User Experience in Startups, Part II: An Approach for Success

March 18, 2013

In Part I of my series of articles on user experience in startups, I discussed the challenges and realities of being a UX professional in a startup. Now, in Part II, I’ll present an approach that UX designers can take to ensure a successful engagement with a startup.

Taking the Right Approach

One question you should always get answered before committing to a UX design consulting engagement—or any job opportunity for that matter—is: “How well would I fit in here?” It’s essential to determine not only that you’ll have the opportunity to flex your skills and do your job, but also how well you’ll fit into the organization’s culture and, particularly, how well you’ll be able to work together with other team members on your project. An important question of a more business-oriented nature is: “What would be the best approach to help the startup create innovative solutions?” Of course, both personally and professionally, you need to know that you’re going to be able to do what the job requires and have the latitude to craft great solutions for the business and their customers.

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To do great work, rather than taking a relatively passive approach—in which your primary concern is fulfilling the requirements of your job’s role—you’ll have to take a more aggressive, critical, and potentially disruptive approach and be a truly engaged consultant. To leverage intensive design initiatives and move the company forward quickly, you’ll need to inject your consulting engagement with certain attitudes and behaviors that enable you to do this successfully.

UX and Development

When working with technology startups, it’s important first to understand how User Experience generally fits into contemporary development models. It’s essential to understand how the development team currently creates products, interacts with the business and leadership teams, and manifests their vision.

Startups usually employ either agile or waterfall development methods. There are extensive resources that elaborate on both of these approaches, but in general, agile development teams employ rapid, iterative, task-oriented sprints, while waterfall development is more linear, with each activity having heavy dependencies on the completion of previous actions. Most startups gravitate toward an agile development model, primarily because agile is better suited to smaller, proximal teams and allows startups to iterate and improve more rapidly.

Recently, the lean startup movement has emerged and become quite popular for its ability to get to a sound MVP (Minimum Viable Product) quickly. The lean approach involves challenging assumptions and rapidly creating a testable product from which a team can learn, then quickly iterating. This approach has also drawn a lot of interest for development projects whose focus is introducing new features and incorporating enhancements into existing products.

Unfortunately, all of these are development-centric models, so they aren’t wholly in alignment with user-centered design methods. Often, lean and agile methods squeeze UX design in wherever and whenever it fits—and not always comfortably so. Other UXmatters authors have addressed the issues of this ongoing debate—for example, “When Agile and User Experience Click” and “Is UX Strategy Fundamentally Incompatible with Agile or Lean UX?” But I would like to add that an effective way of making a startup more user centered is to judge what are the best UX practices for a specific development environment, then flexibly organize them into a suitable approach for that startup.

Three Best Practices

A UX design consultant’s goal should be to inject as much user-centrism into a startup’s strategic and tactical approaches as possible, while ensuring that there is a good fit between user-centric design practices and the existing development approaches. That said, three UX best practices that are essential to achieving user-centrism are prototyping, collaborative design sessions, and user research.


Developing robust, interactive prototypes is a win-win-win proposition for a startup. For development, prototyping provides a means of rapidly laying down code, addressing technical constraints, and establishing a substantial platform from which to launch subsequent development activities. Prototyping also fits naturally into agile and lean environments, because it’s possible to build a prototype in a shorter period of time than it would take to build a full version of a product.

Creating a prototype lets a UX designer place users in front of a real product, with real interactions, and real consequences. Learning from a prototype is paramount and informs design going forward. For the business, prototyping is a tool for validating objectives, getting close to customers earlier, and saving time and frustration in the long run by spending more time on design early in the development cycle. Thus, prototyping provides critical intelligence for which a team would otherwise have to wait much longer. Everybody wins here.

Collaborative Design Sessions

Corralling key members of a multidisciplinary product team from across the organization to quickly solve UX design problems during collaborative design sessions—and doing so on a frequent basis—keeps everyone connected, communicating, and focused on problem-solving. Beyond the basic benefits of actually dedicating time to solving design problems, often these sessions reveal other, previously unknown issues. From a UX perspective, this mitigates the chances of a project- and morale-crushing surprise springing up later on during a project. Plus, collaborative design helps a team leverage the diversity of talent within the organization.

The more frequent these collaborative design sessions occur, the more informal they can be—making them an integral part of the development process rather than their being constrained by team members’ conflicting schedules. People won’t want to miss these sessions, so they’ll end up scheduling around them instead of making excuses. As everyone engages more and more in these sessions, they’ll learn about each other’s needs, so they’ll be able to anticipate what they need to communicate to others and when. These sessions are really a critical aspect of collaboration within and between teams.

A Robust User Research Program

Usability testing is a high-value activity that benefits everyone in the company by helping them identify problems and make necessary improvements. Some startups will already be engaged in some kind of usability testing activities. Most likely, you’ll be able to amp these up, broaden them, and make them a more central and sought-after aspect of the development process. In fact, doing this is a UX designer’s duty! The mantra here is: Test anytime, anywhere. This might mean doing anything from going guerilla with lo-fi prototypes on a street corner to setting up more formal usability testing sessions in a lab.

User research should be a multifaceted program, with extensive touchpoints and ongoing activities across the development process and the organization. Define your user research program and communicate its benefits. A robust program often touches many different teams at different times, so you must articulate needs and benefits to the right parties. Fortunately, every team can find value in some type of user research.

Leverage a startup’s existing user research activities. Marketing and sales teams gather and analyze data all the time; get that data! This can be as simple as asking them to hand over what they have or as effortful as guiding them in new directions. Development teams have analytics data, keep error logs, and use heatmapping tools. All of this is useful data. If a startup doesn’t have this data, suggest that they expand their efforts to gather and analyze useful data going forward. They’ll most likely be glad to help. You can usually create some kind of user research program at a minimal cost.

The Intensive Design Initiative

Simply introducing any of these UX best practices into a startup will evolve its development process. But to truly achieve the goal of centering a startup’s development process around creating captivating user experiences, you need to take a highly impactful approach that joins these three best practices together: the intensive design initiative, a four-to-eight week burst of focused, concentrated, collaborative design.

When leading an intensive design initiative, you’ll define the organization’s biggest, most urgent, most complex need, then progress through multiple, rapid iterations of ideation, design, research, prototyping, and development. An intensive design initiative is basically like a dozen brainstorming and design workshops rolled into one program. It’s a high-energy, high-output, exhausting experience, but because an intensive design initiative combines all of the best UX practices, it’s the best way to achieve a user-centric development approach in a small company. It provides extensive and immediate value to the business, customers, and a startup’s various teams.

Pursuing an intensive design initiative generally follows a four-step process:

  1. Redefine the problem.
  2. Focus your design effort.
  3. Elaborate on and test your design concept.
  4. Prototype your design solution.

1. Redefine the problem.

By the time they hire a UX professional, most startups—and especially their CEOs—have a list of requirements in hand and a clear idea of what they want to build. However, the first goal of an intensive design initiative is to take a step back and focus on critically re-examining the problem itself. You should lead a deconstruction of the problem, leveraging the knowledge and talents of all the people in the room. This first step is crucial—not only for the benefits of a fresh reinvestigation of the problem, but also because going through this process commits key participants to taking on the challenge of solving the problem, both now and in the future.

2. Focus your design effort.

First, decide what facets of the user experience it is essential to design during the intensive design initiative—and what you can exclude, at least for the present. Picture a room with about six people drawing on a whiteboard and engaged in a heated discussion. The scope starts wide, but narrows until you’ve agreed on two or three paths to explore during collaborative ideation. This exploration is a fun time, during which the more structured business and technical types do a creative dance with design—all helping each other to create design concepts as a team

3. Elaborate on and test your design concept.

Your next goal is to validate your primary conceptual directions, then choose one primary design path that you want to pursue as a team. Through collaborative design, you’ll create progressively more refined design iterations. You’ll also do guerilla research, validation, and testing to help you make better-informed design decisions. While the input is quick and dirty, it will dramatically assist you in moving decision-making forward. Depending on your available time and resources, the output of this step may be either a very lo-fi design or a more refined design concept. The key here is to be lean, be fast, and learn quickly.

4. Prototype your design solution.

Finally, the members of the UX team—which may include UX designers, a visual designer, a researcher, and a prototyper—work together to iterate on their solution to the design problem and create a prototype. There should be very frequent check-ins with and reviews by the other team members who participated in the earlier phases. The pace is still fast, but the design and prototyping work does require some heads-down time.

To make rapid progress, you can repeat this same four-step process over and over to solve other design problems. In the end, the team will have created and tested a viable, fully functional prototype that—though limited in scope—can serve as the foundation for the design and development of the full product.

Many agencies follow a process that is similar to this intensive design initiative when kicking off their client engagements. And many companies, large and small, take similar approaches. Doing an intensive design initiative is an especially effective approach when the goal is to create a fully functional prototype that can serve as the foundation for a product. For a startup, this prototype will be the bedrock of the user experience. All future enhancements and iterations will spring from the prototype.

Benefits of an Intensive Design Initiative

When intensive design workshops include key stakeholders from the design, technology, and business teams, solving problems together in a fast-paced, productive manner, the thinking of the team quickly coalesces. Such workshops engage all team members in the crafting of a design solution from the beginning, increasing their investment in the project’s success. And since everyone is right there, there’s no danger of anyone getting left out of the loop.

This approach breaks down the walls that can slowly build up between disciplines over time, meets the differing needs of team members in various roles, and instills renewed interest in collaborating, as well as communicating informally, with other team members.

Plus, an intensive design workshop provides particular benefits to specific stakeholders, as follows:

  • For development and technology—A workshop brings developers closer to the early stages of a project, giving them an opportunity to communicate technological constraints and considerations. Even if the workshop captures only their key, top-level considerations, it will save them time and hassle later on, during the development phase.
  • For UX professionals—An intensive design workshop leverages UX knowledge and input from the beginning of a project—rather than our impact being limited because we’re brought in too late. A workshop can give us tremendous insights into the user experience, especially when actual users directly touch the products of our labor.
  • For sales and marketing—These stakeholders have direct contact with customers. Bringing them into a workshop provides a direct channel to those customers. Having their unique perspective on and understanding of customers is incredibly valuable when designing user experiences. Their participation also helps align Sales and Marketing’s future activities around user experience—for example, they may come to us with unsolicited customer intelligence.
  • For executives—An intensive design workshop allows executives to shape the product directly—just as they envision it. However, rather than by edict, they do this through engagement with the team. A workshop can provide a forum for others to refine or even challenge their ideas.

To benefit from doing a workshop, do you have to be working on a new product? No. You can hold a workshop to solve key problems with an existing product or service—such as poor navigation or feature creep. Obviously, this approach is not applicable to solving small issues. (If a company is hiring a UX professional to solve maintenance design issues, this should be a red flag for your joining the team.)

The intensive design initiative can provide an effective framework for creating design solutions throughout a startup’s ongoing maturation. This is a very effective approach for placing User Experience at the center of an organization’s product development process where it can be most successful.


Despite all of these benefits, there is one major challenge in taking this approach: it is disruptive. Many companies who follow the traditional requirements-to-development approach will find adopting the newer, less linear intensive design initiative quite challenging. It can be a loose, often circular process with a lack of concrete deliverables.

Following this process requires a high degree of trust in the outcomes of a fluid creative exercise, without there being clearly defined objectives to meet. This approach changes how people work on a daily basis, too, and requires a good amount of time and commitment to get off the ground. In other words, it changes everything. Change angers a lot of people, so you can expect high levels of resistance and drama. You have to be prepared for that.

The design sessions themselves may be choppy and awkward. You’ll have to lead people through the journey, which means facilitating collaboration and communication. Beyond the design sessions, you’ll need an extraordinary amount of communication to keep the project running smoothly. You’ll feel like you’re a project manager, trying to get everyone sharing information and focusing on the design challenge.

But in the end, you can realize a great outcome and some of your team members will have become believers. Your team’s next workshop will be smoother and more engaging.

Acting Like a Consultant

How can you even get to doing an intensive design initiative? How can you convince the person hiring you that they should embark on such a journey? Once a startup has contacted you regarding a specific job, it all starts at the interview.

Instead of just trying to get the job, you can be more effective in the long run if you’re clear about your not being there just to lay out some wireframes. Your goal is to help the startup create fresh, usable user experiences. You can achieve this goal only if the team employs a user-centric development model.

Persuading the team to follow your approach means acting like a consultant, which begins with your evaluating the startup’s current process, then coming up with a plan for evolving their process. Getting the startup to accept your plan may not be an easy sale. It’s really about communicating the message: Help me help you. At the very least, treating the interview as an assessment of the startup will help you determine its UX maturity.

Assess the Situation: Ask Questions

During the interview, what should you ask? Ask questions that help you form an accurate picture of the company’s history, its current state, and its desired, future state—in both an operational and a financial sense. You’ll also want to assess whether and why they need User Experience and what contextual challenges there would be in introducing User Experience to the startup. Here are some good questions to ask to ensure an engaging discussion:

  • Questions about user experience:
    • Why does your company need User Experience, and why now?
    • Why are you looking for a UX designer, and why now?
    • What do you know about the practice of user experience and its methods?
    • Have you ever worked with a UX designer before? If so, how did that turn out?
    • What do you expect the UX designer to achieve?
    • Do you need to engage the UX designer for a specific initiative or for ongoing work?
  • Questions about teams and processes:
    • Tell me about how you currently go from an idea through development to launch.
    • Is your current development approach working for you? Why or why not?
    • When do key stakeholders engage in the development process? How frequent is their involvement once a project progresses deeper into design and development?
    • How will I be interacting with the CEO or founder?
    • How does the company approach user research, including analytics? Do you see the UX designer owning that?
  • Questions about organizational challenges:
    • What are the biggest threats to the success of this startup?
    • What are the primary operational problems with this company?
    • Be honest: can they be solved?
    • Do you think User Experience can help solve them?
  • Questions about financial stability:
    • Is the company making a profit?
    • What’s the burn rate?
    • How much runway does the company have based on its current finances?
    • How many employees are there in the company?
    • Have there been any significant rounds of layoffs in the past year?

These questions will help you to assess the current state of the startup and create your plan for the intensive design workshop you intend to implement for the startup. These questions may seem aggressive and prying, but if a startup isn’t willing to—or can’t—answer them honestly, you should be seeing major red flags in regard to how much or whether you can help the company. Have a look at another UXmatters article, “Positive Design Impact, for more great questions to ask a client.

Maintain the Right Attitude and Behaviors

Evolving an organization’s development approach to make it more user centric is never easy. The value in doing so is real, but convincing a startup of that will require more than just facts. The amount of energy you inject into the process, each individual action you take, and your attitude are other critical parts of the equation. First, you need to sell the approach, then you need to maintain its momentum, and once your initial intensive design initiative has occurred, keeping the team engaged in the process is critical to your success. Now, I’ll discuss some key elements of success.

Check in Often

You’ll obviously interact most with key team members who are participating in the intensive design workshops. But you should also casually check in with other people in the startup often—to keep them engaged in and informed of your activities. This gets them thinking about the user experience more, reminds them that you are essentially its keeper, and encourages them to come to you when they think of something relating to the user experience.

Be Empathetic

Having empathy for users and customers is a core value for UX designers. It can and should drive how and why we engage in the practice of user experience. In her blog, Whitney Hess, who wrote the UXmatters column Client Matters, offers some great perspectives on the role of empathy—both within and outside the profession of user experience. You should have empathy for your coworkers, too. Take the time to walk in your coworkers’ shoes, and you’ll be able to communicate more cogently with them, as well as make better professional and personal connections with them that will make your job easier down the road.

Anticipate Needs

One way of practicing empathy is anticipating other team members’ needs. This means knowing when you should reach out to them and regarding what issues. Being able to anticipate others’ needs is an immensely helpful skill and making this effort helps you, too. When you know you should communicate about an issue or engage with someone, without being told, you’ll get the answers you need—but even better, you’ll build reciprocal relationships with other people, who will begin to anticipate when you, as the UX designer, need to know something. Think about that. People will come to you to divulge critical information that impacts the user experience. This is collaboration at it’s finest, and it can start simply with your being considerate.

Sell Your Approach

In the end, your customer will typically be Development, so you’ll need to sell your approach to them—unless you’re best friends with the CEO. This means selling your approach as a development process rather than a design process. You’ll scare fewer people off and be better able to target the people who feel the greatest ownership in building the actual product or service.

Helping the Startup to Be a Startup

The startup will benefit from your engagement with them, and the design workshops you lead will change the company for the better. Your goal is not just to fill a role, but to help the company create great products that can emerge only from a sound development approach. However, the startup may initially be capable of seeing only so much value in hiring you as a UX designer—let alone as a consultant—so you must make your value to the company clear by communicating and doing the following:

  • Establish better processes.
  • Reduce risk.
  • Keep everyone’s eye on the ball.
  • Help the business to scale.
  • Help the business to keep acting like a startup.

Establish Better Processes

Not only are you going to help the organization to evolve and take a more user-centric approach, your approach will improve collaboration and communication. If they give you the freedom to do so, you can bring teams together in ways that will contribute directly to the success of the company. Better processes deliver speed and quality.

Reduce Risk

With a more user-centric approach—including an expanded program of generative user research and usability testing—you can mitigate the risk of the product failing, and therefore, the risk of the failure of the business itself. When a company builds a product based on input from users and customers, there is much less risk.

Keep Everyone’s Eye on the Ball

Your evolved development approach will keep the startup focused on the most important thing: its customers. There seems to be a centrifugal force that throws companies off target. As a UX designer, you can help the company to return their unerring focus to designing solutions for their customers.

Help the Business to Scale

The key benefits of the approach I’ve presented here—prototyping, collaborative design, and a robust user research program—provide a foundation for process scalability. If the startup does indeed succeed and grow—launching more products and initiatives—it will need to multiply the number of people working within the framework you’ve provided. But the processes themselves will scale. The startup will experience less anguish trying to figure things out going forward.

Help the Business to Keep Acting Like a Startup

Finally, and most important, the user-centric framework that you’ve provided—and that the startup will instantiate as they grow—will help the startup keep behaving like a startup. This is immensely valuable. As many startups mature, they lose the fire and energy that they once had. Often, maturing startups become complacent and start behaving like big, established companies. All too often, this has already happened by the time a startup finally hires a UX designer. But a UX designer can dramatically alter the culture of a startup and return to it the entrepreneurial ethos that was the foundation of the company’s early success.


Evolving a startup’s development process, leading an intensive design initiative, constantly assuaging team members’ egos while trying to focus on customers, and convincing a startup to let you do all of this in the first place is a huge challenge. Taking this risk in presenting yourself to a new client may not work, and you may not get the engagement. Some hiring managers might take this as a major affront to their reputation. Some will think you’re absolutely crazy.

But if you don’t approach a startup in this way or you can’t get the company to buy into adopting the intensive design initiative, there’s a higher likelihood that the whole engagement will crumble. If, after your assessment, you discover that the startup really just needs some maintenance work, that’s fine—maybe they don’t need a full-time UX designer. If you do take the risk of approaching a startup in this way, at the very least, you’ll avoid your possibly having to endure months of agony and distress in the end. At best, you’ll lead a company to great success. It’s worth a shot. 

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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