But don’t despair, this is not meant to be all doom and gloom. I do have some constructive tips for those of you working or looking to get going in the world of start-ups, tips that will boost your confidence and ultimately help you to develop and build a successful user centric company.
1. Develop empathy.
For a start-up to succeed it must believe in its own ideas, and for that reason I can’t begrudge any founders enthusiasm and drive for their product. However, and I hate to say it — I’ve witnessed too many start-ups fall short simply because they were too blind-sided by their own ego’s. When a start-up becomes too focused and engrossed on their product, it simply cannot empathise with its users. It can become quite easy for you to lose sight of your original goal, when you are knee deep in the problem that you are trying to solve, as you delve further and deeper and gather expert knowledge about the inner workings of your product. Since you most likely fiddle with product features day in, day out for months, it’s easy to complicate things by introducing yet another feature or option. And yet all the while your product with its various updates has probably not even seen the light of day nor even been tested by a single prospective user.
The thing to remember is you’re not building a product for yourself, but for (hopefully) paying customers. If you can’t fully identify and address customers’ needs, pain points and motivations, if they can’t understand what the product is about — they won’t find any value for themselves and they will not engage with the product.
Therefore, empathy is the key. If you can understand the user, you’ll know how to tweak your idea (conceptual model) to better match their view of the world (mental model). Nothing beats actual face-time with the user. You can’t practice empathy while staring at your computer screen for weeks or months on end. Sometimes you have to apply the brakes, go out there, learn about people, learn about your users, ultimately test the waters.
Outsourcing your research is like outsourcing your vacation. — Jared Spool
2. Don’t ask people what they like.
Asking people what they like leads into feature creep. Now on the surface this may appear to contradict my previous point, but hear me out. In 2007 we re-designed Croportal.net, which at the time was one of the top 10 websites in Croatia, and served news collected via RSS feeds from major local sources in addition to user submitted content.
As part of the re-design we openly asked people, the users, what they wanted and we received a lot of feedback and requests. One request was to include a visible Gmail login on the homepage, so users could log-in to read their e-mail. At first it was great to receive such tangible feedback and in this case we even considered implementing the request. Fortunately, we soon came to our senses and realised it was not what the website was about.
Research is not asking people what they like. — Erika Hall, Just Enough Research
You and only you should design the product. Not the users. Now that doesn’t mean ignoring users altogether. Uncover their needs, motivations and habits and then design the product to match those findings. Instead of asking, observe. Sure, you can talk to them as well as let them talk to you. Do listen to them. But there’s little value in exchanging ideas with the user. Learning how users use your product to accomplish their goal is the real beef and should always be your primarily goal.
3. Cosmetics will not fix a useless product.
If you intend to compete on your products interface alone against companies who have full-blown in-house design teams, then you are very likely to fail. Even if you do have a great team of designers at your disposal, it’s highly unlikely your interface alone will bring you success. Whether it’s collected data, aggregated information or user generated material — content is king.
Good interface design helps improve the overall experience for any well balanced product that has useful and meaningful content, but if you cannot enrich the content at the start or make it interesting in a truly innovative way, then keep it simple and don’t experiment with the interface. Make it really smart first, and then pick out the smart-looking fitted suit later.
4. Always re-evaluate.
It’s easy to forget that you’re not the only one who develops a similar idea. For instance, when you create the SWOT analysis, consider it as a mere snapshot in time. A temporary state. When you turn an opportunity into strength remember it immediately becomes a weakness, because your competition will clearly see where you have placed your efforts. In those moments your efforts very soon become a threat.
Be agile, re-asses your status and re-adjust accordingly. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that all of the investigative and research work you conducted previously will become outdated. User experience is a moving target. The more a user develops their capacity to interact with overall technology, the higher expectations they have from your concept.
5. Document everything.
This is one primarily for the start-up founders. You should look to document everything, capture your thoughts and thought processes to ultimately create a foundation for the future. With internal standards, policies, cheat sheets and templates you can make sure that everyone in the company has the same focus and drive when it comes to your companies direction and customer service. For example, how to communicate to the customer when things go south, how much information and in what format to display it in the new module, how to prioritise features etc. When principles are well established, user experience is consistent and the interaction is predictable. As a result, the cognitive load is removed from the user and they feel empowered.
Given the multiple hats a founder needs to wear, keeping everything in your head is a huge business risk and a path to burnout. That really does not happen to someone else.
- Learn to listen, especially to free advice. Thank everyone who’s interested in helping you.
- Accept that not everyone will get your concept. Be patient, especially when observing people who use your product. Even when you witness a user struggling with your product, embrace that struggle, learn from it. It will only help to make your product better and easier to understand and use. Look to turn any negative experiences into positive ones.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about money and profit or plan for economic resilience. Your goal shouldn’t just be to continually break-even, your goal should be steady profit.
- There’s no such thing as a standard agreement. Be comfortable negotiating, take your time and be ready to make compromises.
- Sell all the time, but don’t force it. Accept that only one in ten pitches will succeed. Sometimes even less. Learn to tell your story and tweak your story along the way. Practice until you can easily improvise.
- Be natural on the stage. There might be a storm in your head, but don’t project it to the outside. You’ll know that you’re a natural when people start noticing. Appreciate such compliments.