Agile, UX and Startups — oh my!

Finding a User Experience Designer for your startup

Being apart of a startup is an exhilarating experience. If you love challenges and pushing yourself and failing  you’ll love being in an entrepreneur at a startup. Everyone on the team has to wear multiple hats, thus not excluding your user experience designer.

Being the exclusive user experience person in a startup is not only extremely daunting, it’s exhilarating, challenging and will prove to be a great growth opportunity. Instead of weeks to properly assemble strategies, design concepts, personas you’ll have a day — but mostly likely 4 hours! As insane and idiotic as that might sound, people do this and love it all the time.

So if you’re a co-founder of a startup or looking to grab someone to join your company here are a few key things to keep in mind while trying to assemble an agile user experience team-member for your startup.

Ninjas need not apply

Note that, just because you add the phrase ‘agile’ into your posted job description or worse, ‘UX Ninja NEEDED’, it won’t actually drive enough interest from the community of people that actually have the talent and experience with the process that you’ll need. At best you’ll get a flood of emails from everyone whose sketched something similar to wireframes. At worse, you’re going to tip the needle with this whole ‘ninja’ thing. Seriously, if you’re going to use something it’s a Samurai — not ninjas.

But I digress… most people haven’t ever worked in an agile team before, let alone fierce / demanding work environments, in addition to most likely having never worked with developers directly or atleast in the context that you’ll need either.

So, really what you should be seeking is either a UX person that has a great sense of value with working with a team, and being really great at problem solving. The UX process is a very strategic process and you’ll want to make sure the person you’ll be working with doesn’t buckle under pressure and can work with the rest of the team to solve the needed problems quickly.

There’s no ME in TEAM… (wait a min..)

If your partner or possible hire is a rock-star that’s great for the short-term, but usually that means they won’t get along with the group. Usually, not always. Just to make sure, you’ll want to ask specific questions about their past jobs, clients and other teammates. Listen for any patterns about how people just didn’t understand their taste, or if the everyone was wrong or anything close to the pattern of being a lone-ranger. Rebel rockstars don’t like to work with groups, since they want all the credit themselves, and since you’re looking to add them to a startup you will need to make sure the dynamic will still be ok. Startup culture is like an accelerant. It may take months or years to get a bad egg out of a ‘normal’ corporate or small business environment; but in a startup you’ll know right away because of the late nights, breakfast runs, lunch breaks, networking events… they’re your new family member. So if something bugs you now, it’s only going to get worse when you’re spending 20hrs a day with them. The intense nature that comes with a startups culture is fueled by the late nights, early mornings, constant re-tooling and tweaking on work that was already agreed upon. Everyone involved needs to be in for the good of the group, not just another portfolio piece.

With that said, you’ll still want to make sure there is a strong understanding of the hierarchy. If there are more than one UXD’s then one person should have final approval, or veto’ing power. There are many ways to solve problems, and everything doesn’t need to be done in a democratic process. This doesn’t mean that your startup should form an oligarchy structure, just note that decisions need to be made quick. Don’t limit the power of cooperative discussions and feedback, just know that you all won’t have the time to always elegantly discuss every idea. This is the point of being in an iterative process. You’ll want to know that they can either make a decision and either realize it was wrong and try something else, or keep moving even though it might not be the *best* solution.

Stick, stones & the *real* power of words

An experienced user experience designer / architect knows that copywriting is just as invaluable as any other stage in the process. The person you seek doesn’t have to be the best wordsmith, or have won any copywriting awards, just like they don’t have to be the designers nor developers; however, having the ability to articulate their thoughts and communicate  clearly and concisely with with the rest of the team, the developers and designers, and your clients or consumers is key. Research might say one thing, but the team want’s something else so this person will need to know how to express the results without always resulting to hostility (which isn’t an easy task). A great way to get insights to how effectively a person can communicate is to throw them into the fire. Have the developer in the company speak and interview the candidate as well (if it’s not you). Can the two communicate effectively with the respective seperate disciplines and still create a meaningful conversation regarding the problems the startup is working on?

Then while looking at their portfolio, place close attention to what they’re focusing on. Knowing where to place design elements, having a decent understanding of the engineering process of how a product should flow and the words needed to get users there.  These and more all have their weighted value of importance and you’ll want to make sure the person you seek just doesn’t focus on one or two elements in their portfolio. Ask them to describe their projects in detail, don’t short-cut anything as you’ll want to listen to how they’re selling themselves and their work.

To wrap up..

Depending on your needs, if you need a multi-disciplined UX person who is also a decent Graphic Designer, or Developer, or Marketer or anything else — whichever the case it’s already a great start that you have acknowledge the need for UX talent in your company. It’s never easy finding that *right* person, however, it is possible. Having an understanding of a strong users process is finally starting to get it’s just credit and attention & it’s exciting to see these positions being sought after in the beginning stages of startups. Here in atlanta, it’s clearly evident when you talk to any of the awesome startups and companies here like MailChimp, ScoutMobTripLingo or OpenStudy,  etc..

What’s your thought on UX fitting into the process in startups? Too early or much needed?



2 thoughts on “Agile, UX and Startups — oh my!

  • IMO, UX is important, especially for a startup, but a lot of people confuse UX with UI design. And I’d argue UX is more important than UI design

    Many experienced UX designers I know cannot design as well as some UI designers (but can definitely design better than programmers or mathematicians). But their focus is more holistic on the entire process of the user, which I think is brilliant.

    Perhaps it’s not wise for startups to hire UX designers. In our startup (edgeyo – which is a marketplace for startup funding), we’ve engaged UX engineers to engineer the user experience instead. But to each startup, his/her own.

    p/s: It’s spelled “copywriting”

    • I completely agree with your point that UX is more than just UI design, and the unfortunate confusion of how most people associate the two.

      I could see how you would think that an ux engineer is better/much more suited than a ux designer in the beginning stages of a company, but it seems really difficult to weigh either the design, code or management process over one another. Cases can be made for either and people could weigh them equally.

      … and thanks for the heads up on the spelling error, and I’m looking forward to seeing the launch of your product.

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