UX Tools You Can Use to Build Your Best Product

It’s Week #4 of the UX Design class I’m taking at The Starter League. Last week, we covered techniques to help you define your user base and position your product. And what better way to start this week off than by talking about the infamous lean business model canvas—most starters hear the word “lean,” and their eyes light up in recognition.

Lean Business Model Canvas

We kicked off this week’s class by going over the Lean Business Model Canvas, which is a different (and you guessed it—leaner) adaptation of Alex Osterwalder’s original Business Model Canvas. The lean version looks like this:

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So, what’s the point? Ash Maurya, the founder of Spark59, wrote a book called Running Lean, which details out a systematic process for quickly vetting product ideas and raising a startup founder’s odds of success. The Lean Business Model Canvas is a template structured to help you create a focused business plan quickly. As Maurya puts it, “If you are spending more than 20 minutes on your initial business model, you are doing it wrong.”

I’d highly recommend that any founder starting a business—even if it isn’t brand new—fill out the Lean Business Model. In UX class, we’re focusing specifically on the following parts of the model: problem, solution, unique value proposition, channels, and customer segments.

Of course, we can’t talk about building a business model without thinking about the two major approaches to project management (and software development): waterfall vs. agile.

Waterfall Method

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The waterfall method is a sequential design process. With this method, the completion of each stage leads to another, with each stage having separate, distinct goals. The advantage of this method is that by dividing the team up this way, it leads to greater clarity about roles and reduces dependency on having the entire team available at all times. Key team members can take part in the stage they’re involved in, and when they leave, it does not negatively impact other stages of the project.

The disadvantages should be obvious by now: rigidity. Just like a waterfall, once part of the process is complete, there’s no going back. It’s not possible to alter a completed stage or the project design as a whole. It requires a great deal of early planning before the project even begins. In other words, maybe not the best fit for most lean startups today.

Agile Method

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The Agile method is an iterative and incremental approach to project management/software development. Developers essentially work on smaller iterations and incorporate user feedback as they go. Unlike the waterfall method, testing and feedback happen at the same time in the Agile process. This is the project management route for you if you value collaboration and user experience over design perfection. Another way a team can utilize the Agile method is by having different developers work on different modules altogether, and integrate them all at the very end.

The downsides are very much the antithesis of the waterfall method advantages. Agile method requires that pretty much all team members be available almost all of the time (which happens anyway if you’re living and breathing your startup the way most starters are). It can also lead to confusion and error-making due to lack of total clarity about everyone’s distinct role at a distinct point in time.

User Stories

If you’re using the Agile approach, and you want to start with the needs of your user, then user stories are an interesting way to do that. Here’s the basic anatomy of a user story:

As a <roles/user group>

I want to <action>

so I can <user goal>

Here’s an actual example of how it might look:

As a community manager

I want to learn word of mouth marketing tactics

so I can build my community’s audience online

Larger stories are often referred to as “epics”—they can be split into dozens or even hundreds of stories. Here’s an example of a basic epic:


You can see how, by working backwards, a team can figure out what features to include into a new product based on users’ expectations. The team working on the project above would be able to utilize user stories to discover that they must build features so that enterprise users who are sending an email can: state a subject, state one or more receipts, set the importance, select one or more recipients from a contact list, and enter a recipient.

If you think through how a user wants to and will experience a process, you’ll be more likely to focus on the essential and eliminate any extra design and development work that will not create a valuable outcome.

Site Content

When you’re thinking about how to design and develop your product, you must consider the site content. This isn’t exactly what it sounds like—it’s not just the words on a page. Rather, site content is just about every item a user can see: URLs, PDFs, words, images, videos, etc.

One of the biggest challenges a UX designer face is figuring out how to get users to navigate through a variety of important content elements on a site. If you’re responsible for user experience, you’ve got to always be thinking about what your user will need, when they’ll need it, and how best to deliver it. In the process of building a site, think about each piece of content on the site and make sure everything as a defined purpose (entertaining, informative, call to action, helping a user find the right information, etc.).

Defining content type will help you think through useful attributes as you consider searches, filters, and tags. One of the most important things you can do is make sure you’re categorizing content correctly so you can create accurate site maps, as well as plan for features, such as: tagging, searching, and filtering.

Community Content

Community content is top of mind for so many startups these days. But here’s the thing: so few people actually contribute content. That’s why we only see 200 reviews on Amazon for a book that sold millions of copies. In the internet world, there is the infamous 1% rule, which posits that the number of people who actually create content represent a paltry 1% of the Internet user population. GigaOM wrote a great article about this concept, if you’re interested in learning a bit more, but here’s the gist:

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 That means most of your users will be useless when it comes to generating community content! In other words, if you’re building a business model around the necessity of user-generated content, you’re going to have a hard time incentivizing people early on. Figure out the amount of community content you’re looking for, and perhaps wait to launch community content-heavy elements of your site or product until you reach an audience size where 1% is enough.

Here are four things you can do in the meantime, though:

1.) Make it easier for users to contribute.

If you lower the barrier to entry, more people are likely to walk through the door. Look how easy it is to rate something on Rotten Tomatoes:

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All you really have to do is hover your mouse over the number of stars you want to rate a movie as…and that’s it! Great, simple, effective user experience design.

2.) Make participation a side effect.

Let your users participate with zero effort on their parts. Basically, make their content “contributions” a side effect of whatever else they’re doing, like browsing or purchasing. Here’s a famous example:

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3.) Edit, don’t create. 

Let users build their contributions by giving them a template to work off of. It makes it easier for the user because templates help to soften the learning curve when it comes to utilizing a brand new platform. And, just think about it. Aren’t you more enticed to play around with something if it’s a template form?

One great implementation of this that I stumbled upon recently was on the Warby Parker website—the company wants you to order your eye glasses online, and they make it easier by creating a cool template application that lets you upload a photo to try different glasses on your face shape:

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This feature not only got me to stay on the site for way longer than I normally would—but it also made me more comfortable with the idea of buying eye glasses online.

4.) Reward—but don’t over-reward—participants.

If you reward people for contributing, that often helps motivate users to take action and create content. Don’t think of rewards as strictly monetary, either. The gaming business has done a superb job of enticing users to continue playing video games by adding in virtual incentives, like fake money, badges, special avatars, etc.

Until next week!

Note: If you just started following along now, you can catch up on what I’ve learned so far about UX design:

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