Agile, UX & Startups

The topic for this week’s London agile ux event (organised via the meetup group) was ‘Startups’ - small companies, where the need for good teamwork and the shared love for the product you’re building with the desire to ship often naturally create a collaborative, agile environment.

Collaboration allows us to step out of our silos and define the role we take in our team based on our skills, and based on what needs to be done. Being the sole UX person at a startup is a growth opportunity, but it can be very though - so little time, so much to do. Sjors Timmer has been there, and he shared his favourite tricks and tools (many of them built by startups) that allowed him to do good work under time and budget constraints. When you research a topic or competitors, use delicious as a search engine. Look out for how people share their sketches, wires and designs on Flickr. Use Posterous to build up your inspiration archive (check out Sjors’ posterous). Look at this list of tools (on Sjors' slides), find a way to do your work better, there’s so much out there to support you that there’s no excuse. Thanks for sharing, Sjors!

From being the UX team of one at a startup to being a team of UX freelancers whose client is a startup. Andrew Travers shared his story of ‘the project from hell that turned out to be great.’ One week to deliver a UX strategy, moodboards, a design concept, a presentation - oh, and also three days of research and usability testing. Sounds scary. So what made this project a success story?
Factor 1: the team. On such a short project, the time it takes to establish the team and find a way of working can be the biggest challenge. Andrew referenced Hannah Donovan’s excellent dConstruct 2010 talk: musicians who improvise together listen to each other, have eye contact, and they also hand-pick who they play with. Andrew’s project team was thoughtfully put together by Leisa Reichelt. Also, the client was continuously involved, so the UX consultant team and the client team felt like a team, too.
Factor 2: proximity. Not only the UX and client team were close, they kept their end users close, too. Yes, it was tough to squeeze in three days of research, iterating the prototype for the next session based on the insights from the one that was going on. But moving this quickly did not only help to prioritise what aspects of the service really added value for users, it also allowed the startup to validate once more that they were on the right track, and got everybody excited.
Factor 3: intensity. Startups are intense, if you do a project with them it’s not ‘just another project’ - it’s about their business, their existence. What you’re designing is the manifestation of their business. Hence when you’re dealing with a startup, all UX is strategic.
Andrew’s slides are available here.

The final talk of the day was by Basheera Khan, co-founder and UX Director of startup Play Startups are ‘agile by design’ as they attract people with entrepreneurial mindsets, who are driven and willing to try new things. Startups have a high number of ‘T-shaped’ people (as discussed by Bill Moggeridge): one speciality, and working knowledge of lots of other stuff. Natural if there’s lots to do, and only a small team to do it. At Play, collaboration is intense. The product vision is omnipresent and discussed constantly. Skills over roles, a shared understanding of what the product is about, open discussions, having fun together - in her talk, Bash reflected on why this dies as soon as a company reaches a certain size.
One important reason is the team, the people. For Andrew’s project, the team was hand-picked. Huddle co-founder Andy McLoughlin emphasised in this talk that you need to hire a team of peers, people who you want to spend all day with, every day. We see some companies, such as Twitter, taking this very seriously. Smaller companies are also brave enough to let people go who don’t fit in. In larger organisations, tough contracts and slow processes can make this challenging.

Bash's slides are here.

In the group discussion spinning off the final Q&A, we discussed how agile has principles and tools that could help to preserve the startup feel, to help to keep the team close and intensely engaged (an interesting read: Jean Tabaka’s ‘Collaboration Explained’). Retrospectives, visibility of work, collaborative planning sessions, etc. facilitate great teams, but often UX people are isolated by working ahead and running behind, hence left out of the ‘let’s build this’ excitement. An interesting point to follow up at a future meetup!

Thanks to Bash, Andrew and Sjors, and to Mat Walker for sorting out the venue. If you’d like to participate in the discussion, or have a great idea for a meetup, join our group here.