Zero to One : My key learnings as a UX designer

Back in December 2019, I had the unique opportunity to work for a zero-to-one startup called Workomo, founded by Soumitra Sharma. What followed was months of learning, rapid iterations, and changing the way we think and execute a design. 

While some of these challenges were tackled from a design fundamental standpoint, most of them have been brought out to drive agile execution at every level. Capturing some of my top learnings below 👇🏻


Design is a part of an engine, not a discreet activity

Having worked with companies and on products that are further down the growth curve or have reached scale, I was accustomed to thinking of design as an independent work stream which is followed by a hand over to the engineering team who will again take a month or so before seeing the user start trying out the product.

With smaller runways and teams, an early-stage company’s only way to crack success is to iterate and test with users as fast as possible. The entire team works together to make sure that a new release goes out every week. This may often feel limiting at first. However, we soon realized the power of this approach – shipping the product at this speed meant that we were able to hypothesize, experiment, design something unique, get user feedback and repeat in the most agile way possible. This was not possible before.


User journeys are emergent, not orchestrated

As UX designers trained in elaborate processes of design, we like to come up with user journeys by imagining the goals and concerns at every part of their journey to achieve their own goals.

The reality for zero-to-one products, however, is that we really can’t predict whether users are going to even try out the product, let alone integrating it into their life! Instead of the designers anticipating user journeys, the preferred method here is instead to:

  • Design an MVP based on previous learnings and hypotheses
  • Build a product, give it to users
  • See how they use them
  • Capture their journeys and how they use the product in them
  • Design to make that journey better

If you think about it, the emergent nature of the usage seems obvious – how can a designer sitting in a room decide how the user will fit a completely new product in their life? It is only the user who can figure out how these products can fit into their journeys. 

It’s no wonder why Geoffrey Moore calls the early users of such products by the name ‘innovators’. They are as much a part of the innovation as the makers!


Unpolished & fast beats polished & slow design

This was a bit hard for me to digest as a designer, but in the engine to find usage and users, the polish of design can be counter-intuitive if it comes in the way of speed. The reason is that we need to see if the user gets any value from the product rather than spending months building a product with polished details that nobody wants to use.

At Workomo, we many times ship features that have purely focused on function/end utility to put the value flow in front of the user. However, this is the only way to t build on the hypothesis that can be worked on week after week to keep the engine running at a constant speed.


Users will treat you differently than an established product

For those of us who have designed experiences for established products and organizations, we have an idea of users that are forgiving and willing to take leaps of faith in their flow because they believe that the product will help them achieve their goals. In zero-to-one products, however, users are not clear themselves on what goal this product will help them achieve and how. This means that these products have to deal with these two issues among others:

  • Low effort before the first win: Users will not spend a lot of time and effort in the hope that the product will deliver value in the future. This means that the value needs to be delivered in some way as early as possible
  • Low trust: Users will not give any information unless the value they receive in return is compelling enough. Unlike in the case of established products, it ends up becoming a responsibility of the UX to convince them.

While these are a few learnings that have pushed me to alter my approach to design creation, transforming my attitude has been the biggest game-changer.


When a design fails, accept it!

Unlike in established products where the screens designed by you are almost expected to succeed, a zero-to-one product means that some flows/screen get zero engagement — not necessarily because of any issue with the design/functionality but rather a failure of an underlying hypothesis about the usefulness of the feature/product to the user. 

It’s heartbreaking to see something we were super excited about when designing, being completely ignored by the user. At such points, I am grateful to Soumitra who comes in with a dose of motivation for the team, helping everyone let go of the failed work, recapping the learnings, and moving on to the next cycle of the engine. 

These have been some of our learnings as we worked to bring the product from an abstract vision to something that many users are now using daily.

Have you worked in an early-stage startup before? What were your learnings? Feel free to drop in your comments below!

This article originally appeared here.

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