3 Things to Talk About Before Talking About Design

James MoedThis guest article is written by James Moed, Seedcamp’s Expert in Residence and was previously Director for Financial Service Design at IDEO. For the past 11 years, he’s advised both innovation leaders and design teams, helping them to combine fresh insights around customer behaviour with inspiration from other sectors, new business models, and emerging technologies. In this article James presents the three key things a startup should consider before focusing on design.

About 12 months ago, I walked into my first mentor session as an Expert-In-Residence at Seedcamp – three hours to help 6 startups in 30-minute back to back sessions. The forced intimacy felt awkward. I had just spent seven years at IDEO where I would patiently dissect big company innovation problems over weeks or months. Here at Seedcamp, I’m expected to offer meaningful advice in half an hour to teams with about 50 other issues burning up their inboxes.

In most cases, it’s assumed that I’m a “design guy.” While Seedcamp founders are far more fluent in design and user experience than most corporate VP’s I’ve met, sometimes I still find myself staring at demos and wireframes. Not just a few founders have looked at me in hope that I might sprinkle some IDEO ‘designy-fairy-dust’ on it.

Well firstly, I’m not that kind of designer – rather, I’m the guy who can help you translate user insight into product features (and design decisions) that make business sense. Secondly, even if if I were, before any conversation about pixels, there are a few core topics to tackle first.

Here are three things to talk about before talking about design…

1. I want to know your questions, not your answers.

Often, by the time I meet Seedcamp founders, they’ve come through multiple weeks of pitching. Session after session of convincing investors, advisors and others that they know exactly whom their product is for and what it needs to do to win over those customers. By the time that process is over, many founders believe their own pitch a little too confidently.

Some forget that their first job is to figure out the big questions, gain fresh insight and validate assumptions – not prove that customers WILL do what the pitch deck says.

Often this bullishness translates into customer acquisition at the expense of learning. One company I met had the luck of a charismatic founder, great connections, and customers lining up for trial. The sales pipeline was impressive (and made a great story for investors) but the team didn’t actually know if customers would use the product as predicted. They had to resist the temptation to sign up too many early users. Just managing those customer needs would have distracted the team from the test/learn cycles they needed to focus on. A significant pivot a few months later proved the wisdom of a bit of patience.

Getting to product-market-fit is supposed to be a bit messy…

Before you add a whole bunch more stuff to your UX backlog, be honest about the big assumptions you still need to test.

Will your users behave as you expect? Do you know their real “job to be done”? Are you sure you’re targeting the right people? How might you gain more confidence quickly and cheaply?

2. Let’s talk about your users – not your UX

After a decade of beating the drum of customer insight and empathy, I get real naches when I meet a founding team that has already thought through their customer personas. Building personas is an easy exercise and a great way to start seeing your customers as real people – not just “users.”

However, many conversations that start with a rich persona soon give way to questions about why users aren’t responding to the product in real-life. It often goes something like this: “Our product makes life so much easier for X, if only they’d take the time to learn it!”

So – why won’t your target user put in the effort?

Many teams put so much thought into building a better solution, they don’t realise how much patience and support new users need to learn it. Even the most detailed personas often fail to capture how reluctant many users are to try something new.

Don’t just imagine the benefit the user will gain from your great new service, think about the risk they’re taking if they get it wrong (lost time? lost reputation?)

How can you mitigate that risk?

(I’m a big fan of Canva’s approach. They’ve designed an easy way to create graphic design projects online, but the tools, while intuitive, require some practice. That’s why their onboarding process goes overboard in building users’ digital confidence with a bit of game-motivation, and lots of humour.)

If your user seems too risk-averse it may be worth re-examining your target user. You’re going after people who might use your product – but how badly do they need you? Let’s say you’ve come up with a tool that enables digital marketers to create Scorsese-quality promotional videos in half the time. Sure, you could market your service to high-end marketers (“Cut your spend in half!”) but changing their behaviour will be tough. After all, those folks already have a solution they’re used to, even if takes lots of time and money.

Take some time to think about customers who have the need – but lack the means.

Who’s currently excluded from today’s solutions? (Which digital marketing folks wish they could build awesome videos, but feel like they’re too small, too inexperienced, or too budget constrained to try?)

If you can reach customers with the most acute needs, they may become your most important lead users. For example – who were the first customers of the stylist-sends-you-a-box-of-clothes-to-try-on retailers (e.g. Trunk Club, The Chapar) Style-obsessed dudes with no time? Girlfriends looking to replace their boyfriends’ trackies? Nope. The original users were heavy guys – the ones who benefit the most from great fitting clothes, but hate the awkwardness of trying them on in-store.

3. Let’s get your service journey right before we discuss what your product looks like

Beautiful, simple digital design seems to be everywhere (hooray!). UXers have finally won their seat at the table, and today, no startup would dare present any demo that lacked the clean, flat, intuitive look and feel that we’ve all come to expect from “good” design. Seedcamp founders are no exception.

The real test of great UX isn’t its simplicity, it’s the ability to deliver on a user’s needs at every step.

Whenever Seedcamp teams show me their product, the first thing I do is walk through it from the perspective of their customer. At each screen, I’m asking: What does this user need to do here? What does this user need to feel in order to do that? Does this screen deliver on that function and emotion?

Often, what seems at first glance to be a great UX design, starts to feel like it’s missing the mark. A few months back, I was working with a company that aggregates premium content and I noticed that their landing page led the user directly into an explanation of subscription packages. It was easy to read and uncluttered. Still – the effect was jarring. If I’ve just arrived at this site with the promise of viewing a clip of my favourite celeb, the main (the only) thing I need is the satisfaction of seeing that content. That satisfaction could come from a video teaser or even just a big still image – but it’s way too early to be selling me on a subscription In this case, the team was so concerned about communicating the details of their product that they ignored the subtleties of seducing their customer (or as IDEO’s Lydia Howland says, “Oops, your business model is showing.”)

Getting to UX that delivers the right thing at the right time requires that you take a step back and create your user’s service journey.

Journey mapping is core to every service designer’s toolkit, so there are quite a few good guides online. It’s basically a matter of breaking down your product experience step by step, identifying what your user is thinking, feeling, and doing at each point, and determining which of those needs you should consider. Here are a few pointers:

  • Their journey map should start before your service does (and end after yours finishes). What triggers their need? How do they deal with that need today? What happens after they’ve used your product? What’s the effect on their lives?
  • Think about their alternative solutions at each step. What do they already use to solve their problems? How could you make them switch? Should you complement those solutions?
  • Design for the messiness of real life. Be aware that every user has about 20 other things they’re trying to do, and lots of potential interruptions. When do they need time to think about their next step? When do they need to consult with someone else? How can you keep them engaged?

Unsurprisingly, by the time we’ve touched on these three topics, I’ve given the founders enough homework that we can comfortably save the UX design review for a future session. By the time that rolls around, the founders I’ve met show up with much more than just screens. They bring personas, service journeys, and much more specific questions about their UX challenges – all the right ingredients we need to talk about design.

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