Startup Kiss and Tell (PechaKucha)

This is a presentation I gave for the UK UXPA's PechaKucha night. I'm sharing insights from my first 100 days at a brand new tech start-up.

I've recently joined a tech startup in the travel industry.

Tonight I want to talk to you about some of my observations from my first 100 days in a startup.

This format kind of feels right for my story. It's fast paced, with an air of chaos.

First things first. So you decide to put your career on the line to join a few mates and their crazy idea. You have a pet niggle, and you want to fix it. You want Google to buy your idea.

You say to yourself, if Woz and Steve can do it, so can we.

You gather together 8 enthusiastic nerds in a small office in Notting Hill.
And then the real adventure starts.

All activities, decisions and directions are taken to hit your target of getting to market real fast.

While you are in stealth mode you are not making any money. While your product is not live someone else can get in there with your idea. Google could decide to take over your category. Anything could happen.

So you are immediately getting stuck in at the deep end. This project is already a few months behind schedule before the team arrives.

Less planning means more time to actually get stuff done. So you get creative with internal processes, cutting all the corners, quoting 37 signals.

One thing you don't have to worry about - internal team communications. You are the team -
the Creative Director, the brand and visual designer, the UX director, the user researcher, the information architect and user experience designer. You are the product and project manager. Luckily everyone knows that I make a lousy cup of tea.

With time pressure in mind it is very easy to be seduced into agreeing arbitrary launch dates with investors. They love to see progress. We all agree we've got to be quick, but you shouldn't plan your launch event before checking with the delivery team that it's at all feasible.

When your process is still a blank page and your team haven't worked together before, it is easy to fall into the trap of poor discipline. But without a project manager on the case, or ownership clearly defined, progress can easily derail. Constraints on time + resources only leave you to adjust the quality.

Managers love the idea of agile delivery processes, because they sound like they deliver fast results, and give opportunity to changing scope constantly. Under the codename of 'iterative design', sign off can be postponed indefinitely. And all of a sudden you realise you are running in circles rather than getting things done.

As the team gathers speed, one thing becomes very apparent. The initial idea, the baby of the owners, the concept investors have bought into, inevitably needs to change shape to deliver on all promises. But, as any proud parent will tell you, it can be excruciatingly difficult to give up a little bit of their control, to let their baby grow up.

So the team have bought into UCD when they hired me. What they didn't tell me was that they conduct their own user testing. They regularly send out my work in progress to their nearest and dearest for feedback. It's best to embrace the idea that the boss's family are key stakeholders in the design process, just stop that from causing too much damage.

Nevertheless, proper user testing is key to validating any of this biased feedback. And of course to test out your more whacky new ideas. However guerilla your validation methods are, I'd recommend to not scrimp on participant recruitment. This gives you the best possible chance to meet with would-be customers.

You soon discover that the investor's wife has taken a shining to your project. She is somewhat of a professional. She books all her holidays online. So she feels best suited to be your new product manager. As with the family design committee, try to keep your cool and remind everyone that return on investment should be their main concern, not the feature set for version one.

I used to think I was very pro SEO. We all have our eye on the prize of being number one on Google's search listings. But trying to be extra diligent with SEO and second-guessing Google's priorities can easily compromise user friendliness and the trustworthiness of a website. [Think content written for a search bot, not humans.]

Don't let a team of extremely talented developers skew your view of complexity. It's not an easy to use website if you need to hack into the database to hunt for best holiday offers. No matter how much they all vote for their own preferences. You are the only designer, so you have got to defend your customers.

Best-laid plans for co-design quickly come to a screeching halt when your boss starts editing your designs, while you are still working on them. Do not share layered files with anyone. Everyone and their extended social circle are keen to do your job for you. Unfortunately none of them are professional designers. This can be great for quick idea generation, but lead to death by design committee.

Inevitably, after a rapid phase of scope creep, and changing goals daily, comes the moment when the team gets cold feet. Should we not revert back to the initial idea? Could the designer be right? This is a good moment to reflect, and add another round of user testing. And quietly think "I told you so".

It's inevitable that you start out feeling like your work life keeps Scott Adams in business. You wouldn't expect to come across any of these clichés in the real world any more, we should all know better. But with a new team it seems you need to learn those lessons from your own mistakes.

one more tip from the front line. Hire a team of experts. Try not to make too much use of the wannabe designers. It might seem expensive. But with the lack of structure and uncertainty, deep-rooted experience is absolutely invaluable to create a quality interface between you and your customers.

Of course I cherry-picked the hair raising examples. This is the most fun and engaging job I've ever had. It's about making your mark and making a change. And the painpoints are all forgotten by the time you toast the week's successes with Jagerbombs.

I would love to hear your questions and feedback later. You can catch me on twitter and gmail under polaroidgrrl.

Thank you!