Fast Track to UX Designing in Startups

Coffee bean sprouts in small starter bags.

So you want to be a UX designer, or be the goto UX person in a startup? It’s not quite the same as in an already established organisation. I’ve always done my best to use User Experience Design (UXD) as a tool to add value to the startups I work with. It might reduce time to market, increase the value of the proposition or simply make concepts understandable and hence act as a catalyst for more effective discussions. Browsing around I haven’t been able to find many articles or people talking about applying UXD within a startup, so here’s what I’ve learned.

Three Lessons

Out of all the lessons I’ve had both big and small, here are my top three takeaways if you’re determined to deliver the biggest bang for buck.

  1. Time box yourself to learn as many techniques as possible
  2. Try things out and make mistakes. The earlier the better.
  3. Spend as much time teaching as you do delivering

1. Time box and learn skills

In startup life anything can happen. The needs of the business can change every day and you need to be able to react to that, whilst keeping on course with the overall goal. Thus, having a range of skills available at your fingertips to navigate that will prove useful to any business but especially to a startup. From design thinking mindset and design studios, down to smaller tools like proto-personas or surveys you will need to decide quickly the best tool for the job, trust your gut and put it into action.

That being said you rarely have the luxury of training to be fluent in those skills before testing it out “in the field” on the real work. Even in a more established business you won’t have time to learn everything perfectly before having to put it into practice. Set some time aside to learn, practice those skills and after a few “reps” just run with it! Here are some resources that you might find handy to get started:

2. Try things and make mistakes

“If you want to succeed faster, double your failure rate.”
– Tom Watson Jr.

The quote above is very true of startups and carrying out UX work is no exception. Try out your toolkit and if it doesn’t work, cut your losses and try something else! Take an educated guess and develop your own toolset. The toolset that I’ve curated and use will be different to yours. If you spend too long always trying to “get it right” then you will reduce the amount of time you could have spent iterating and improving upon your first attempt. Be mindful not to go all the way into “try everything and see what sticks”– there is a balance to strike.

Try out this list of problems if there aren’t any opportunities for you to make a few mistakes and learn from them:

3. Do 50% teaching, 50% delivery

You can’t deliver everything, and siloing yourself off is only going to hurt the both yourself and the business. Do what you can to increase the “Design Quotient” or DQ (like IQ) of your team whilst tackling the larger, meatier tasks suitable to your skillset and specialities. Design is how it works, and everyone involved in a startup contributes to the product’s design whether they realise it or not. With a startup everyone pitches in and the lines of responsibility and work done will blur (if you’re doing it right), so why not empower your team to help make even some small design decisions?

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
– Steve Jobs


I’m sure a few readers will come to the end of this and wonder “but where’s the secret sauce, isn’t there a recipe I can follow or something?”. Unfortunately there isn’t one, really. To be effective within a startup as a Designer all you can do is arm yourself with some design tools, try things out, and sprinkle the team with nuggets of design knowledge. Above everything else you can release, learn, iterate and enjoy the ride.

To discuss this or anything Design related, you can get in touch with me via Twitter or Email.

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