Brant's Rant | Customer Development | Lean Startup | Startups

Why UX? Why now?

When you hear concepts over and over, you often wonder is it because it’s swarming or because your ear is newly attuned to it?  Did you know there’s a lot of people who believe that the #11 has super powers and that’s why when they look at the clock, it’s always 11 after?  Seriously.
UX is hip.  And rightly so.  I thought I’d share a theory why this is so and what impact it might have on your startup.  This despite the fact that I’m relatively new to UX concepts.

The 90s

Painting with a super broad brush, the 90s technology revolution which saw the introduction of PCs and networks into businesses was driven primarily by increases in productivity measured at the business level.  Reduction in support staff, increased internal and inter-business communication had a measurable impact on the business.  While the technology was expensive and the immediate net benefit small, it grew enough in the late 90s to, at the very least, portend benefits to come.
It was far from smooth-sailing.  The effective lifecycle of a PCs was only 2-3 years.  If you had a network of 100 nodes, you were easily paying 100K/year to hardware and software to keep things running at a pretty basic level.  Some medium sized businesses were seriously thinking of packing it in until costs would come down or larger benefits could be realized.
If there’s one thing that seems to be true in technology, it’s that future benefits are easy to imagine and don’t come quickly enough. In other words, the industry pretty consistently over-promises and under delivers.  Technology in the 90s was mired with buggy (Microsoft) software that bogged down trailing hardware and arguably was maliciously incompatible with (buggy) legacy network software (Netware).
An emphasis on UX was nowhere to be seen.  Of course, that’s not exactly true, Apple had it in spades.  But the extra dollars required for an improved user experience had little impact for the average business user on business productivity. A reasonable argument could be made that this was a short-sighted view, but the view was rational. If you triple the price tag, you must triple the productivity. The Macintosh made headway in businesses at the departmental level, where the impact on productivity was significant; in other words, where specialized graphic-intensive applications were put to use.
The UX experience on the PC was crap and no one wanted to pay to improve it, since you could still reduce the administrative support to principal ratio even with crappy systems.  That it took a IT guy several weeks to implement buggy MS Mail to SMTP gateways and the end-user process to send such an email sucked didn’t matter relative to the time and money savings of sending proposals at the last minute vs sending hard copies via Fed Ex.

The 2000s

As the Internet emerged as a business productivity tool, the primary beneficiary was the department.  The browser as a standardized UI for internal applications reduced IT supports costs and offered some freedom for departments and business units from their dependency on IT.  As SaaS emerged, this independence accelerated.
The early user experience on the browser was horrible and often worse than that of desktop or client/server applications.  But the benefits from a lightweight interface and reduced dependency on IT outweighed the superior UX experience.  Further, technical limitations on the browser thwarted efforts to improve the experience.


While I’m sure there will be a whole new revolution in business and departmental productivity, likely brought on by human-computer interaction technology (think Kinnect), today’s story is about personal productivity.  Applications built for the desktop stand-alone, mobile, browser-based SaaS are all about improving user productivity.  The two primary ways to achieve this are 1) work within existing flows; 2) mimic the offline world.
I chuckle when I see marketing slogans “We’re going to change the way you work!”  Really?  See ya!  Why do dating sites fail? They don’t replicate how human beings meet.
The tricky thing is that you need to improve productivity enough to justify the costs without changing behavior so much as to make the product undesirable.  How do we do this?  With superior UX, of course.  How do you nail such a thing?  It should come as not surprise that my recommendation is deploying Lean UX design principles.  You must understand the it is a delicate, learning process.
“But people are so different!” you rightfully lament. Yep, the one size fits all is dead. While investors and industry pundits hand-wringing about copycats, features-not-products, thinking-too-small, etc., the entrepreneurship world is producing 1000s of startups to figure out how to solve common problems across a wide-diversity of people.
I don’t know what the landscape ends up looking like.  If big businesses swoop up  lean startups who have successfully unlocked one or more beachhead market segments, they can’t kill the innovation or roll it up into bloatware without creating a new startup opportunity.  Similarly, is it possible for one SaaS or mobile product to solve similar productivity problems for a mass of varied segments?
I welcome your thoughts in comments!