Role of UX Designer at a startup: Lessons learnt at AlmaConnect
This is originally posted on AlmaConnect’s Blog here.
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
For the last nine months I have been wearing the UX Designer hat at AlmaConnect. This is a post about lessons learnt and observations on the role of a UX Designer at a product startup like AlmaConnect. To be able to reach out to a larger set of UX Designers and Startup Founders out there, I try and generalize the findings and observations from my experience at AlmaConnect.
First what is User Experience Design?
User experience (UX) is the way a person feels about using a product, system, or service. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful, and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership, but it also includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease-of-use, and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.
Note to startup founders:
The quote above from Steve Jobs nicely summarizes the role of the designer in your team. A designer is not a production resource, who comes in at the very last stage to apply the layers required to make the product look flashy or build aesthetics into the product. A designer can help you define and draw out a roadmap of your product on how it should function from the early days of product planning.
AlmaConnect in this respect has been on the forefront of understanding the role of Design and how to incorporate it into their processes. Right from the early days of the product, AlmaConnect worked with design consultants to figure out a product task flow and its interface level details followed by building the functional product. Once you do this kind of a strategy, there is a deep understanding of the users and their needs. There is a focus on giving the users an easy to use experience.
This focus on design shows in the product and the company at large today where AlmaConnect is figuring out the missing pieces in the puzzle to cater to the needs of the Alumni.
Now to the UX Designers, what is expected out of you at a startup? Be prepared to deliver/produce:
0) User Research: talking to the users and stakeholders, to understand needs and sometimes testing the concepts that you generate down the line. User Research flows through the process as a constant tool to either generate or validate ideas and concepts.
1) Personas: description of various kinds of users your product has or will have, what are their skill levels when it comes to using technology and computers, their exposure to internet, their expectations and their needs. Personas is a great tool sometimes to just make sure everyone on the team understand the user needs and be on the same page.
2) Product feature lists: list of various features that your product will have based on the user needs.
3) Task flows: how will the users interact, what will they do first, what will it lead them to, and how will they finish the task that they are doing on the product.
4) Wireframes: Wireframes of all levels of fidelity, right from rough sketches on the board when you are brainstorming to high fidelity wireframes which illustrate the placement of content, navigation structures, text fields, labels and buttons.
5) Documenting interactions: figure out the best way to explain the interactions to the dev team.
6) Following up on the live product: Using analytics to figure out what is going wrong with the system, any amount of user testing will not give you a 100% foolproof product, you need to keep track of the product on how it is being used and keep iterating by going back to step 0.
7) Use Social Media to your advantage to communicate with the users and get feedback or get insights on the users
At most times your deliverables are only wireframes that go out to the Visual Designer or if you are the Visual Designer as well, then final visual mockups. It is important as a UX Designer to get through most of the above deliverables atleast to make sure you are on the right path. Just because no one is asking for these deliverables does not mean they are not to be done, going through the process helps you to be better prepared for product review meetings and other key decisions that need to be taken for the product.
One of the key areas of focus at AlmaConnect, which I believe should be the case with all product startups is dont just focus on User Experience, think ahead and focus on the User Engagement. Last few months it has been a recurring theme of discussions to understand how we deliver an experience to ensure higher engagement. The UX Designer plays a vital role to imbibe such mindset at a company.
Finally, as a UX Designer at a startup be prepared to wear multiple hats such as:
A researcher, A product manager, A designer, An idea-guy, A copy-writer, A visual designer, A silo breaker between teams, A marketing manager, A user evangelist
Overall one most important task that you do at a startup is being the user evangelist i.e. you take the role of the advocate who is fighting for the user in all the discussions and debates internally. It is your job to push back sometimes on ideas to ensure you are able to reach out to 90% of your user base and they are given an easy-to-use product satisfying their needs.
Sounds like too much to handle for a person, and as some would term it a Unicorn of Designers. However working at a startup which is usually low on resources, every team member tends to wear multiple hats. A good thing about startups is, no one is worrying about making mistakes and failing, as long as you are prepared to learn form the mistakes and iterate. So you dont need to be a master of all the roles stated above, as long as you are a master in one or two. You should be prepared to get your hands dirty and move out of your comfort zone. Just like you, everyone else in your team is also prepared to learn from the experience. Once you have this mindset of learning (making mistakes and iterating), working at a startup can be a very rewarding experience. You learn a lot about yourself and your skills in a very short period of time.
1. UX is not just the look and feel, it is how your product is functioning and how it is being developed
2. Following a UX process is the key
3. Dont be afraid to make mistakes and learn
4. Take on more responsibilities(wear multiple hats) and learn new skills
5. As a UX Designer, dont just think about the experience, but figure out how to ensure engagement
AlmaConnect Product Designer
Aug 2012-Apr 2013