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UX for Lean Startups, a Great Resource for Founders and New Designers

UX for Lean StartupsYou don’t need a Masters degree from Carnegie Mellon to practice user experience.

Every day thousands of people practice user experience in their jobs, and they do so without knowing it. And they might be doing it poorly, if they don’t understand the methods and practices that are used by designers to produce great products.

Researching the market, iteration, or other methods are unknown to them, and there aren’t a lot of publications that service this market of unknowing UX designers.

That’s where Laura Klein’s book UX For Lean Startups comes in.

Aimed at the same market and a great companion to Eric Reis’ Lean Startup, the publication is a very concise overview of what user experience is and how you can apply it in just about any startup environment.

It purposely omits case studies because Laura feels that every situation is unique. Everyone should figure out a process that works for them, iterating until it works. Lean Process for doing Lean UX.

It doesn’t use big words

The book is an excellent guide for mid-career UX designers that want to move to a more iterative process and away from waterfall, and for founders that don’t have the money to pay for a user experience designer and would need to have a go at it themselves.

One of the biggest frustrations for non-designers regarding user experience books is that many of them use overly technical terms to describe some of the process that are used in the field. For example, I have a hard enough time pronouncing “ethnographic research”, much less spelling it.

Laura calls it what it is: “You know, listening to your users.”

She does this consistently throughout the book, explaining terms in a voice that is similar to what I love about her blog — taking complex concepts and explaining them in a way that doesn’t belittle the reader, unlike many other publications in our field.

Testing ideas quicker and cheaper

Engineers are expensive. Designers are expensive. How do you mitigate that cost?

Designing small prototypes and doing quick sketches with pen and paper that test your assumptions is the way to go, and Laura discusses tools that allow founders to do that. She specifically calls out frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap, which is revolutionizing prototyping, and wireframe tools like Balsamiq (which, ironically is what the wireframes in the book are done in).

There’s also solid commentary about the value of interactive prototypes — they take a long time to build — and discussion of when you should use a medium fidelity prototype (testing more complex concepts) versus something simple, like a visual change or a landing page for A/B Testing.

Quick, dirty, and cheap usability methodologies

She advocates methods that are much quicker, and more cost effective so that you can use many more of them.

If you’re working for Facebook, Google, or other large organizations, you have a lot of resources at your disposal — usability testing labs, eye tracking machines, and big budgets to spend on bringing in people that fit your target audience.

That’s. Not. Lean.

The book explains that this sort of testing, especially early on in the product development process, is a waste of time and money. She advocates methods that are much quicker (the book has a whole section on the value of guerilla user tests), and more cost effective so that you can use many more of them.

One of the methods she discusses that I have used personally is the Starbucks usability test: sit down in a local coffee shop, set up your laptop, and offer someone a free coffee to spend 10 minutes using your product. You would be surprised how many people are willing to do it, and I’ve done it several times, most recently for a startup project.  We did the test at The Creamery in San Francisco, and we got a demographic that was a lot less techie than you would think.

Measuring every step of the process

The book covers a data-driven design process which explains the value of A/B testing, why it works, and how to use it properly.

Having been through the startup process one too many times, I’ve watched founders spend thousands of dollars on building a product without measuring their progress by gathering user data. They get to the end of development, release the product into the wild, and wonder how to pivot because of low user adoption.

(I think this is where I’m usually screaming at the client, “Your idea is never going to work” before launch, because nothing was tested in front of any live users other than the founder’s wife.)

The book covers a data-driven design process which explains the value of A/B testing, why it works, and how to use it properly. It also explains some of the misconceptions about A/B testing that are often brought up by user experience professionals, and how to overcome the fear of testing everything.

A discussion of when not to design

“Your goal for this type of design is to make things easy, obvious, and useful.”

Most founders get hung up on the shiny when they really should be focusing on user adoption, and this is well covered in the book.

If you’re doing a startup, those initial designs will usually end up in the electronic trash as you pivot and iterate your way to success. Especially in startups.

Laura makes this point exactly: “Your goal for this type of design is to make things easy, obvious, and useful.”

I personally care less about initial designs than the developers and product owners I work with, because I know it’s a starting point. I’ve heard time and again, the designer is the person that cares least about the color of a button.

Laura makes that point too: “I’ve seen too many companies spending time quibbling over the visual design of incredibly important features, which just ends up delaying the release of these features.”

And any delay for this reason will delay getting feedback from real users.

The Conclusion

The book is an invaluable resource for demystifying the Lean Process. It’s also an excellent guide for mid-career UX designers that want to move to a more iterative process and away from waterfall, and for founders that don’t have the money to pay for a user experience designer and would need to have a go at it themselves.

Designers like myself that have been using some of this approach for a long while before it was called “lean” will find this book a good validation of their methods.

Also, if you’re doing your own startup and don’t have formal user experience training, or you are a designer and don’t know how to build your own product, you should buy this book.