Four Ways to Bring UX into an Early-Stage Startup

People will only really experience your brilliant new product for a few minutes (and that’s if you’re lucky). You must make absolutely sure that your offering is engaging within seconds.

But for a young Canadian startup with a limited budget, design expertise can be expensive. I am here to give you four tips on how to think like a UX designer when you don’t have a budget to hire one.

A quick skim through job listings in tech shows how today’s organizations are demanding User Experience professionals.This shouldn’t be surprising, since the competitive edge of many leading tech products lie in UX design: Apple’s seamless UIs, Google’s simplification of the web, Dropbox’s hands-free syncing, Adobe’s interface consistency across a suite of powerful creative tools, and the list goes on.

I have had the opportunity to introduce, evangelize, and prioritize a user-centered design process for both large, established organizations and new startups who are just getting traction. My conclusion? Canadian startups are not thinking about UX early enough.

Too often I see development efforts well underway on products which are confusing, poorly organized, and difficult to use. As always, the problem is budget: your typical startup usually doesn’t have the means to hire a full-time UX professional or a consultant for extended periods of time.

But hope is not lost! I am writing this post to ensure that your startup can build a solid UX foundation into your offering before it gets to the next stage and crosses my desk for consulting. Before you can afford a UX professional guiding your process/strategy, conducting user research, designing interactions, and validating your interfaces, there are a few things you can do to make sure you build something engaging:

1.  Even if you don’t have an expert on staff, you can’t ignore UX.

If you focus only on functionality and visuals, you WILL end up with frustrating products and services. A consistently good experience is a necessary foundation; without it, all the time you spent on branding and development will never see the light of day.  Frustrated users will abandon you.

2.  Sketch, sketch, sketch.

Do not build anything without drawing it on paper first. Sketch screen interfaces, storyboard user scenarios, draw flow diagrams for complex processes, and organize content with a pencil and paper.

3.  Don’t underestimate the power of rapid, informal testing.

Before you write a single line of code, show your high-level ideas and interface sketches to neighbours, friends, family, and even strangers. Record or take notes to inspire new concepts and find potential problem areas. It’s not exactly science, but it will help.

4.  Learn to identify when a creative workshop is necessary.

Certainly e-mail, Dropbox, BaseCamp, Skype and other tools can help you organize your virtual team, work in the cloud, and skip boring, unproductive meetings.  But there are circumstances when face-to-face, hands-on problem-solving is necessary.  When faced with a serious obstacle, get in a room together, lock the doors, turn off your phones, and get a creative jam session going.

If you don’t have the budget to hire a UX expert yet, these four ideas can help ground your products and services in empathy. By taking the time to do some amateur design work before you start building your technology, you can save yourself a lot of missteps and prime your ideas to play an important role in people’s lives.

Once you grow large enough to hire a UX specialist, they will be able to focus on building on your existing work as opposed to advocating a complete redesign.