I created below. It helps facilitate a structured conversation during the kick-off. The canvas helps me take charge without too much prep. We understand the background, the goals, the why’s and the constraints early. This kick-off discussion provides clarity and ensures we are all working towards a set of commonly aligned goals.

My very lean canvas

(Stay tuned for my next post on the lean canvas and design kick- off)

Agreement on design fidelity

As a team, we agree early on the fidelity of design output required with a set of rules. At times a quick sketch on a piece of paper suffices, especially when a piece of work will be picked up by the senior developer. We produce higher fidelity design output when designing new components, or, if a junior developer is picking up a piece of work.

Everyone on the team is part of the design process
Just as I outsource research, I harness ideas collaboratively. It’s not up to the designer, it’s the entire team’s responsibility to come up with ideas. This builds a shared understanding within the team and as a bonus, it saves time and creates valuable buy-in from the whole team.

Collaborating and co-creating with the team

Design studios, workshops, kick-offs, reviews, developer pairing and other activities ensure everyone in the team gets to contribute along the way.

So, I’d adapted my work practices and aligned myself with an abundance of new processes and tools. However, it took me a while before I was comfortable with the ever-present ambiguity of a start-up.

Embrace Ambiguity

In a start-up you are constantly figuring things out and learning as you go. At times it feels like you’re walking in fog and uncovering your path one step at a time. You need to get comfortable with ambiguity. Often I don’t know if the design idea I’m considering will fail as we test assumptions along the way.

Source — Quote fancy
I’ve learned to embrace ambiguity, and get comfortable with discomfort. I’ve learned to treat design as a hypothesis. And hardest of all, I’ve learned to get over my fear of failure.

To do this we break down ambiguity and uncertainty into assumptions and ‘test them’ through experiments in the market place.

I now treat design as a hypothesis. I don’t have to get things right the first time in the very first iteration. It’s all about getting ideas out into the market early and validating them. The beauty of the lean process is that as you experiment more as an individual, you become open to experimenting, failing and learning through life’s experiences as well. I’m now comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I don’t fear failure any longer. Failure is the first iteration towards success.

We’ve built a culture of learning. A safe space to fail and learn.

Working with a lean start-up has given me the opportunity to learn a new super lean way of working as a designer. The experience has taught me to embrace new learnings, challenges, and changes. I’ve worked on things I would never have dreamed of a year ago. And I’ve helped launch a business in the Australian marketplace — it’s been a great experience.

Apparently, 90% of start-ups fail. It’s not an easy gig. Things get chaotic, messy and overwhelming. There were times when I thought “this is going badly, I don’t see a way out of this”.

Resilience is what gets you through.

So match that resilience with being adaptable, getting aligned early, and embracing all that beautiful and awful ambiguity. I’m confident it will help you navigate your way to an enriching personal and career experience.


This is a recap of my talk at Lastconf and Ladies that UX Melbourne meetup in July 2017.