The user experience (UX) field has blown up in the last few years. Although around for decades, UX is finally starting to get the importance and buzz it deserves. Companies like IBM have seen the grim result of not paying attention to user experience and have then done a complete 180 and embraced the field. The numerous articles and studies published on the return on investment (ROI) of good UX practices can convince even the most frugal business leader to invest in them. But in the world of quick and scrappy startups, does investing the time in good UX pay off? People in tech startups are often rushing to meet aggressive deadlines, working late nights, and committing lines of code to finish their product before they run out of money. Startups need a minimum viable product—something to demo as soon as they can. Do the startups that pause, evaluate their build process, and implement good UX practices do better than the ones that just build?
The Research Process
I have spent the last few months exploring the relationship (or lack thereof) between good UX practices and the success of startups. Focusing on the Metro Detroit area, I interviewed 25 startups, analyzed their build process for typical UX practices, and determined if this played any role in their success.
Rather than beginning with a hypothesis and running tests against it (since I have biases as a UX designer), I wanted the data to paint a picture of its own through interviews and observations. Each interview was with a senior member of a startup (preferably a founder). In this time, we discussed how their startup measured success, at what stage a dedicated UX designer was brought on board, how familiar they were with common UX methods such as user interviews and usability testing, and to what degree they incorporated these practices into their work.
Quite a few founders were reluctant to talk about the failures their startups survived. Instead, they acted as a salesperson, painting their company as a flawless, well-oiled machine. To combat these inconsistencies, I interviewed multiple people from the same startup and took an average of their answers. In addition, whenever possible, on-site visits were conducted to observe startups in their natural process.
Grouping of Data
Post interviews, I found three ways startups incorporated UX. The 20% that fell into the first group (group A) incorporated UX from the beginning (usually during the ideation phase or before anything concrete was built). Typically, these founders had a UX background or extensive familiarity with the subject. This group incorporated UX when they had less than four dedicated team members.
A greater number of startups (40%) fell into the second group (group B), tapping into UX approximately two years after they were founded. These startups either had a product on the market (or were close to it) or they had a concrete idea and implementation plan. Most startups in group B hired a product designer or UX designer from inside of their marketing team. First iterations of UX included more visual design than research.
The last group (group C) either had not heard of UX or did not think it would benefit their business. Eight of the startups I interviewed fell into this group. Group C startups cared about the aesthetic of their product (many startups in this group had a full-time graphic designer) but lacked knowledge of the science behind good user experience. Founders often struggled to comprehend the depth of the user experience field and categorized it as “design.”
The three key findings of my research are discussed in the following sections.
Startups successfully incorporating UX into their build process moved faster than startups that did not. A big reason for this was issues with pivoting. All eight startups in group C and seven out of the ten startups in group B had to pivot their product or service at least once with an average of 1.4 times. These pivots had massive effects such as abandoned projects, deleted lines of code, and worst of all, critical time-loss. In addition, startups in groups B and C relied solely on customer feedback on product features that had been built. These startups would need to build their entire product, launch it to market, then wait for customer feedback to have any real metrics on the performance of the product and what needs refinement. Their process was not the lean, efficient approach desired by many companies of today, but the heavy-handed method of a company past its prime.
Startups in group A reached a more diverse set of customers. Group A startups did a better job at customer discovery and were able to identify different user markets that otherwise might not have been obvious. Startups that adopted UX practices later or never had a few issues. Firstly, because of a lack of customer discovery, many lacked real paying customers when bringing their product to the market. This resulted in the product pivoting. Secondly, the startups that did identify a customer market had a hard time expanding on that market. One startup had been in business for three years. Every customer that they had was the same, and the founders were stuck as they were unable to target different markets. According to the founders, the product was serving every company in the Metro Detroit area who had a need for the software. However, they based their assertion on the assumption that all their clients were from the education sector. When asked if they could see other potential revenue models, the founders were unable to comment. Their startup is slowly scaling back as their sales team, having targeted all potential clients in the education sector, is left without any work.
Adoption Rates and User Satisfaction
When startups incorporate a dedicated UX team member from day one, they see better adoption rates during their product launch. Having friction with adoption rates is hazardous when bringing a new product to the market, especially when there are competitors. The average person stays on a website for less than a minute. With an abundance of technology tools, users do not often give products a second chance. If it is hard to use, customers leave and find something else. Startups with good UX practices were found to be more in tune with who their users are and what they want and, in turn, were able to deliver meaningful, curated experiences.
Startups that are able to successfully incorporate UX saw positive changes in their product in terms of functionality, design, and customer satisfaction. Out of the seventeen startups that collected NPS scores, startups in group A had triple the score of startups in group C. This means that three times the number of users would recommend a group A startup than a group C to their friends. Startups that did not incorporate UX in a meaningful way had an average NPS score which suggests their users would be willing to switch to a competitor.
One example of a group A startup is Sift. Sift boasted an NPS score close to that of Apple (approximately 76% of users would recommend their product to a friend). Sift monitored detractors and ensured they prioritized customer feedback. The result has been a product growing more desirable with each iteration. See Figures 1 and 2.
Figures 1. Sift’s product in its first iteration.
Figure 2. Sift’s current product.
Incorporating UX allows startups to spot failures fast, scrap bad ideas, and stay lean. In the startup world, time is of the essence and correctly implementing UX practices allows startups to save a lot of time. User experience is a cyclical process; it always needs refinement and feedback to get better and better. Startups that are incorporating UX from the beginning have a clear understanding of where the field sits in relation to their build process, thus making them more efficient. They iterate faster, have higher adoption rates, and have happy, diverse customers.
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