More, better, faster: UX design for startups

Startups don’t have capital to burn or luxurious schedules for big-design-up-front. But unless your idea is by-and-for-engineers, design isn’t something you want to skip on your way to market. For a startup, design may mean the difference between simply shipping, and taking the market by storm. But with tight budgets, and aggressive timelines, how to include design and get the best value for the investment?

Eric Ries proposes a cyclical model for development in a startup: Build > Measure > Learn (repeat). Lots of smart people think he’s onto something. While Ries coined this model to explain how developers work in a lean way, the same model can be applied to design, only our “build” uses different tools, and the work products are at a different fidelity, but it’s still build. Our hypothesis is made manifest and testable.

In a recent Lean UX workshop hosted by the fantastic Janice Fraser (Luxr) and Cooper’s own Tim McCoy and Suzy Thompson (also of Cooper) suggested that the cycle was right, but that it begins in the wrong place. She suggested Learn > Build > Measure (repeat).


I buy it. After years of starting projects off with research (as little as a couple of hours in some cases) I’ve seen the power of starting off informed. Framing the problem before you start solving it is not only wise, but major opportunities for innovation often arise before anyone proposes a design solution.

So we have a cycle of Learn > Build > Measure (repeat). For a startup we can’t afford weeks of research, with the developers on the bench waiting for the voice of the user with thoughtful diagrams and artful persona back-stories. We need full-speed-ahead; design can’t afford to be the slow kid or the bottleneck.



How fast can we run the cycle? I’d suggest that design can run at a sustained pace of 3 days for a complete cycle. I don’t think you could do useful design faster. We often take 5 days for a cycle where we have time and budget, but 3 days is about the fastest you’d productively move. It bears noting that it takes a remarkably agile client to keep up with a 3 day cycle. Early stage startups with focused stakeholders and unlimited access to users for testing are the most likely to keep up with this pace. Larger enterprises benefit from a slower 5 day cycle.



Once we get the upfront work of personas and high-level scenarios done, cycles take on a regular pattern.


What do we get? Speed and low waste. We iterate quickly, with a 3 day cycle time we get moving quickly, we get rapid insights up front, ideas almost immediately up on the board, and pixel proofs within 24 hours. Sure they’re rough, but we don’t need high fidelity to test if the direction works, if users and stakeholders are getting what they need. All we need is something that gets the idea across. We’ll refine as we get deeper. And because we’re not letting design get too far out before getting it in front of users we’re keeping waste to a minimum. Our ideas will be tested early and often. We can throw out what isn’t working after a low amount of investment and focus our time on what is.

At this point the major win for startups is speed; design is incorporated without slowing things down. We also reap huge benefits from operating with such a low waste level. Days and dollars are spent building and refining the solutions that are most promising. But speed has a downside, we have little time to solve more complex problems. This may result in grabbing for obvious or standard patterns where a more thoughtful innovative approach might ultimately yield a better product. Also, design is an iterative process, the rapid cycles may seem like iteration, but the speed leaves little opportunity to revisit or reject and rework something. The first solution may easily end up the final solution. This may be acceptable for some projects, but when a startup is striving to innovate, it’s not enough to be first, you really need to deliver better.


More, better

There’s a way to supercharge this process in a way that produces predictably better solutions, and more of them. Add a second interaction designer. Pair design transforms the equation, from pure speed, into rapid insight that one designer with twice the time couldn’t produce. It’s not a case of twice as much in the same amount of time, speed isn’t increased, we’ve already maximized that. What we’re maximizing now is the quality. Two designers working together, paired in the right way delivers more, and better design.



The way we do pair design it’s not just any two designers locked in a room, struggling to wrestle the marker away from one another to prove how much better their idea is. We pair two interaction designers to maximize on the energy in polarity. We divide and conquer. One takes takes on the assertive role, the other the reflective. One takes on the drawings and interface, the other the patterns and words. One dives into details, the other keeps the big picture. One presents, the other captures. Through pairing and focusing on polarized responsibilities, we increase the value of the thinking and the product.

Let’s start with the first cycle:



While interviewing users and stakeholders we’ve got two observers, two sets of ears, two perspectives on what was learned. Our understanding is richer, fuller and more complex than any single practitioner could bring.



Build (personas/scenarios/early sketches)

One of our pair takes on the role of generating ideas, proposing solutions, getting something onto the board. The other is a dedicated thought partner. They hold back, poke holes, prompt, help evolve the ideas while they’re still forming. It’s a period of intense, rapid iteration. Roles can and do swap. We go wide, exploring much more quickly than a single designer could. Bad ideas are killed earlier. We develop clarity more quickly. We’re more confident of our decisions and more articulate about our reasons because they already went through the crucible of our partner.



Build (pixels and patterns)

Our pair differentiates further. One jumps into putting the ideas into pixels, the other into articulating the patterns that underlie the design decisions. Each works from the earlier design work, but refines it in very different ways. As we push our design though increasingly detailed scenarios it evolves. The two different approaches helps us triangulate on places where the design fails, and helps to identify fresh new opportunities. Two brains churning on the material coming from different directions, forces us to see more objectively, we can’t remain blind to the ideas we love that should be thrown out. The paired design team acts as an editorial cross-check on the thinking of the other. A single designer would be forced to choose between pixels or patterns, or struggle to articulate both poorly.



Measure (stakeholder/user feedback)

Pair designers divide up the work, focusing on a single aspect, presenting or capturing. One walks users through the flow, the other observes and captures notes. It doesn’t matter who’s doing what but each role is dedicated and focused. One designer would struggle to demo the design and really notice how users’ actions diverged from their verbal feedback, often critical distinctions which when noticed strongly inform future design decisions. With a pair of designers we capture the feedback accurately. We also have two perspectives on each test. We are less prone to fall into our own bias because we’ve got someone to check us.



More, better, faster is an investment

By pairing designers, we gain tremendous advantages. You’re running a startup and it’s easy to buy the process of a speedy cycle. It’s simple math and it maximizes cash, with quick early results. At first the idea of pair design may seem like a hard thing to sell to your board or investors. “Twice the designers, huh? Can’t we just get one and do more cycles?” Sure, people do it every day. But one designer doesn’t make more, better. Even a rock-star designer can’t generate enough polarity to come close to the “more, better” brought by two damn good designers who know how to work together as a pair. You buy a pair, you get more design; not twice the volume, but twice the quality. This isn’t that fine-china sense of quality, but the kind of quality defined by pure raw goodness. It’s the quality of solutions that people fall in love with. It’s the ephemeral but very real sense when you first make contact with the product that someone really truly understands you. Not all problems need or deserve this level of attention. There’s many times when one designer may perfectly address the need.But when your startup wants to design more, better, faster, go all the way, invest in it. Expect faster, and demand more, better. Your investors will want it too.



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