people attending a meeting for startups
PHOTO: Franck V.

The chances of a start-up failing are high. The reasons for failure range the gamut:

  • They have an inability to scale.
  • They can't afford the cost of technology and engineering teams.
  • Poor management teams.
  • Bad business models.
  • Failure to properly address traction and adoption, the metrics that measure the influx of new customers and how many stick around.
  • They don't get the funding they need and/or run out of money.

However, start-ups face one very significant obstacle before scaling becomes an issue, before hiring more engineering blows the budget up and before burning too much money becomes the final nail in the coffin. Start-ups need to have experienced user experience (UX) researchers speak to actual and/or potential customers to learn habits, behaviors, motivations, fears and real needs. Addressing these questions right away is the best way to ensure the start-up will be successful with its product-market fit.

Related Article: The Danger of Designing for Only One User

Beware the Lean Start-Up Siren Song

Those who have read "The Lean Startup" book get excited about the advice to: “Get out of the building and away from the mirror.” They’re inspired to talk to potential or real customers and run ideas by them. How could this go wrong? Doesn’t this fulfill the promise of being “user-centered?”

Start-ups who don’t bring in UX researchers are often asking wrong, and potentially biased, questions. Let’s imagine a fake start-up working on an app that’s going to help drinking buddies find a new bar to meet up after work. The wrong questions would include:

  • Would you use a new app that helps after-work drinking buddies find a bar you’ve never been to? They might say sure, that sounds great.
  • Would your friends use this? Well, it depends on having your friends also use it, so let’s answer yes here as well. We want to be nice and polite, yes to everything!
  • Do you like to use apps to coordinate your after-work drinking? Yes, why not.

A start-up might walk away from such an experience feeling like, “YES, we are on to a great idea! People like this and they are interested in our app. Their friends would use it and they all like to use apps. This is going to be great!” But the start-up actually missed key information that is likely to lead to a pivot or an abandonment of the original concept.

UX researchers would ask a very different set of questions. They want to know how people accomplish these tasks now. UX research interview questions might include:

  • How do the drinking buddies find a new bar now? They might use Google Maps, recommendations from friends, Yelp or other mapping and directory sites that tell people where bars are.
  • Where are the pain points in how you do this now, is this target audience having trouble finding bars and coordinating drinkers? If the answer is no, perhaps nobody needs or wants your app.
  • Are people likely to change how they do it now and convert to your product or method? It takes a lot for people to change behaviors. We often can’t sell or market them into those changes, and we certainly can’t force anybody to start using a new app. Will people stop using WhatsApp, texting, email, group messaging, or whatever they are doing now to use our app? Will our app become part of their normal habits or are we trying to drag them away from something that’s more natural for them to use, such as another app or a system they are in all day already?
  • What could be improved about users’ current process, is there something going wrong now for after-work drinking buddies that your app can solve? If so, there might be room for your app in the market. If not, then you are not solving real problems for real customers. It will be difficult to get traction and adoption.

Related Article: The Secret to Start-Up Success: Your Ecosystem

Research and Criticism Are Important

A start-up founder in love with their idea might not believe they need to do any research or interview potential customers. They may believe they can ignore those who criticize or challenge their idea and simply surround themselves with those that support it. However, being challenged every step of the way is how you grow, how you can make something better and ultimately achieve success. Great UX research based on what is learned from actual and/or potential customers provides these necessary challenges and possibilities for improvement.

In my next article, we’ll look at the three elements every start-up needs to be poised for success.