I've been slowly backing away from the field of "user experience" for some years now. More and more, I'm beginning to think it is time that I turn my slow retreat into a full-fledged race to the hills. This evening Juhan pointed me to a terrifying article by renowned user experience thought leader Whitney Hess. Please do read the article, then c'mon back.
Whitney is displaying incredible ignorance and naivete about software start-ups and stating her under-informed opinions as fact based on what must be limited experience. Her claims are flatly false and make the most unflattering of assumptions about VC's and start-up CEO's.
Before making my points in systematic detail, let me clarify my credentials on this topic: over the last 6 years as a Founder of Involution Studios I have worked with over 100 software start-ups. In every case I had direct C-level contact, almost without exception including with the CEO. These relationships have run the gamut. A few examples: one was a hand-picked team by Jim Clark that we were on from the beginning and took them thru an acquisition by Shutterfly. Another was the latest brainchild of Dennis Fong, who came to us with just a vague idea that together we took to an Alpha, and Raptr has been flying high ever since. Of course, not all of our clients are successes. We really enjoyed working on a product called BrightMinds from the very start, an innovative and interesting marketplace to bring together researchers with academic institutions with corporations with venture capitalists. They had a crystal clear vision of the who what where when and why of what they wanted to do that Whitney claims is absent. It still failed.
More, I have been inside many of the important VCs in Silicon Valley; examples include Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, DFJ and Sutter Hill. I also have friends who run more boutique and early stage funding companies, such as Dave Whorton at Tugboat Ventures and Gady Nemirovsky of Inspiration Ventures. I've engaged with these VC's as a product/service consultant and expert, as well as a hopeful start-up.
I want to be explicit in my background and experience inside the very heart of the software start-up and funding communities, because the things I have to say are going to be every bit as declarative as Whitney's statements with one important difference: they are consistent with the reality of how software companies get done, both by the founders and their funding partners.
Whitney begins by writing:
"Startups start up with a single idea: a solution they believe the world has never seen. And while no one can argue that they’re the source of much of the industry’s innovation, they’re almost all lacking in purpose."
That is simply wrong. I have met as many start-ups who have started with a vision for a market that they want to take down as I have those who have "a single idea" and that idea is a "solution". As many or more start-ups see the who very, very clearly before there even is a notion of a what.
"Most people believe that User Experience is just about finding the best solution for your users — but it’s not. UX is about defining the problem that needs to be solved (the why), defining the types of people who need it to be solved (the who), and defining the way in which it should be solved to be relevant to those people (the how)."
Here Whitney is trying to uplevel User Experience to be Product Strategy. It isn't. To be clear, it is well within the province of talented user experience people to provide or contribute to product strategy. But it is not "our" domain, and in my experience the UX people aren't typically the most qualified people in and around the company to lead that process. It is certainly an area to strive to mature into but not the right, provence or even native skillset of the type.
"Yet as a rule, startups are being built on the what."
Wrong. "as a rule"? Are you kidding? Yes, start-ups often articulate their idea by virtue of a "what". But it is hardly what they are typically being built on, much less "as a rule"! This is just a wild statement without basis in fact.
To prove her point:
"Don’t agree? Show me a startup with no programmers. They are all building something. Even if it’s nothing."
Over 20% of the start-ups we worked with engaged us before hiring a programmer. Of the 70+% who started with programmers before working with us well more than half of them had what I would consider fairly sophisticated ideas as to their who/what/where/when/why. Just because they're building something doesn't mean it is pointless or ignorant. The way to build software is via programming; should they spend their miniscule monies on someone who can draw pictures but not make something that works? While I would always advocate to clients a process that begins with envisioning their product or service in light of business-level strategy and direction, the fact is many start-ups have only relative pennies to spend in starting their company. I cannot in good conscience or with a straight face tell them to spend the money on UX instead of programming in those cases. Doing so would not be in their best interest, and the reality is before I'm a product/strategy/design/UX guy I am a service provider and I would be a poor one if I would so counsel them.
"Yet fewer than 1% of startups have a full-time user experience designer on staff, and their obsession with the what is in large part why."
Whitney, kindly provide your source for the "1%" number. You accusing them of an "obsession with the what" is really inflammatory word choice - particularly about a thesis that you are simply incorrect about.
"The challenge lies in the lifeblood of startups: the venture capitalists. Most VCs put their money in whats — not whys or whos or hows. No startup is going to close a Series A round of $5 million without a highly functional what to demo. The product (what) is a lot sexier than the business (why, who, how), and sadly, sex sells. But it also kills."
VC's absolutely do not put their money into "whats". I've met more than a dozen VC's and, while what they put their money into is invariably complex and bifurcated, the most important thing with all of them is the who. VC's care about markets. They really, really, really care about markets. If you want to close a VC, the #1 most important thing you need to solve incredibly well is the market opportunity. Who are you going after, why will they be interested, and what is the relationship between market potential, product/service price points, and the context of the competitive landscape.
Now, one thing that Whitney is correct about is it is very, very rare in this day and age for a VC to invest $5MM in an idea, they want a prototype. Actually for $5MM they almost always want more than a prototype: they want users. Indeed, they rarely care about the what. All they care about is there is a what and the who's seem to like it. If it is putting asses in the seats they don't even care too much what that what is.
Even that is an oversimplification, but it is one that strikes far closer to the truth of the matter than Whitney's incorrect claim. And it is based on market maturation and the relatively low cost to get a product built and out to users, not some perceived myopia.
"In Paul Graham’s essay, “The 18 Mistakes that Kill Startups,” #10 is “Having no specific user in mind.” A few great paragraphs, but it can be said in just two words: no strategy."
And lots of other things kill startups, too. To pull out
"You know what happens to products with no product strategy? Joost. Wesabe. Pownce. Ning. Tipjoy. I Want Sandy. Bebo. Yahoo!"
Is she kidding? I know people inside three of those very companies; all three had an articulated product strategy and could deftly answer the who/what/where/when/why question that Whitney claims they cannot. They may have had a failed strategy. Or they may have had failed execution. Or bad timing. Or a lack of focus. Or, or, or. Lots of reasons companies fail. To tie their failure to one thing - a thing that is incorrect in at least three of those cases - and tie it to a thesis that UX consulting is somehow the panacea, well, I don't have words to reply to that.
However I will point out that the CEO of Tipjoy, one of the companies that Whitney calls out on the carpet, is the very bright and talented Abigail Kirigin who just happens to be a...drum roll please...UX Consultant!!!
"I once saw a startup demo its product at the NY Tech Meetup, and when someone from the audience asked the founder on stage, “Why would someone need this?” he actually said, “I don’t know.” He sure didn’t."
Funny anecdote. Data point of one.
Whitney concludes with this call-to-arms:
"We as user experience designers can develop the strategy that startups need to survive the hype. Some founders rest on their laurels, but it never lasts. Eventually they step back and realize they need a plan. Understanding. Focus. Differentiation. Framework. Process. Meaning. Think maybe you can help?"
1. Most founders realize they need a plan. In fact, they usually have a plan.
2. They usually have understanding.
3. Some have great focus; others are all over the place.
4. Differentiation and framework are often left to the technology, which is a shame, and if they can afford design they should certainly be infusing it.
5. Process is sometimes present, sometimes not - depending on the background of the founders. Often is an all-or-nothing.
6. Meaning, again, either is or not: many start-ups have an insane focus, drive and mission that is meaning-based, others are just looking to make some money or do something cool. But it's unclear to me how or even if it is design's place to transform the meaningless into the seemingly meaningful. Should we really be trying to infuse meaning into something that is meaningless?
Also to that point, there is another group of professionals who would claim to be the ones who should provide the product strategy and answers that Whitney claims are needed: product managers. And they are often present in early-ish stage start-ups, often tasked to lead/manage/help with strategic issues and have a long track record of doing so, to varying degrees of success. I suspect that, if UX people were claiming among the product management community that it is UX's role to provide that insight they would choke on their coffee before wiping their face with a smile and saying, "Ummmm...no."
And so we come back to the point of this article: I am losing faith in "UX". Whitney Hess is a very nice woman; we crossed paths briefly two or three years ago when I was in my last months as the president of, ironically, the industry non-profit for user experience and she was a newly-minted board member. At that point she was a star on the rise, just beginning to ascend among the thought leaders of the field. Her rise has indeed been meteoric as she is keynoting conferences and generally seen as a serious A-lister in that community. Yet this screed about start-ups is just ignorant. I can't think of any other word for it. Her thesis is incredibly flawed and became embarrassing and ridiculous when she punctuated her claims with audacious and absolute language.
This is about far more than Whitney Hess: the site that published her article is called 52 Weeks of UX, subtitled "A discourse on the process of designing for real people." Ignoring the softball they left hanging for me to hit (you mean there are fake people?!), I want to point out it is in the top 100,000 most visited sites by people in the United States. That might not sound impressive but for a user experience industry site it is very strong. It is a trusted industry resource that is read by many people and helping to set the definition and trajectory of the professional space. And it is publishing articles like this - it would appear publishing it very proudly? What does it say about that resource, and the community of people who consume the content as if it were truth? This is a far more serious situation than it might appear based on just one broken article.
In my experience, "UX" people too often overstep. They are very smart people, frequently systems thinkers, and with the appropriate authority and experience could make really meaningful impact. Hell, my company is proof enough that we do make a startlingly meaningful impact when positioned properly and funded. But I have found that many people in "UX" sadly lack both the authority and the experience to participate at the level they ask to be positioned. Being smart people they are able to talk with authority, much like Whitney has here. But talking and knowing are two very different things, and this is another example of the very worst of what the UX community sometimes provides: an ambitious reach, desperately exceeding its grasp and making the whole community look foolish in the process.