You spent your first week speaking with key stakeholders, learning the business, grasping the vision, and understanding how the company would execute it. You kicked off some research, which excited everyone because you asked different questions than they had asked before. You moved on to hosting design workshops, whiteboarding solutions, and creating new and exciting concepts. Everyone was involved and working collaboratively.
But then, gradually, your situation seemed to become a lot fuzzier. Little things went awry—like others having a meeting without you. Or maybe the visual design team just showed up with a new design, and you had no clue where it came from. And worse, it doesn’t map to your designs, at all. Hmm… Perhaps, all of a sudden, the product manager thinks he’s a UX expert, too. That’s interesting. This is obviously someone that you, as the UX professional, have often worked with most closely. You’ve viewed him as your partner in collaboration and relied heavily on him during design reviews. But he’s not there to dictate the user experience, right? Then, someone develops what you’ve designed. It is far from your vision—but that doesn’t surprise you. After all, you and the developer have rarely met.
Before you knew it, your process, communication, and progress began to unravel. What happened?
Part 1 of this series of articles addresses the realities of a UX professional working in a startup, while Part 2 will present best practices and effective approaches to working in startup environments.
When and Why Startups Dial in on User Experience
What happened here is not an atypical experience for a UX professional entering a startup. While startups offer some of the most exciting and rewarding opportunities for UX designers to fully execute their craft, they also represent some of the most challenging environments in which to achieve success. What are the reasons for these challenges? How can you overcome them—if you can at all? What can you, as a UX designer, personally change about your approach to adapt better to working in a startup? And is it worth it?
The Startup Maturation Cycle
To understand how User Experience fits into a startup, it is critical that you understand the startup maturation cycle. While each startup has its own story, they all typically progress through the same stages. It is essential that you understand the personnel dynamics, the startup’s need for UX design, and its immediate business objectives and constraints at each stage.
At the beginning, a startup typically comprises several founders—its visionaries. In a software startup, one or two of the founders are likely developers. The main goal at this stage is simply to execute on anything. The business goal is to create something that will attract an initial set of users and provide a nascent experiential proposition, which the startup can then leverage to obtain funding. Even when startups are well funded from the beginning, they hire mostly development talent who work to create the product user experience. There is no User Experience here. The founders’ vision and the specific talents and expertise of the developers determine the product’s user experience.
By the time a startup’s product launches, they may have added several more people—perhaps including a Sales or Business-Development Manager and a Marketing Specialist. Once the product has launched, their focus is on attracting a core set of initial users.
Growth and Expansion
Post launch, the company hopefully begins to grow and attract users. More important, the company is learning. They are learning about customer behavior, speaking with customers, and trying to understand whether they’re on the right path or need to pivot—as many startups inevitably do. The company’s main objectives now are to continue making enhancements and satisfy customers’ growing demands.
The startup is still small, with less than 15 people max, and everyone is collaborating very closely and contributing to the product. The fact that the team probably works within arms’ distance of each other breeds a certain level of dynamic, informal communication that leads to rapid problem solving. There is really no hierarchy other than who started the company and who didn’t.
If the startup has had significant success from a customer-engagement standpoint—financials are another story—it has successfully raised money to hire more employees. This is where startups generally go from 15 employees all the way up to 50. They hire more marketing, creative, support-staff, and development talent. They also fill in some new management roles. Now, the company’s main goals are driving revenue and acquiring users. Everyone is focused on these goals. From a cultural standpoint, the company has also evolved into something different from what it was at the start. Before, it was the gang. Now, departments are emerging.
This is a critical point where distance between teams emerges—both literally and figuratively. The number of UX initiatives expands, and the startup realizes that, now that it’s becoming bigger, winging it is going to get them only so far. So, this is often when an early-stage startup seeks UX expertise. It’s also a highly challenging time to enter a startup because the pace is really quite frenetic, and the need for a UX designer is more tactical and immediate. Yet, it’s also the time when the executive and management teams are starting to think longer term. If they are seeking UX professionals to help them plot out the future, it can be an exciting time to join.
Version 2.0 and Beyond
Startups most typically seek UX professionals when they embark upon Version 2.0 of their product. This is when a startup is hitting the ceiling in terms of relying on their Product, Development, and Graphic Design teams to manifest a coherent and innovative user experience. The product has become more complex and has more features and functionality that need to be better integrated. It likely looks like it’s been roughly stitched together and is literally bursting at the seams. So, Version 1.0 of the product has reached the limits of its viability for the business, and the company is ready to corral the resources to do a major reset and create Version 2.0.
At this juncture, the startup also will have convinced investors to fund it further, so it’s a big moment for the company. They are now going to invest in a UX professional, maybe you, to make it happen.
One reason for bringing in User Experience is that the Development team needs a more detailed blueprint. The informal approach may generally have worked well so far, but now it is apparent that they need more specialized expertise to visually communicate a user experience’s structure and workflow. Unfortunately, a startup’s awareness that they need wireframes is typically the full extent of their understanding of the need for UX expertise. Their lack of understanding regarding how User Experience could fully contribute to the startup’s success is a fundamental source of problems in the relationship between a UX Designer and a startup.
At the other end of the spectrum, the need for User Experience can often fall victim to what is sometimes called the Golden Unicorn Syndrome. Essentially, the startup—or at least the parties driving the hiring—look to a UX Designer to instantiate an entirely new process, lead a new project or initiative, design amazing experiences, perform user research, act as a thought leader, and so on and so forth. The view is that the mere presence of this unicorn will make everything in the company better and, in many ways, be responsible for the success of the business. While it’s not bad to have a company so heavily invested in User Experience, the reality is that there are many other factors that contribute to a company’s success—more than just one role. Again, this can create problematic false assumptions and expectations.
Startups, at this stage, are also more acutely aware of the need for top talent, because in such a small organization, talent issues can directly impact a company’s success. So, if the company has a good UX budget, they’ll try to bring in some serious expertise. Part of that recruiting activity means selling the company to potential hires. This is also a point where there is high potential for a disconnect between what a UX Designer can and wants to provide for the company and what the startup truly needs.
Understanding the stage of maturity through which a startup is currently progressing is key to assessing its real need for User Experience, as well as the potential of the opportunity as a career-enhancing experience. Additionally, it will help provide some clarity on the potential pitfalls that could define the relationship between a UX Designer and a startup.
The Attractions of Startups for UX Designers
What is the specific attraction that startups have for UX Designers—knowing that they are highly dynamic, fluid, and unpredictable environments? Well, that’s just it. Going from working in the more rigid, highly process-oriented, traditional UX groups at larger, established corporations to the complete lack of structure or constraints that is often characteristic of startups can really expand the range of your UX career experience.
While working in more mature UX departments can provide more stable, consistent opportunities to exercise your trade—while earning a reliable paycheck—there can often be extensive levels of management and decision making that make being a UX Designer a challenging affair. (And it’s not just working in those more traditional environments where you may have this experience. You may encounter the same issues working in any sort of agency or with clients when on consulting engagements.) So, when you, as a UX Designer, look over the fence into a startup, there are several key attractors.
Full Engagement with Your Craft
In a startup, you can be directly involved with the product, at every stage of the process—from conception to release. The opportunity to apply all of your training, expertise, and wisdom throughout the entire lifecycle of a product is particularly attractive. If you enjoy the craft of user experience, you truly enjoy working with all of the various teams and inputs. You love guiding the client through the journey. It’s exciting work! And in a startup, there’s a greater possibility that the final product will really have your stamp on it.
Higher Degrees of Collaboration
The interactions you have with others during the product development process are another rewarding part of working in a startup. Startups typically provide the opportunity to work directly with other designers, product managers, developers, executives, sales, and business development—all in close quarters, in a rapid decision-making environment. Learning from domain experts while working in close collaboration with them during intense design workshops can be exceptionally rewarding.
The fact that you might be the sole UX professional at a startup means there is a higher opportunity for exercising leadership—on many levels. You have substantial—if not sole—ownership of UX decisions, so it is your responsibility to ensure that the product provides a great user experience. Leadership and ownership of user experience also mean that you have direct responsibility for either establishing or evolving the startup’s processes to ensure that they are both user centered and effective for the organization. Being able to shape the company’s product and processes can be a very rewarding and career-benefiting experience, particularly if the company becomes successful.
Sneakers and Ping-Pong
Finally, a startup is a fun atmosphere in which to work. There’s no business casual. No crappy cafeteria. At startups, you can wear what you want, generally get free beer at least once a week, and have an opportunity to flex your ping-pong skills. You can even bring your dog to work! Who wouldn’t like that? Few. But in reality, this is an important contributor to the perception that, in startups, there is substantial creative and professional freedom.
Startups provide numerous opportunities. They are the opposite of the large, multilayered bureaucracies in which many often feel their careers can get stale. However, the basic attraction to startups is that there is ample creative flexibility that you can exercise in how you approach user experience. This provides a UX professional with the potential for a highly rewarding opportunity to personally make a mark on a product or service user experience—or even the company.