How curiosity can make better startups

In part 1, we learned that somehow, 42% of startups fail because they’re making things for which there’s “no market need.” There are some easy practices that I think can help fix that.

Ask the right questions

When most of us ask for feedback or try to test an idea, we hand over the thing we made and say, “Hey, I made this. Do you like it?” We assume what we’ve made helps people with something they want or need. This is how focus groups work, and they are horrible. People want to be helpful, so they say yes. If they say no, they’ll invent answers that don’t reflect how they really feel. Problems often work differently than we first imagine, so we have to focus on people and what needs and goals they have.

Productive curiosity starts with a good design challenge: a guiding question that encourages us to listen and explore unexpected ideas, but that’s specific enough to give us focus.

If I’m making software for doctors, the right question isn’t “How can my software help doctors schedule appointments better?” It assumes doctors need help scheduling appointments, and that software is the solution, and it’s about me, not the doctor. A better question is, “What challenges are doctors facing in managing their offices?” Or “What are you writing in my chart?” It’s focused on the doctor, and it opens us to learning new things.

The media industry is not good at this. We ask, “How can I get more people to look at my content?” This question is about me, assumes I’ve made content worth looking at, and encourages the ridiculous free-for-all that passes for traffic strategy at many companies. A better question is, “What do my people want to know more about?” or “How can I help my users accomplish X task or Y goal?”

At WhereBy.Us, our research and design method focuses on what it’s like to be a local. What’s a day in the life of different Miamians? What are the highlights and challenges? What gets people excited about where they live? These aren’t questions about content, or media, or websites, or email. They’re questions about people, and we use the answers to help us design impactful engagements.

When we use this process, we see fast results — our most shared content, like our neighborhood guides, are products built with human centered design. Our work for clients is built with it, too — we help them understand local users like we do, and create experiences that respond directly to real people, so they deliver authentic interactions and value.

We use this practice to drive our engagement model, which lets us understand, segment, and serve locals more effectively.

Test ideas with people

When we listen to and observe enough people, we get ideas about how to help them. We understand the common among the uncommon — challenges and opportunities shared by people with different experiences and backgrounds, that might be worth solving. But before we implement them, we need to test them.

Testing is often learned in startupland as “lean” development, which is about iterative cycles of creation and testing. But I’ve found that in many companies, using this process without human-centered design leads to spending twenty development cycles on improving the way a pop-up window works, with no evidence from users that it truly matters to them. When resources are limited, it’s much more valuable to solve big problems first, even imperfectly.

Humans are an essential part of data-driven ideas like A/B testing, too. With enough users, anyone can track what works better — the short headline or the complex one, the light layout or the dark one. Even when the differences are incremental, at scale they can have substantial effect. But in a vacuum, A/B tests don’t help us understand much. Sure, our short headline worked. But why? Did it solve a user’s problem better? Was it funnier? Does it always work like that, or just on this subject? Should we pivot to only writing short headlines, with no content?

In testing what we do with The New Tropic, we always pair data (which headline performed better?) with human-centered inquiry (how does our community think about or act around this topic?). When we put the two together, we start to see not just what works, but why.

Fit first, grow second

In his excellent piece on why music streaming service Rdio failed, The Verge’s Casey Newton quotes Wilson Miner, who led the company’s design: “Rdio, I guess, made … that classic startup mistake of worrying about being profitable and having a business that makes any sense before you’ve reached this astronomical growth curve.”

To be fair, “the economics of streaming music are brutal,” Newton writes. “The only way to win is to achieve a massive scale.” But it’s accepted wisdom with startups in virtually any industry: grow first, then make money. In media, growth is everything: more content to drive more pageviews to drive more ad revenue to drive more content to drive more pageviews. We make size synonymous with success, when there’s little long-term evidence, in bank accounts or with the people we supposedly serve, that this is true. The curse of the media mogul repeats itself, online or on television or in print, when ego drives decisions.

We think better companies are built the opposite way: understanding, deeply and better than anyone else, the people you exist to serve, and solving real problems for them before gambling on growth or scale.

Practice empathy

I spend a good portion of my time facilitating workshops and running sessions on human-centered design and how it applies to media, local engagement, and millennials. Sometimes it’s with startups, but often it’s with big companies or industry associations. In either case, it always strikes me that we are all individually awesome at learning from people and designing with empathy. It’s a deeply human process. We’re hard-wired to seek out other people and connect with them.

Our culture, though, is not awesome at this. We encourage startups to tell their stories with a focus on how amazing they are, how completely they understand the problem, and how clearly their solution is solving it. We expect big companies to have earnings calls with clear strategies in changing markets; uncertainty is deadly. We ask government and political leaders for unwavering ideals and flawless plans; we give no margin of error.

I think we’d have better conversations, and more productive enterprises, if we celebrated honesty and curiosity. If we started with what we don’t know, and our plans for learning it.

How do you want to encourage curiosity and human-centered design in your work? Let’s chat about it.

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