UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 543 July 21, 2010

When You Startup with UX

As a consultant living and working in NYC, I come into contact with a lot of entrepreneurs and the startups they're trying to get off the ground. They have limited budgets, limited resources, and boundless aspirations. And not one of them has a full-time user experience designer.

Most startups never quite make it, while a choice few rise above to unpredictable heights. So what distinguishes the successes from the failures? Armed with my unwavering faith in the power of UX, I set out to prove that the trailblazers are engaging in user-centered design activities—even if it means doing it on their own terms.

I interviewed three well-regarded New York-based startups and a powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalist to get their definition of what user experience actually is, how to do it, and why it really matters.

1. What does user experience mean to you?

Paul Graham
What it feels like to use something. Design in the sense that's a step deeper than visual design.
Nate Westheimer
Before the product lead or a designer puts pen to paper or tries to architect our own visions, user experience means taking a step back from our instincts and doing the research to figure out what the user needs—bringing as much user data as possible into the process before making decisions.
Gabi Moore
Designing for the user as opposed to designing for aesthetics or performance or other things that could guide design.
Andrew Kortina
It's everything. User experience is every part of Venmo. Anytime you exchange money with someone it can be kind of awkward, especially if you're friends. It can be stressful to think about money when you're with your friends. We want to make your experience using Venmo better, but more than that, we want to make your experience hanging out with friends better because you don't have to think about money.
Mike Singleton
User experience is the method by which users interact with the product. Foursquare is a social utility—its role is to be as out-of-the-way and as quiet as possible. For some other products, people take note of its UX. For us, if they're noticing it, it's a failure. We just want them to check in a million times a day at not notice us.

2. When did you first learn the term UX?

Paul Graham
Right now, when I realized it must be an abbreviation for "user experience."
Nate Westheimer
I probably first learned it from blogs, like the 37signals blog that I read heavily when I was first getting started in the industry. I started to think more about it after meeting you, and reading your blog and folks like you in my circle, hooting and hollering about user experience.
Gabi Moore
Probably when I first came to NY, about two years ago. Back in Brazil I'd never heard of it. When I arrived here I first turned to books to learn more about what was going on here [in the U.S.]. It was probably in Jeffrey Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards or Andy Clarke's Transcending CSS.
Andrew Kortina
I had heard of user interaction, but only really started thinking about it after seeing Kathy Sierra as the keynote speaker at SXSW two years ago—she talked about making your users feel joy. Making something so easy to use that they just feel good having figured it out.
Mike Singleton
I heard of it three years ago, when I started separating design and UX as two different things. It's like being a therapist—asking the right questions and forcing people who think they know everything about their product to answer tough questions and commit to deciding what really matters.

3. How does UX play a role in your company?

Paul Graham
It's very important in the first phase [of Y Combinator], perhaps more important than anything else. We encourage startups to build the smallest thing they can as fast as they can and then get it in front of users immediately to test whether they like it.
Nate Westheimer
We use it sort of like an alarm bell that anyone's allowed to ring at any time. It's used as a mediation tool—we're deep into it and someone realizes we need to get more data, and it's been helpful to make decisions. There's no better argument than coming to me and saying, "I have this set of user data that says X." I can't argue with that. You need to respond to what people do.
Gabi Moore
UX helped us find out who our users were and why they would use the site. It helps us make more informed decisions even if we don't have all the information, and to always go back to the user and determine what they want before we make major decisions on what features to implement and how to design something. More than giving us answers, it sets a foundation for how to make design decisions. One of the challenges for a startup is we don't know who our users are because we hardly have any users. UX makes us think about what we can do with the information we have today, and how to approach finding out more in the future.
Andrew Kortina
We're constantly watching behavior, how people use the product and respond to it. I'm always tailing log files to see what actions happen on the website as they happen, calling people up when they have a problem, staying on top of what people are saying on email, and trying to respond to things as quickly as possible. We try things out. If everyone doesn't like it, we'll pull it.
Mike Singleton
All of our us use the product ourselves in our own lives, so that helps. We do informal usability testing internally, and send builds to 100 beta testers (friends, family, and a few extended fresh eyes) about once a month. Feedback comes in, and we create a to-do list to talk about what to fix. We'll agonize over small changes and be in a massive debate for weeks, but then user testing will show exactly where that button belongs.

4. What has been the biggest change you've made as a result of UX practice?

Paul Graham
I suppose the biggest change of all would be to realize that users just didn't care about the problem [the startup] was proposing to solve, and thus to switch to an entirely new idea.
Nate Westheimer
The biggest change we're going to make is splitting up tasks geared toward different personas. For the vast number of users who aren't going to input much data, we're going to do it for them even though we may not be 100% right. Then for the users who really want to the option, it will be on the side. We're splitting up who does the heavy lifting. Through all the testing and data and anecdotes, we realized it was a part of our site that was very frustrating to people. We're accepting we can never get it perfect for everyone, and instead are targeting our users with different toolsets.
Gabi Moore
In product discussions we're much more objective about what to do. Before, we were relying on gut and personal experience. Now we have more objective reasons for deciding whether an idea or feature is good or not.
Andrew Kortina
Almost every change we make is a result of feedback in some way, either by watching how people use it or by getting emails about it. When we started a weekly SMS to all our users, we made it super easy to turn it off. We noticed that people who turned it off didn't have any money in their account. But people who do have money in their account, really like getting it. So we tweaked the logic to only send it to people with a balance, and now no one complains about it.
Mike Singleton
For lots of startups, user experience is a luxury. In the early days, Dennis [Crowley, Foursquare's co-founder] did it all. At some point everyone had to pinch hit for that role. We made a lot of crucial tweaks in the ramp up for SXSW, such as button placement, labels, etc., because we knew we'd gain a lot of users there, and it was important to get it right. But we just hired a head of product and UX, Alex Rainert. Now everything is on the table for change.

5. What advice would you give other companies on integrating UX practices?

Paul Graham
Always engage with users.
Nate Westheimer
Find your champion. We are a better company for our user experience-based approach, for giving it a high priority, only because Gabi is a champion. She is almost a policewoman on that front. That's been very good for us. We've relied on the generous sharing and knowledge from experts who share on their blogs, publishing best practices. User experience can be adopted in many different ways, but in large part it's going to get adopted in this early stage by the people who are passionate about it.
Gabi Moore
For startups, you really can't be perfect, you can't afford all of the specialists that are needed to make a really awesome product. But something is always better than nothing. It's just a matter of what that something can be. If you can't have a user experience person on staff, I really like the idea of having a consultant on a regular basis, once a month for a couple hours, to come in, look at your wireframes, look at the decisions you're making—to get someone else's perspective on what you're doing. That's what we got with Lis Hubert. She helped us bring users into the design process. It's so obvious, but it really wasn't there before Lis came in.
The one thing we regret is that we didn't share the process with the developers enough. I think they realize that there's a lot more wireframing and a lot more thought is put into what's going to go where on the page and what features we're going to implement, but I don't know if they know what these decisions are based on.
Andrew Kortina
Listening is the best way to learn. Most of the time listening to what people say isn't going to bring you to the right answer. You also have to watch the behavior and contextualize the patterns you see. Everything that people are saying and everything they're not saying and all the groups of users you have, that helps.
Mike Singleton
There's a certain humbleness everyone needs to have. UX helps you recognize that your instinct is incorrect, and you need to change, and remind yourself, "I don't know everything about everything."
It's hard. If you're really small, you don't have the resources. Once they become available, start doing UX as early as you can. But when you only have three users, but service doesn't work, you should fix the service first. A coffee shop needs to serve good coffee before optimizing table layout.

Thanks so much to Paul, Nate, Gabi, Kortina, and Mike for sharing their thoughts with us. Hopefully this will help you help small companies better understand the value and role of UX, and encourage them to start doing it today.


User Profile

Whitney Hess is an independent user experience design consultant based in New York City, a strategic partner with Happy Cog, and user experience consultant for Boxee, among other startups and major corporations. She helps make stuff easy and pleasurable to use. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and a Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University. She writes about improving the human experience on her blog, Pleasure and Pain and can be reached via Twitter @whitneyhess.

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A necessary ingredient for building a great product is empathy - understanding users and connecting with them so that you can provide something of value to them. In one of my earlier web businesses, we were providing personalized menu-planning tools to address the "what should we cook for dinner" problem. After we build the first version of the site (which were quite proud of), we showed it to many moms and realized how far off-base we were in just about everything : from visual designs (which we didn't think were important), to terminology, to the process we were advocating for addressing the problem.

An essential issue is that startups are often created by geeks or technophiles, and if they are providing services to the population at large (of which they themselves are not representative), they can't help but design the site with their point of view, which invariably does not map to the general customer's point of view. (In the engineering geekie world we would call this an impedance mismatch).

That's actually why we created trymyui.com, to make some usability testing available with minimal hassle and cost to other startups.

Many companies and startups that should be doing this really aren't. I recently wrote a post on Why you should be doing product discovery based on UX design.

I think less startups would fail if they took this approach.

I was interested to read one of the interviewees mention that UX research led them to realise that no one needed the solution their product was offering, so they took another direction altogether.

Doesn't this simply highlight how far we've fallen away from the importance of market and user research at regular intervals during the conception stage?

It's interesting how nebulous the term UX still is. In some cases, people think of it as an additional team member "UX helped us find out who our users were", or as an activity "start doing UX as early as you can".

UX is the outcome of a series of decisions and activities, but isn't an activity in itself. Every website, environment, product has UX. Color choice, button placement, messaging, all influence UX, but the decisions aren't "UX", they're just decisions.

One of the challenges for startups is finding who your users are and how they are using your site.

As a startup you may have some preconceived idea about who your quintessential user is and how they would ideally use your site, but sometimes it could end up being the opposite of what you think. That's why surveying your users is so important - to measure your hypothesis against real world results.

My blogazine: UX Movement

It's great to see proponents of UX within Startup community. While working with Startups, realized many challenges. One of them was integrating UCD with Agile. Have been working with a methodology (User Centered Software Engineering - UCSE) which allows us to build UX into the development process resulting in reduction of time to market and release.