Customer and User Experience At The Root of Your Success
If you are running a startup before funding, you are no stranger to minimalism. You are used to make everything happen with minimal resources. Economy is one reason; you need to get far with minimal spendings. There lies also a bit of pride in minimalism, the feeling you get when you achieved a difficult goal with minimal effort.
Minimalism doesn’t only have positive momentum. Associated with doing the least minimum of the necessary, that momentum can quickly turn into a negative. The terms we prefer instead are “pragmatic”, “hands-on” or “getting things done”. Suddenly the whole thing has movement in it, implying that you get somewhere quickly.
The whole venture appears like a big adventure game: You are on a journey to figure out how to rise to become the leader of your kingdom. And along the way you pick up the skill sets and tools you need. It sounds like a lot of fun, because it is. In fact, for many entrepreneurs it is an addicting experience, one that comes with the danger of turning inspiration into motive.
Whatever gets us there
“Whatever gets us there” appears to be the untouchable mantra for almost all startups I have spoken to. To get the job done no matter what, like the heroes in old action movies, is such an attractive idea. It gives you the feeling of lightness, to shed off bulk and everything traditional, heavy, all that stuff that makes traditional corporations slow and inflexible.
With this mantra in mind, it seems logical to focus on building it, instead of spending a lot of time figuring things out. Unfortunately, when you know little about a subject you may have the beginners advantage of being free of bulk and bias, but you share the disadvantage of being new to it. Your intention may be not to be kept up with having to learn everything about a subject, but that is often what you end up with. Who wants to be kept up when your motivation is “whatever gets us there”?
The effect is that your startup turns amateurish without intention. Everything you do as a company you want to look and feel professional. But it’s all a big cheat, because “fake it till you make it” slipped in right after “whatever gets us there”.
In many cases this is quite okay. Everyone started small and it depends on how quickly you can learn, adapt and improve to pivot your direction in correlation to what you’ve learned. That’s a very vivid, crucial element for any startup, to stay agile and flexible. There are just certain areas where an amateur approach isn’t cutting it.
How do you know what’s important?
Being held up with things that “don’t matter” is such a powerful fear, startups tend to try to shake it off by ignoring most things and focussing on what is “really important”. Like the first build of your software. The server setup. The product’s functionality. Who would argue that these things aren’t important? Branding, marketing, all that can come later. So you spend not more than $50 on a logo and slap it on a business card. On the backside you list bullet points of your great product features.
The tension between things you think you really need and things you actually need has always been the source of the main struggle for startups. In an effort to get somewhere quickly, mistakes are made and they are ignored with a healthy dose of beginners naivety. You look ahead of the road and just keep going. When you fell, you just get up again and keep going.
Desperate to always know what is important and focussing on building the thing bears one big danger. It is most often overseen, and yet it is the one thing that can topple your entire venture. The effect that’s killing your startup has many faces. Often you run out of money. Or your investors became impatient and wanted your business to pivot before it became a business.
Or, the most common reason, you launch your product and no one wants it.
Make things people want (and don’t know yet)
Paul Graham is attributed with this quote: “Make things people want”. It seems so simple and logical. Why would anyone build and try to sell something people have no interest in? It would seem stupid to put energy in something if it hasn’t been proven to work.
Steve Jobs was attributed with the idea that sometimes you need to make things people don’t realise yet that they will want them. And Apple made not one, but a few good demonstrations of this idea. From its beginnings, in a world where everyone only seemed to be interested in what was already proven and what was known to work, Apple took big risks to make things no one initially wanted. Until they started using them.
Not everyone can afford to make something no one wants yet, but they will want once they start using it. Big companies actually have the resources for such experiments, and they do indeed spend millions (sometimes billions) on throwing products on the market just to see how they are doing. Google, now Alphabet, is known to always have a couple of such testing balloons in the air.
How to know what you don’t know yet
The idea to make something of which you don’t know if it will work seems so out there, like a crazy suicide mission plot in a movie. And yet it is this spirit of “we don’t know yet” that drives a lot of the curiosity in startups. When something is on the market and it has success, but no one really knows why, it is easy to flirt with this mystery in front of investors and say: you know, we don’t know exactly why this works, but who cares. We’ll just make sure it keeps going.
What is interesting is that, whether your product is something that people already want, or something people don’t know yet they’ll want it, makes no difference in the end. Because once they are in love with using the product, they won’t give it up again until something better comes along.
The factors why people want to use something are well known, and yet they are most often overseen by startups eager to do “whatever gets us there”.
It’s all about the experience.
This is not just a sign of our times, a trend, a marketing fad or a sales secret. It’s a factor that has always been the driver for anything humans ever used, from fire and the wheel to the bicycle and electricity. People always learned they wanted something after they began using and loving it.
The experience is everything
Let’s step back here for a moment. Startups want to do everything to get the product done and out there. As a startup founder, or engineer, you are convinced that your product has great features, enough for consumers or businesses to like it. But is that really cutting it? How do you know they will want to use it?
The one thing you should focus on the most, right from the start, before you build anything is the user experience. But how, you may ask, if you haven’t got a product yet, why is the user interface important?
This is at the heart of the most widespread misconception. The UX doesn’t start with a user interface. It doesn’t even start with using the final product. It begins with the idea of it. And not just the idea of the idea, but how that idea would work.
So how can you know how something works before you build it?
You look at comparable things and figure out what their disadvantages are. See, when Apple took risks to build things no one knew people actually wanted, they didn’t do it blindly. They had a pretty good idea of what people didn’t want anymore. Like clunky, hard to use phones. Or computers you needed to build first and feed with a programming language before you could even use them. From the very start, Apple always knew exactly what they were doing, because they had figured out what was wrong with existing solutions.
What triggers revolutions and makes products disruptive isn’t always a killer feature. It isn’t an array of advantages, like “it’s faster” or “easier to use”. The simple/easy factor is often mistaken as a product advantage. Anything can be made simple or easy. The question is how it can be that and still do a great job at its core function.
Easy and simple are ways how things work, they are not a feature.
Invest in learning and strategy
Here is what you can do to figure out what people want in future and to overcome founder’s bias: Hire a CX or UX consultant. Bring in knowledge from the outside, experience, the skill sets and tool sets you don’t have, to learn from customers, to learn from markets, to figure out the conclusions that will elevate your business and make your product stand out.
A CX and UX consultant’s job is to do nothing but that: bringing in intel and helping you to set your goals straight before you build the product. Of course no point is wrong to bring in CX and UX, but the longer you wait, the more you risk wasting resources and time in trying something and failing. And we all know that trial and error are part of the game, but still, there will be a lot of mistakes you wish you didn’t have to make.
The question whether you can afford a CX or UX consultant in an early stage of your product is coming from the wrong direction. The real question is: can you afford not to hire an expert in user behaviour and motivation?
As a consultant I have of course an interest to promote CX and UX consulting. However, I am not in this business because there is nothing else I could do. I had a great career in marketing and digital business, and I have looked into production, marketing, sales and distribution. I know a few things about business models (particularly intangible value models, such as services and online subscriptions). What interests me most today are companies and ventures that are trying to improve people’s lives. Those companies have an imminent need to benefit from learnings and strategic direction.
The things that are harder to do and new approaches are more fun for me, they present challenges and open questions about things worth finding out. It is a question of passion, not just of making an income. So I wouldn’t give you this advice if I didn’t genuinely believe in it:
Invest in learning and strategy before and while you are building your product. It will become the root of your product’s success.