Written by Sarah Harrison.
As an entrepreneur, you’ve brought your idea to life in your mind. You’ve told the story, you’ve made your pitch, you’ve convinced investors. And now you’re ready to make that idea a reality. You hope that if you can just explain your vision to the right designer, he or she can manifest it into existence in just the way you imagine it.
Now you just have to find that right designer.
So you craft a job description, and you post on all the job boards. You advertise, you ask your friends and advisors for referrals, you’re getting applicants.
Meanwhile, your product’s progress has stalled. It’s an idea locked up in your head, and all you can do is focus on recruiting the right person to get it out there.
Or, even worse, you don’t have the budget to bring on a new hire just yet. Your idea is locked up in your head, and you don’t have the slightest idea what the next step is towards figuring out if it will sell, if it will delight customers, if it will change the world.
You have a vision. What if you could make progress on your own towards making it a reality? What if you didn’t have to hire anyone to move forward?
I’m on a mission to help entrepreneurs learn to think more like UX designers. It’s why I even created a quick reference guide.
When you’re just starting out, you need to tackle many of the challenges your business faces on your own. While a good designer will bring a lot of skills that take years to learn (typography,composition, color theory, etc.) there are a number of skills that other members of the team can learn fairly quickly.
In fact, I think we’ve relied a bit too heavily on one person with a Swiss Army Knife array of skills that we call “UX Design” (or worse, UX/UI Design or any other hybrid job title) to run the show on her own. We could really benefit from putting a bit more UX in our other roles throughout the company.
But let’s start with our founder. Especially in the early stages of creating a product, when it’s just you and your vision, being able to communicate and test that vision will make you much more capable of leading your product team in the future towards realizing your dreams.
What are some of the skills a UX designer would use at this stage of your product?
- Competitive Analysis
- Market Research
- Persona Development
- User Flow Diagrams
- User Testing
It may surprise you to see how long this list is, or how many things I covered above that don’t yet involve the classic visual design skills like typography and composition. Explained in great detail in the free guide UX Design for Startups authored by UXPin’s CEO Marcin Treder, the skills in this list are accessible to someone who might claim to lack skills or talent in design.
It may also frustrate you to see how many steps exist before you can start to see the vision in your head becoming a reality.
“Why can’t you just create what I’m seeing in my head?” is what many entrepreneurs are wondering. Unfortunately, that’s not the path to creating a successful product. To skip all the steps above would be a huge mistake. If you get too attached to one idea, one vision, without testing it in your market, you run the risk of ignoring early data you get from your market and releasing an unsuccessful product.
So, accepting that we need to complete these steps before we get to the task of creating a refined visual design, what can we do ourselves?
Let’s break down these tasks one by one.
This involves looking at products in a similar space as you. It may involve looking at your direct competitors, but it also involves looking at other companies solving similar problems.
For example, if you were considering a mobile app that helps you find [fill in the blank] nearby, you might take a look at any mobile app that helps you find something nearby, even if it’s not your market, including Uber, Lyft, and Yelp for their location-based interfaces. Consider what they do well, as well as their weaknesses. Perhaps do a SWOT analysis on the strengths & weaknesses of each product. Clearly, you don’t need a degree in graphic design to complete this step, in fact it may be something you can assign to anyone on your team. Document screenshots in a shared folder and ask others to help out.
You have probably done a lot of this already as a founder.
- Who are your target users?
- What do they currently do that your product will replace in their lives?
- How do they feel about competitor’s products and brands?
Document your findings in one shared folder and add to it as you collect real data. Logcustomer interviews and have someone transcribe any recordings for easy access.
A lot of small businesses skip this step, as it can be quite time-consuming and expensive to do formally.
However, as a UX designer, I always create a few informal personas that I can refer to, at least in my head. It’s impossible to fully design an experience for a user you can’t picture in your head.
- At the bare minimum, write down some key characteristics of your ideal user — age range, education level, job, technical savviness, where and when they’re likely to use your product, etc.
- Then, find a few real life people that match this description and talk to them. As described in the Guide to Usability Testing, find out how they think, what their concerns are, what their tolerance is for risk, or their attention to aesthetic details. Document this in your shared folder — hopefully when you do hire a designer, this will be the first thing she asks for.
User Flow Diagrams
User flow diagrams look and sound super fancy.
You can draw them on a whiteboard now, though, and get a lot of value from a simple exercise of mapping out your product step by step.
- How does the user first hear of your product, what does he see next, what happens next, etc.
- What is the value your product provides (to the users) and how many steps does it take them to get there?
To learn more, Ryan Singer provides a useful tutorial on drawing up quick user flows.
If I hand a non-designer a piece of paper and a marker, 95% of them always say “I can’t draw” or “I’m not a very good artist.”
Fortunately, I’m not asking you to draw the Mona Lisa. This is mostly boxes and words. You can do it. Use your map from the user flow diagram step and draw each step on a different piece of paper. It’s a sketch, don’t worry about the details. Just get it out there.
The less precious the better, so you can throw it away, make changes, scribble something out and tape a new thing over it, be free.
Guess what? The sketches you just made? That’s your first paper prototype.
You can user test the core interaction of your product from these sketches. Don’t believe me? Try it.
Since you’ve created a lightweight prototype, you can always add more detail in a prototyping tool. The advantage of going digital is that you can collaborate with others easily, and you can test with more users with less time. Tools like UXPin, for example, come with plenty of built-in libraries to speed up the process.
Find someone in the office as your first guinea pig, then branch out from there to 5 target users.
- Say “imagine this piece of paper is a computer screen” and put your test participant in the scenario you mapped out for step 1 of your diagram.
- Don’t tell the user what it’s for, just observe. Ask the user to think out loud, and see what he would do if he were looking at your sketch as if on a laptop screen or mobile device.
- Make note of what wasn’t there that he expected to see, then rebuild your sketch with the new piece included.
To make the process easier, you could even recruit a helper. Walk them through how the prototype works, then have them function as the “human computer”. As they manipulate the prototype based on the user’s clicks, you’re free to take notes and ask follow-up questions after the session ends.
You’ll be amazed and delighted and possibly devastated at the results.
You might find your perfect vision that was in your head completely falls apart when you go through this the first few times. Once you’ve analyzed the results, you can iterate more powerfully in a digital prototyping tool.
You learned something really valuable, without hiring a huge team, losing a ton of time, or spending a bunch of money.
And if you found a few things that worked, you can take those notes and build on them until you solidify your product flow. The vision will start to refine and take new shape in your head.
When you finally do hire a designer, you will have much more luck communicating your vision to her and having her create it in full color shiny detail.