User Experience in Startups, Part I: Challenges and Realities

February 4, 2013

Making a fresh start with a new organization is always an exciting time, isn’t it? Especially when that organization is a startup. During your interviews with the startup, you didn’t just tell them about your approach to user experience and your past work experiences, you were already evaluating the problem they were working to solve, trying to decide what potential the company really has. Before you even began working in the startup, you were thinking about the customers and what their current experience is or could be. You were already sold on the startup’s vision and their product’s market potential—and the whole company was growing.

The startup had made it this far without a dedicated UX professional, but it was time for someone to step in—to begin creating a process framework that would evolve healthily over time and help the company produce amazing user experiences.

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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.

The developers’ focus is now on implementing a long list of enhancements to the user interface and improving performance. They are busy. In terms of user experience, they’re likely making ad hoc enhancements to solve glaring and highly visible problems. At this stage, startups rarely call in UX professionals. Although they may occasionally hire some freelance help to help them articulate a design solution. But this happens infrequently. Only a few startups have the capital and the desire to spend it on UX design activities.

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.

Leadership Opportunities

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.

Challenging Realities

So, the startup has finally opened its doors to User Experience by hiring a UX Designer who comes in fresh and energetic, looking to make a major impact on the organization and its product. Unfortunately, as a UX Designer, you can face serious headwinds in trying to successfully move a startup through the necessary stages of the UX design process. This is particularly true beyond the initial engagement phase—after the honeymoon is over. In your role as a UX Designer, you’ll experience numerous challenging moments that call on you to compromise your professional ethos and certainly test your ability to keep focused on users and their needs. These challenges stem from several key issues that become evident rather rapidly during a UX design project at a startup.

User Experience Can Be a Major Disruptor

Introducing a UX Designer to a product team also introduces a more defined UX design framework and methodology to the organization. Since a startup has been doing business in a certain way up until now, your presence disrupts their usual way of doing things. This means you face all of the issues that emerge when change occurs in an organization. All of the numerous people with whom you interact as a UX Designer will have to adapt to your new methodology and change how they communicate with you and others.

Not everyone in the organization is going to get it and rush to sign up to follow your new approach right away. You’ll have to educate people about user experience and communicate its benefits. And people won’t really believe in the value that User Experience provides until they see it, so that means you have to show them. Change doesn’t occur overnight. Realistically, it takes a team’s working together on several projects—often over the duration of half a year or more—to evolve and mature processes effectively. I’m sure you can see the challenge here.

An Unclear Hierarchy of Decision Makers

During the UX design process, you must continually make decisions, often between competing alternatives and sometimes involving compromises. Additionally, many of the changes that User Experience brings to a startup affect how the company is run—not just users’ experience of the company’s product. However, due to their genesis, startups aren’t exactly traditional decision-making environments. Often, decisions in startups get made through round-table discussions, which is manageable only when the number of people participating is small. So, this approach has its limits—particularly once an organization has grown.

Unfortunately, startups rarely instantiate formal hierarchies of decision makers—even when they need them. For a UX Designer entering a new space, this situation can be difficult to assess. It takes some time to understand the nuances of decision making and leadership in the organization. Even when there are dedicated team leaders, who makes what decisions on a team is often unclear.

Additionally, startups are often rife with executive decisions that supersede any work in progress, prior internal consultation, or reason. These are perhaps the most frustrating events for a UX Designer working in a startup. They’re painful and make life in a startup more difficult to navigate.

Unclear Role Boundaries

It’s likely that the startup has involved all hands on deck in various types of activities—until some recent point in their history. The boundaries between roles may be fuzzy and unclear. For example, a Product Manager may be leading business development and marketing. A User Interface Designer may also be the Creative Lead. How do you tell a Product Manager that he can stop doing detailed wireframes when that’s all he’s been using to communicate for a year or more?

As the UX Designer, you’ll need to be significantly more aware in your assessment of who does what and when. This isn’t necessarily problematic, unless others’ roles have encroached further into UX activities than you’d expected. Solving this problem requires your knowing how to communicate specifically what your role is and being able to connect with each individual to provide clarity around that.

Poor Communication!

Isn’t this always the culprit? Poor communication lies at the center of all problems in any organization, and startups are no different. The only element of this that is shocking at a startup is that you can actually see everyone in the company if you just stand up!

The problem with poor communication is that, to get your job done effectively, you have to chase people around to get the information you need, check on their progress, and anticipate their needs rather than their telling you what they are. In other words, you have to constantly nag people for the sake of making progress. But who really likes to be that way? Nagging can further entrench the parties with whom you need to collaborate and often breeds contempt. Sometimes, you can resolve this problem by level-setting, but often you can’t, ever.

Expectation Mismatches

Another significant challenge occurs when the startup ends up having a view that’s different from yours regarding how they need you to work within the organization. This is a serious issue—from both a personal and a professional standpoint. You initially agreed to a certain level of engagement and particular activities and have been working to create a design framework and a set of processes that map to that understanding. If a gap emerges—and it can emerge over time—that’s a serious challenge to navigate.

From where might this mismatch emerge? Several places. The first is that many startups have thought only about near-term initiatives and projects, with the idea that they would just have you do the same over the long-term. But it’s rare for a startup to have the same needs they initially had for User Experience six months later on. Perhaps they need more; perhaps they need less. In either case, their needs and expectations have changed.

Second, because a startup’s goals are frequently in flux, there could be a significant shift in the ratio of strategic versus maintenance-level UX effort. While the opportunity may have started off with a greater focus on strategic activities, it may have then quickly changed to your doing more ongoing maintenance and enhancement work. This is particularly problematic if an organization courted a more senior-level UX Designer, whose work is now not so senior. Manageable for a time? Sure. Career opportunity? Maybe not.

Finally, the needs of the person who hired you—and the team that he represents—may ultimately be different from those of the other teams with whom you’ll be working. Perhaps the Product Manager hired you to help him communicate more effectively with the Development team, but the Marketing team sees your user-research skills as being more critical to the organization. This could become a real source of frustration.

Resource Constraints

Startups don’t have all the money in the world. Even though they may be well funded, they often have to make compromises on talent, time, process, and so on. In other words, expect that you often won’t have the ability to accomplish what would be best. For example, there is only so much research that you can accumulate to inform your decisions. There are only so many design problems that you can solve at once and only so many developers who can implement your solutions.

Access to resources lies at the center of every decision that gets made in a startup, which often means that things just have to go. Keeping this is mind, expect that you won’t fulfill many of the goals that you initially wanted to achieve—whether on a specific project or looking at your goals at a holistic level.

Challenges, Not Failures

My intent is not to paint a bleak picture here. These are just challenges, not failures. In fact, together, they represent everything that defines the thrill of working in a startup. As a UX Designer, you can navigate startup environments and their cultures with aplomb and demonstrate the expertise that they hired you to bring. But it can often be a difficult and frustrating journey—with the potential for massive failure. More objectively, you could simply view these challenges as risks to success—for the startup and for yourself.

Two Critical Factors

However, there are two critical factors that directly shape how successful an engagement with a startup can be for a UX Designer. The first is the maturity of the organization’s development processes. Since User Experience inherently sits at the nexus of Development, Design, Marketing, Business, and leadership, the maturity of the internal dynamics between those groups affects how smoothly a project can progress. Those dynamics determine how well teams work with each other, the clarity and effectiveness of communications between different teams, and the effectiveness of recognized decision protocols.

Many varieties of development processes can be effective for a startup, but the models that better fit User Experience typically center around tight-knit, design-oriented, problem-solving teams. This structure provides a sound, collaborative model that is characterized by a higher level of engagement through persistent and informal communication. Startups that have more programmatic, siloed, formal communication programs have a tendency to fail, because goals remain encapsulated in their cells, leading to collisions between teams at critical times.

The second critical factor is simply the amount of work an organization has to accomplish. After a UX Designer’s major, initial push, if there is little work to engage him or her, this is going to be problematic. Once the project is in Development’s hands, if there is nothing else to work on, the UX Designer essentially goes fallow. This problem is particularly endemic to startups with single-channel products—for example, for Web or mobile. It’s less of a problem at startups that have integrated Web, mobile, and tablet apps. This is an important factor to be aware of.

Assess the Conditions

All in all, startups represent exciting opportunities for UX professionals to practice their craft and directly mold an exciting product or user experience. Plus, a UX Designer has the opportunity to be a leader and help a startup successfully evolve and mature their internal processes.

Personally, I’ve had both awful and amazing experiences working at startups. (Yes, full disclosure: I’ve worked at several startups.) The point is: there are conditions that both already exist and that will emerge later on that can contribute to how awful or how amazing the experience of working for a startup can be. Assessing and understanding what those conditions are in a startup is an important exercise that you should undertake before agreeing to work there—both for your own sake and that of the startup.

What’s next, in Part 2 of this series? I’ll present practices and approaches for working in startups that can either limit the potential for success or limit the risk of failure. 

Director, Experience Strategy & Design

New York, New York, USA

Sasha GiacoppoAn experienced UX designer, consultant, and strategist, Sasha leads companies through the journey that is design. While providing design solutions is at the core of his consulting engagements, he also helps organizations leverage his intensive design engagements to rapidly evolve innovation processes and enact organizational change. His work experiences with both large corporations and startups have spanned the globe. Sasha has a PhD in Administration, Leadership, and Technology from New York University, where his work focused on technology-enabled communities of learning.  Read More

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