A buddy of mine was helping some friends setup an incubator and he asked me whether or not they should have some UX/design support that is resident in the incubator.
It's an interesting proposition. According to Dave McClure:
Addictive User Experience (aka Design) & Scalable Distribution Methods (aka Marketing) are the most critical for success in consumer internet startups, not pure Engineering talent.
(from Startups & VCs: Learn How to Design, Market, & Eat Your Own Consumer Internet Dogfood)
I tend to agree. Most startups are started by business people or engineers. It is very rare to find startups started by designers; relative to the other disciplines, it's like finding a needle in a haystack. So most entrepreneur teams really have no formal training in the area of user experience and any that do well are either lucky or naturally talented. But yet at early stage, the quality of the product experience matters so much more than at any other time and is so critical to the early traction a startup can get. Also, designers are among the hardest of disciplines to hire for; there simply aren't enough to go around, especially compared to the number of engineers universities crank out each year. Thus it's natural that an incubator, which provides a lot of critical resources to its incubated businesses, would want to provide design as one of those resources.
I should also say that we've been really bastardizing the use of the term "designer". There are many sub-disciplines within the category of design: visual design, graphic design, interaction design, user researchers, usability testing professionals. Saying that someone should get a talented designer is not a cure-all for UX success. You must have some basic level of understanding and skill in a few of these areas in order to create a great user experience.
For the last 4 years, I've been advising startups partially in the area of UX and design. I think there are parallels in what I do and what an incubator might provide. Both an incubator and I have a portfolio of companies to provide design support for; but yet how to provide a level of support for so many customers at one time? Is it actual design detail work or is it just guidance? Certainly I have thought a lot about providing UX and design help to all the startups in my portfolio, and in what form that help looks like. However, the nature of providing help in this form comes with interesting dynamics.
All About Influencing
Everything is influenced based, which means that in no way can I force someone to come to my viewpoint. I have to convince them that my way is better through belief in my past experiences and/or through some sort of research, or through the persuasiveness of my reasoning. These individuals do not report to me; nor in reality do they even have to listen to me. I do not hold their destinies in my hands so I cannot have that level of control over whether they listen to me or act on my advice.
In the beginning, this was a source of mild frustration because I would tell my startups that something was wrong or could be better in that way, but yet they would seem to not do what I just told them to do. I realized that early on that my advice was just that; it was advice that someone would just add to their knowledge base and they would act on it or not.
Not Letting Grinfucks Get to You
I also have to let go of the fact that they may not listen to me at all, or totally disagree with me and discount whatever I advise. Sometimes they would even agree with what I said and then go back to doing whatever it was they were doing later (I believe this is what Mark Suster calls the "grinfuck".). However, I can't let this get to me or else immense frustration will set in.
However, as much as we see someone else is failing (by our own standards), I have to admit that there is always the probability that I am not right. If there is anything I've learned about product design is that there is huge variability of success amongst users. I think if we thought hard enough, even the most crappiest designed products have had huge success in the world (ie. Windows). Or we underestimate users' tolerance for imperfect design; sometimes users put up with so much because the product satisfies some basic need very well. Then, when you consider what makes a startup successful, it throws even more variability into whether or not a perfect design is really required. For example, one metric for success is when a big company buys your startup for a lot of money; you may have a really imperfect product but yet we're successful because we sold our startup for a lot of money and made a decent return.
To me, this is all a probability game. Too often we get caught up in black and white: "if you don't implement my design ideas, you're gonna fail." To me, it's about maximizing all chances of success, with UX and design being one of those all important details a startup works on. When you execute well across a number of fronts, that raises the probability of success. The more details you execute poorly or imperfectly, the less your probability of success. So I ask you, the intreprid entrepreneur, wouldn't you want to listen to some UX design advice to maximize your probability of success overall?
Gotta Keep an Endless Flow of Ideas Comin'
When teams don't like my initial ideas, I find I have to keep throwing ideas at them until something sticks. In some situations, I seem to have an endless supplies of things to try. In others, I hit a wall and run out of ideas very quickly. It's definitely frustrating to me when I run out of ideas, as I consider myself a pretty creative guy. But there is ultimately an end to ideas when they come from a single person, and from someone who doesn't live and breathe the startup day in and day out.
Advising Generally Means You're Not Doing the Work
However, advising is generally not actually doing the work. You're evaluating, giving your opinion, suggesting changes, giving ideas and direction on what can work better. Rarely am I actually launching Photoshop or doing actual HTML.
I like advising. I like teaching and guiding others and it's a source of great satisfaction to me to help others succeed. I also like to see if my theories actually work or not, so now it's a challenge to see if my ideas are right or not. Second, advising allows me to cover a far wider set of customers than by doing the actual work. In order to do great work, you really have to focus on a project; multitasking can get you only so far and I'm sure anyone who is in the contracting business will tell you the pitfalls of working on more than one project at a time. Quality of the work, thought leadership, and time management all become huge challenges when you're working on just one more extra thing.
The downside to advising is that I'm not doing the actual work. Advice can only communicate your ideas so far; words just cannot replace the actual design work being just done by you. To some, doing the work is far more satisfying than giving advice. Hey I know - I've been there. I've lost count of how many sites I've launched at Yahoo, or the immense enjoyment I feel when I'm part of team designing, building, and launching a product at Apple or through our contracts at frogdesign. You also don't learn as much unless you're doing the actual work; living and breathing the design allows you to be immersed in the users and their problems with your product. Hearing it secondhand just isn't the same.
I think for many designers, it's tough to just give advice. It is hard to let go of the immense personal satisfaction and learning of doing the actual work. I think this is partially why there aren't that many designers out there giving advice in some form or another. It's actually pretty cool to be doing the work and taking a product all the way through to launch.
One other important point about doing the work: it also maximizes the chance that your ideas will get implemented. Any ideas you may plant in someone are just thoughts; taking those thoughts to action requires firm belief by the listener in what you said, being able to internalize it, and then act on it. But if you are on the team doing the implementing, then you have the best chance of implementing the ideas into the product because you already believe in it and have internalized it, and recognize and can walk a path to realization of the idea.
Not Doing the Work Means Wider Coverage of Projects
One advantage to stepping back from the actual work is that you can cover a wider variety of projects simultaneously. I do not know of any designer who can handle more than two projects at the same time; most only work on one at a time before moving on. Spreading your brain across multiple projects really puts quality at risk. It is very difficult to do your best work when you're not focused on one thing.
However, if I'm giving just advice, I can do that across many more projects. Still, it is consistent with multitasking issues that if I don't get depth on a given project, that it's hard to give really detailed advice. So often I may spend more time on a single project and get to know it better and then I can give more depth in my advice. I do think my past Yahoo experience as been a great advantage here. At Yahoo we worked on a wide variety of projects and I am usually able to bring some depth to my advice without needing much time to get to know a project.
The Difference Between Design Advice and UX Advice
Just so I'm clear - I think there is a difference between "design" advice and "UX" advice. Definitely the two are related. Building a great user experience pretty much means you're employing great visual and interaction design, coupled with user research to reinforce and inform. However, I think there are differences as well. Mostly, I think that design is a subset of creating the entire user experience, which encompasses branding and its effects on a user's constant use of a product, tackling a certain market segment, and customer service, among other things.
When I give specific design advice, I tend to think of looking at the specific elements on an interface and commenting on the interaction or its aesthetics. I talk about placement of controls, and what is confusing and what is not. I talk about the flow across screens and whether or not that makes sense, or could be easier or not. Often this comes in the form of a design walkthrough with discussion after.
However, when I give UX advice, my comments go wider and I talk about the entire product experience. A conversation may start with "can I get help on my GUI?" but sometimes I see the problem is not with the GUI but it's with a broader issue of why the heck we're doing this in the first place. I start talking about who the customer is, and why they're targeting the customer. I also talk about getting a better product definition and problem statement.
Personally, I think it's not a good use of time if the problem statement is incorrect in the first place to dive into detail UI issues. Once you have refined the problem statement (aka iterate until you find the right product fit for a customer base and get a scalable business model - thanks, Steve Blank!), then we can start talking about whether the UI you have created is appropriate for that or not. Then we can take an orderly approach to crafting a superior UI for a problem that users desire a solution to and hopefully make money off of.
Finding the Right People
OK I just expounded on my experiences in giving design and UX advice. Why? It's important to understand the motivations and experiences of a person who loves giving design and UX advice so that if your goal is to find similar support, you're going to have to find a person with similar motivations and experiences.
I have not met many people who are happy giving design advice only. Most designers I have met want to do the work and derive great enjoyment from the work. At one time, I too loved doing the work; however, the complexities of life forced me to create a situation where I could still contribute and grow in my experiences but not mean that I am on critical path for any particular project. (Someday, I would be happy to talk about exactly what complexities I mean here, but just not in my blog but live over a beer ;-) ) Giving advice rather doing the work meant that I could still be part of the process as well as be a part of a greater number of projects, but not do the actual work because my life isn't structured to deliver actual work well.
So if you want design and UX advice, you're going to have to find someone who is OK with not doing the work and hopefully loves doing this.
I started this post by talking about helping a friend out regarding design support in incubators and then focused on the individual giving advice, in order to understand what kind of person might be good in such a role and what experience they might need. Watch for my next post on my thoughts on design as a central resource in incubators.