“Doing UX for a start-up” - Tom Coombs at London IA

 by Martin Belam, 4 October 2011

Tom Coombs spoke at least week’s London IA event about his experience of working on the UX for a start-up that had managed to raise a lot of cash before they had really settled on their product vision. That was great news for hiring people, but not so great news for directing them in what to build. Although as Tom put it: “To be able to work at a company that has not yet worked out what their product is, that’s a dream job.”

The company involved had very kindly agreed to let Tom talk about his experience, but I’m not sure they would have been expecting me to blog it in minute detail - so I’m going to keep the details of the company deliberately vague and concentrate instead on the lessons that Tom was teaching us about the experience.

One was that very little research actually got done. In what he described as “a room full of user research people” Tom had to confess that the pace of the project was so fast that they got very little research done apart from the odd survey. This was at least useful, because it demonstrated that the company they are trying to dislodge may have turned first-mover advantage into complacency, having failed to implement what seem to be the most vocal feature requests from their incumbent user base.

A method that Tom used to give an idea of roughness and some malleability was to set out their user journeys and system paths on one long 5 metre roll. It all looked hand-drawn. This meant that when the time came to present the ideas, instead of arguing against what looked like finished deliverables, the board and everybody else could happily scribble on the plans, and all that feedback was immediately captured.

Another idea that Tom showed was sketches that illustrated “hero journeys” or little vignettes that described the proposition. They boiled key features down to a couple of sentences describing the impact they made on users either at home or in their businesses. Once everybody was completely brought into how brilliant they all were, the bombshell was “OK, so which two or three of these twenty do you want to use to define the product?”

Tom was very frank in his talk, and also showed some of the things that didn’t go so well, like trying to make a film of himself using a prototype on an iPad, when all he ended up with was lens flare and his own face reflected in the screen. He thinks that more tactile deliverables during the UX design process are an important thing though, saying “We need to design for users to see and sense things, not just read them.”

He was asked at the end which bits of the process had been useful for the development team. He suggested that personas and audience segments hadn’t been that important, but that the “hero journeys” had really made an impact.


The next London IA meet-up is on October 18th, at the Sense Loft in Soho. Ben Bashford will be talking about connected things, and Jonty Sharples about arrogance in design. The next batch of tickets will be available at 12pm on October 10th.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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