User Experience: 10 questions for every startup.

I attended Boston’s WebInno 28 a couple nights ago, and had a bit of an epiphany. I’ve been talking to a lot of startups lately. I love the enthusiasm, intensity and creativity of an early stage startup, and one of my goals is to help these startups build great user experiences. There’s only one problem. While user experience is one of the key differentiators for web and mobile product success, most startups simply cannot afford to invest big money into the UX function early on. The average tech startup is usually a triad: a business person, a developer, and a (visual or UI) designer. And although more and more designers are acquiring user experience skills, few of them have the training and background to cover the whole user experience lifecycle, from research through implementation.

Does this mean that startups have to wing it when it comes to user experience?  Not necessarily.  As with many things in life, strategy and focus can go a long way toward getting by with less UX.  With this in mind, I’ve created a list of ten questions to guide a startup from its UX infancy all the way into UX kindergarten (baby steps, baby steps). Each question is followed by a list of UX techniques that can be used to get at the answers. Without further ado…

1.  What exactly are we building?

This one would be easy, if it wasn’t for the small fact that as soon as two people start discussing an idea, they will form two slightly divergent versions of what the implementation will actually look like.  Each additional team member will probably bring their own bias, and a slightly different vision. And this is nothing compared to what happens when the idea starts bumping up against business realities. The discipline to be adaptable without sacrificing core value, and the drive to reduce as much ambiguity as possible before development starts in earnest, is paramount.

UX Techniques: brainstorming, gamestorming, requirements prioritization exercises, sketching, low-fidelity prototyping, information architecture, information design.

2.  Will they do what they say they’ll do?

Would you like to take a trip to Japan?  Sure, who wouldn’t?  Would you like to take a trip to Japan next month on the boat I’ve built based on your previous answer? Maybe not. Opinion research is like New Year’s resolutions.  People notoriously overestimate their own likelihood of engaging in an activity or adopting a product (for an entertaining anecdote on the subject, see the story of the Sony boombox). Hence the UX mantra: behavior is king. And a note of caution for innovators: past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior.

UX Techniques: interviews about user goals and needs, contextual research (watch them do it!), market research, competitive research.

3.  How close are we to our target users?

This is a question every startup should ask. Are you your own target users?  Great, then things will be easy, especially at the start. But you might (and probably are not quite) so lucky. The more differences there are between your team and your users, the more research you’ll need to do to make sure your own world view and biases don’t derail you from building an app that actually meets the needs (and capabilities) of your target audience.  Keep in mind that even if you are “building it for yourself”, your insider status and high commitment to the project are going to make you significantly different from casual or novice users, even if you are similar to them in other ways.

UX Techniques: personas, scenarios, stories, storyboards, comics, usability testing.

4.  What’s our core target audience?

Why, of course, it’s men and women between the ages of 18 and 55, and their high school-aged children. Really? Sooner or later you’ll have to accept the sad truth: not everybody wants what you’ve got. But cheer up, there are enough people in this world so that you don’t have to please everybody.  Tip: if you have 2 target audiences (i.e. students and teachers), you may end up with 2 very different design problems.

UX Techniques: structured brainstorming, market research, surveys, personas, anti-personas, scenarios, stories, storyboards, design comics.

5. Is there an echo in here?

Naturally, your team believes you are building something awesome.  You’ve also talked enough about your idea to win over a circle of enthusiasts who are almost as excited about it as you are. These people will become your early adopters. But not so quick… not everybody will love your product from Day 1. Have you thought about what it will take to win over the rest of the world? Considering this now will help you make sure you’re not building a product that’s too niche, or one that doesn’t include persuasive elements to entice the less-than-committed.

UX Techniques: interviews, market research, surveys, personas.

6.  Does our home page tell users what we’ve built?

Does this seem obvious? Maybe, but plenty of home pages have users scratching their head as to what the site is actually all about. Some do this by overwhelming users with too much information up front – others do the opposite by forgetting to provide context. Sure, your home page makes sense to you. You’ve explained it to people hundreds of times. But is it clear to a complete outsider? Is it crystal clear? Don’t assume users know what you know, and don’t depend on them taking the time to learn it. Use the home page to tell your story, a story compelling enough to make people click the signup button.

UX Techniques: usability testing (moderated and unmoderated), information architecture, 5 second test, A/B testing, Google Analytics

7. Are our signup rates great enough?

Face it… you can’t afford to lose users just as they’re getting started. Take a good hard look at your signup process. Are you employing gradual engagement techniques to seamlessly draw users into your user experience, or is your signup process a thinly veiled attempt to extort information in return for the dubious honor of using your site? Make sure that every piece of data you ask users to give up is well justified, and your signup conversion rates will soar.

UX Techniques: analytics, A/B testing, usability testing.

8. Are users engaging with our product?

Congratulations!  You’ve got users, which means that you’ve got data. Now comes the hard part. Are people actually using the site in the way you expected? Better yet, are they delighted? Or are they struggling to understand the conceptual model you were so proud of creating? You might have a hundred ideas for improving the product for the next few releases. Make sure at least some of them have come from watching your actual users, be it in the real world or virtually.

UX Techniques: Moderated Usability Testing, Google Analytics, Unmoderated usability testing, Clicktale, CrazyEgg, other discount analytics/usability tools.

9. Are users remembering us?

Here today, gone tomorrow. Remember that cool site you saw a year ago? You signed up for it, but then you got busy, and well… what was it called again? Being the flavor of the month is not enough. First and foremost, set benchmarks for how often you expect users to come back. And unless you’re Facebook, it’s probably not every day. Then take a look at your stats. Are users repeatedly engaging with your product? Or are they trying it a couple times, never to be heard from again?  If it’s the latter, you have a problem on your hands.

UX Techniques: user cohort analysis, analytics.

10. What’s the payoff?

This one comes down to the very essence of your product. Go through the 5 why’s, starting with “Why should people use our site?”.  Dig deep… Does it make them more efficient? Does it save them money? Does it give them pleasure? Does it make them feel better about themselves? Once you have your answer, look at your site through that lens: is everything you’ve designed working to support your ultimate goal? Have no mercy… Making a product better often requires removing features.

UX Techniques: brainstorming, gamestorming, design lenses, A/B testing.

Bonus question

This one comes courtesy of Jared Spool:  What will your site look like 5 years from now?

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