Staying Focused on User Experience as a Nimble Start-up

For a young company there is value in being nimble.  Being nimble means you can test business ideas and adjust your business model based on early feedback. This often includes shifting the product focus, injecting new critical features, or involving members of the product team in customer-facing demos at a moment’s notice.

There is also value in delivering great user experience to your early customers.  Customers value a great experience whether a company has been around for 100 years or is new to the scene. By creating a great user experience, early customers will recognize a company’s commitment to their success and remain loyal when satisfied.

Being nimble and delivering great user experience shouldn’t be at odds; It is possible to deliver both speed and great experiences if you keep these tips in mind:

Make someone responsible for the product experience immediately.

A great product experience requires that an individual be responsible right from the beginning.  Having a dedicated role means that product experience is always being considered despite the twists and turns the business may take. It also guarantees that product experience won’t suffer when things get hectic.

A dedicated role means time is allocated for design to explore concepts and alternatives. This can seem like a luxury when deadlines are looming, however a rash decision today could affect the flexibility and sustainability of the product in the future.

Use a Design Mentor

Young companies routinely use mentors to assist them when establishing sales and engineering programs. A design mentor should be used to help in establishing a design program. A seasoned design mentor will provide perspective and direction and know which processes and techniques will work well given the team’s goals, workload and commitments. The rapid change necessary in a startup can be overwhelming for anyone.  A design mentor provides perspective that helps ensure objectives are met and done so in the most logical way for success.

Learn to be a cross-functional team.

What do we mean by a cross-functional team?  Startup employees often wear many hats and often make decisions together regarding product strategy. Being cross-functional means a team can understand enough of each functional domain (engineering, sales, design) well enough to take part in interdependent decision-making. For example, it is important to realize how decisions made about product experience can impact the rest of the business. When decisions arise, a cross-functional team can evaluate the available options and make informed choices together, since they are grounded in the fundamentals of each domain.

But what does this have to do with experience design?  Design decisions are often delegated to the “designer” on the team due to lack of knowledge and understanding, but it’s much more strategic if all decision-makers have a cursory knowledge of design and make informed choices together. 

So how do you become a cross-functional team? It requires some training.  Design education should be part of developing the leadership team.  Education isn’t about giving a one-hour talk and a bunch of slides.  The best way for a team to learn is through doing.  Education should involve teaching techniques through brief instruction followed by prolonged facilitated working sessions. This allows a team to learn something new while delivering an actionable piece of work or decision. Each working session solidifies what is being taught and can help to provoke any questions team members may have.  It isn’t necessary for each team member to become a designer, but rather that they become aware of the concerns that go into design decisions, since these decisions can have dramatic effect on the success of a business.

Use Design Techniques that Allow for Speed.

Start-ups have unique real-time pressures since they are always trying to accomplish concrete goals before each round of funding runs out.  The techniques used in design must move fast enough to enable and maintain this rapid pace.  Techniques that require a great deal of planning must give way to lighter, less formal approaches.

Interviews and discussions with potential customers provide input to defining the product.  This research coupled with the team’s own vision for the products must be captured. Fast tools for capturing ideas and input include journey maps, scenarios, and personas. An effective design mentor will be able to educate teams in fast techniques that distill ideas. A startup should avoid using heavy formal product specifications such as Product Requirements Documents (PRD) due to the work required to keep such documents accurate and up-to-date. Concepts must also be developed using quick techniques like sketching and rapid wire-framing.  The benefit of speed in capturing inputs and concepts is volume; more ideas and concepts can be evaluated in a short span of time. Formal evaluation techniques (usability testing) give way to quick concept evaluations and walkthroughs with potential customers.  Design is about considering the possibilities. The more possibilities considered always leads to a better design.


The final and most crucial item for any start-up is delivery.  Getting a product out the door is one measure of a team’s success. The product delivery schedule must not sacrifice the necessary planning and review.  This is why it is important to implement checkpoints or milestones that force the team to stop and review what has been implemented so far and plan what work remains. Checkpoints ensure that product remains true to the established vision and achieves the level of consistency and quality required.

Each startup’s situation is a little different, but the need for speed and flexibility remains constant.  Rigid processes interfere with both of these goals. By combining skilled people (a designer, design mentor), some training (to become a cross-functional team), light-weight design techniques (scenarios, personas, wireframes) and built in checkpoints; not only will you remain nimble and flexible but product experience will become an integral part of your product delivery process.