Startup investment in UX

Guest blog post by Chris Hoover, co-founder of AdFury

Investing in UX usually has strong ROI, even for cash-tight startups.

I'm a co-founder of a SaaS product that helps people manage digital ad campaigns. It's not the sexiest market in the world, but it's a good product that people rely on. Like all startups, we had our challenges. The biggest one: growth. It was slow. We got people in the door okay, but retention wasn't where it needed to be.

One of the many hats I wear is writing support docs. It's a true drudge. There’s the series of steps get a nice cropped screenshot. Then add arrows pointing to the feature being documented. Save the image locally. Upload the image to a support platform. Then write the associated article, which isn’t writing so much as gutting it out.

Then do it again. Another screenshot. Arrows. Upload. Description. Repeat. Over and over.

My co-founder wondered if it was worth the effort. We used our product every day. It was intuitive. Why document the obvious with little arrows? It was a serious consideration -- time was the one thing our tiny startup absolutely could not afford to waste.

But, man. I was drawing a lot of little arrows.

How many clicks to get to that essential function? Seven. That seemed like a lot.

Our UX was pretty good

It wasn’t world class or super innovative. We weren’t designers, so our strategy was to look at how other companies had done similar things. For sure it wasn’t terrible. Was it?

To find out, we got as much feedback from users as we could. These conversations were sometimes a little awkward.

Us: Did you find the product valuable and usable?
Them, typically: Uh, I guess it was okay.
U: Is there any aspect that you particularly love? Or that frustrates you?
TT: Um. Hey, look, sorry. I’ve got a meeting.

Clearly, users were lukewarm. And churn was high. We agonized over it. True, we had some bugs. Incomplete features. The product was beta, and that turned some people off. What was wrong?

We hoped it wasn’t UX. We avoided the topic altogether. Not because we didn’t respect design or think it important; but because it was risky and time-consuming.

We didn’t have resources. A UX change needed a prototype that I had to create using my For Dummies level of Adobe expertise. Implementing my efforts meant burning engineering bandwidth. And we didn’t have resources to test the design, which meant it might all be for nothing.

A tipping point

We decided to ask for feedback from abandoners – folks that spent a short time in the product and then never returned. They mostly didn’t bother talking to us, but a few did. Here’s an example:

Every response was a variation on this theme. We needed to improve our design. And we needed help. Where to find it?

We considered overseas freelancers

Like most early-stage startups, time wasn’t the only scarce resource. Money was also tight.

So, our first instinct was to work with overseas freelancers. There are many of them available, and they are the least expensive option.

But it didn’t work out for us. It’s hard to design an interface or workflow when you’re unfamiliar with a product and have little understanding of problems it’s trying to solve. It’s also hard to move through that learning curve when you are juggling four or five projects and time zone differences require late meetings over an unreliable Skype connection.

We spent a few sessions painfully trying to explain our product to an exhausted person working after midnight their time. And then we decided to look at other options.

We considered agencies

We then looked at design agencies.

We asked friends to recommend design companies and wound up talking to a half dozen or so. It was a great experience. Designers are interesting and fun to talk to because they get to tackle all sorts of hard problems for all kinds of clients. Without exception, they were professional, creative, knowledgeable.

But they specialized mostly in consumer-oriented products and apps. Understandable. Enterprise software isn’t particularly exciting. It’s software that manages HR and payroll and helps you keep track of customers. My company manages digital advertising campaigns.

And they were expensive. Most proposals we received were within shouting distance of six figures. We were very uncomfortable making that kind of investment with an agency that didn’t have a lot of enterprise software under their belt.

We find DesignMap

One of the agencies with which we had been speaking was DesignMap. They specialize in enterprise software. Their perspective is that, while enterprise isn’t sexy, people spend their entire working lives sitting in front of it. All day, every day. Good design matters because it has an immediate positive impact. In fact, “design that matters” is DesignMap’s slogan.

Most important, and what made us comfortable, was that DesignMap understood our particular challenges. Not only did they have experience with enterprise software, but they also had experience with other marketing tech companies.

That was exciting. But we were worried about magical thinking. It was a significant investment for us. Would it be worth it? We knew we’d only know for sure in retrospect, so we swallowed hard and signed up for a design sprint. The sprint would be a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design and prototyping. Here’s how it went.

Day one, morning

The first order of business was to help the team understand the ecosystem in which the product lived. Our product helps businesses run successful ad campaigns on Google’s search results page; so, we began the morning of our first day explaining how Google search advertising works.

The next task was explaining what our product did, and why it mattered. What problem are we solving? Like so many things, search advertising is superficially simple (show an ad when people search for x). But there are lots of subtle details that matter a lot. It's easy to miss things and waste budget. Our product helps people keep track of the details.

Day one, afternoon

Because we had only a week, it was essential to choose where to focus. My partner and I had some issues in mind that we wanted to tackle. We knew from our own experience and from user feedback which areas were most in need of attention.

We attached a laptop to a projector and took the team on a product tour, explaining what we hoped to deliver to the user and where people were getting stuck. There were frequent pauses for clarification and explanations, with lots of drawing and note-taking.

We worked to identify where to focus and how to prioritize. What I thought was clarity on priorities became muddy as we worked through dependencies. Features were interconnected and integrated. If we focused on X, then Y would also have to change.

It took time and effort, but we finished our day with a specific, focused goal for the week.

Day two – we begin looking at solutions

I’ve worked with design agencies in the past, and I had a pretty good idea how the second day would go. A comprehensive review of the existing solution. Whiteboard the workflow and the associated design. Find where the inefficiencies are, and evaluate different ways to address them.

We did all those things. We discussed how features worked, where people ran into problems, and we identified some potential solutions.

But we went deeper, too. DesignMap questioned fundamental architectural decisions that we had taken for granted. More than once we saw how we sacrificed usability for 90% of our users to accommodate a use case that might interest 10% of them.

What DesignMap did was more than a re-imagining of the status-quo. It was an audit of how the product delivered value. Whiteboards were filled, photographed, erased, and filled again. We went through an exercise of each independently sketching a solution on a large piece of paper, and then discussed and critiqued our efforts.

As we wrapped up our day, we had a stack of potential solutions to put in place for the issue we wanted to tackle.

Day three – we select and refine a solution

The week was almost halfway over. We had focused our problem set on day one and had created a set of solutions over the course of day two.
We began day three going over those solutions. We had captured them in a variety of media, including sketches on paper that we taped to the conference room walls. We had photos of whiteboard drawings displayed on a huge monitor at one end of the room. Remember the crazy wall in Beautiful Mind? Our conference room was not nearly as complex, but you get the gist.

We organized the solutions into themes and dove in, going over each one in turn. We quickly eliminated some, others we extended. We critiqued and refined over the course of the morning until we had the beginnings of a storyboard.

The next step was to synthesize all these rough sketches into a more polished wireframe. To do this the designers had to step away for a few hours to focus and, and my partner and I returned to the nuts and bolts of our business.

We regrouped toward the middle of the afternoon, and the designers presented their efforts. They had taken the sketches and whiteboard scribbles and transformed them into a nice clean wireframe that contained the core ideas we had chosen.

We spent an hour or so going over this wireframe, asking questions and testing our assumptions. Some things were thrown out, other things added. And the foundation was done.

The next step was to take that foundation and expand it into a specification with enough detail to implement on our site. The designers needed time to work.

Day four – a design day

The designers were working today, so my partner and I took the opportunity to catch up. We worked through email, answered support questions, and waited.

Day five – design and presentation

The designers were working the first half of the day. We weren’t scheduled to meet them until after lunch, but my partner and I were decided to go to the DesignMap office and borrow some desk space while we waited.

Early afternoon we gathered together, and the designers presented their work. I imagine the first presentation to a client must be a bit nerve-wracking because you don’t know how we are going to react.

The needn’t have worried. We were beyond thrilled. We addressed issues that had plagued our company since we first went live. The workflow was much improved, and it looked fantastic with a consistent application of colors, fonts, and style.


We began with only a vague idea about what it meant to invest in “design.” Would we walk away with pretty screens? A new information architecture? Maybe a better dashboard or workflows?

What DesignMap actually did was help us clarify our core value propositions, and then they worked to ensure our interface exposed that value. We got the pretty screens, but those wound up being a consequence of the deeper work.

We had interviewed more than a dozen users who had abandoned our product because its usefulness was obscured behind a cumbersome, opaque user interface. Winning back just those users represents a positive ROI on our design investment in a single month.

We still have some work to do to finish up what we designed to together, but we are already seeing dividends. Churn and support costs are down. If only I could skip writing those support documents entirely.