UX Mini-lesson: Surveys

A picture of a folding ruler, which I'm using as a metaphor for surveys as a measurement tool

Surveys are probably the most used but least useful research tool. It is ever so tempting to say, “lets run a quick survey” when you find yourself wondering about your customers. Surveys result in “hard numbers” to look at, and modern web-based survey tools have made surveys cheap to produce. But as anyone who has ever tried running a “quick survey” can attest, they rarely, if ever, provide the insight you are looking for.

In the words of Erika Hall, survey’s are “too easy”. They are too easy to create, too easy to disseminate, and too easy to tally. This inherent ease of creating surveys masks their biggest flaw as a research method: It is far far too easy to create biased, useless survey questions. And when you run a survey littered with biased, useless questions, you either (1) realize that your results are not reliable and start all over again, or (2) proceed with the analysis and make decisions based on biased results. If you aren’t careful, a survey can be a complete waste of time, or worse, can lead you in the wrong direction entirely.

However, that being said, I have found surveys to be useful in exactly two situations:

  1. When I need to gather demographic data that I can’t obtain otherwise
  2. When I work for a client who will send an email blast with a survey link, but otherwise wont help me recruit research participants.

If you ever find that launching a survey is the only way to move the research forward, keep these tips in mind.

Continue reading “UX Mini-lesson: Surveys”

Interview with CleanRobotics – the makers of TrashBot

Four men and one woman standing around TrashBot

Once upon a time a two friends stood in front of an overly complex trash can at a WholeFoods. They found that deciding what to do with their garbage was far more complex than it needed to be. Which bin does the paper plate go into? And is this a compostable fork, a recyclable fork, or a fork destined for landfill? Rather than simply dump their trash and walk away, they came up with an idea. A short time later CleanRobotics and their first product, TrashBot, were born.

They first launched TrashBot in the Pittsburgh City Council building in 2017. Since then, CleanRobotics has been named one of the top Pittsburgh companies to watch in 2018, has advanced to the second round of the IBM AI Xprize, and been recently featured in GeekWire.

I had an opportunity to sit down with Tanner Cook and Grant Halleran from CleanRobotics to discuss the world of trash processing and the design of TrashBot. Throughout the interview we discuss how it is especially challenging for a robotics company to balance the demands of engineering and product iteration with sales and market penetration. We also discuss how dealing with trash is a complex, yet fascinating, societal and environmental problem. Continue reading “Interview with CleanRobotics – the makers of TrashBot”

Four tools for selecting UX research methods

three dog-eared books stacked on top of one another, with pencils, paper, and sticky notes marking pages.

For every UX problem, there is a UX research method.

Well, that might be stating it a little too simply.

For any one UX problem you will likely need several UX research methods to unpack it.  If we were casting roles for the proverb about blind men and the elephant, UX problems are the elephant and UX research methods are the blind men. Most of my projects involve some combination of interviews, usability tests, think-a-louds, and contextual inquiries, with the occasional diary study.

When it comes to drafting a research plan, and figuring which out which methods you should pull out of your quiver, it can be helpful to have a few “cheat sheets” or summaries to refer to. Here are 4 tools to help you select the right UX research methods:

  • UX Research Cheat Sheet – An easy-to-use cheat sheet for selecting a method for each phase of the project.
  • Methods cards from 18f – Quick summaries of different research methods, organized by the phase of the project.
  • The UX Toolbelt – A web application for selecting UX methods. It includes time and cost estimates for each method, so you can quickly whip up a budget plan for research.
  • UX Project Checklist – A general checklist for every UX project, with links to other articles and resources.

A question: how do you pick your UX research methods?

What references, books, websites, cheat sheets, etc. do you use? Are they any other resources I should add to this list?

Three startup ideas (Startup Challenge – Part 3)

A chalkboard drawing of a thought bubble, with a real physical lightbulb placed on top of the drawing in the bubble

In Part 1, of the Startup Challenge we discussed how to generate (good) startup ideas. In Part 2, we focussed on compiling our personal criteria for success. Today in Part 3 of the startup challenge, I’ll share with you the three startup ideas I’ve decided to move forward with and conduct some discovery research around.

Ideas written up as problem hypotheses

Maybe its because I’m a researcher, but I find I see every new venture as an untested hypothesis. Whenever I see an announcement about a new product, I look for the underlining assumptions about customers. Whenever I see new government legislation, I look for the underlying theory of impact. And whenever I meet someone launching a new startup, all I want to talk about is how they are going to test and validate their idea as they move forward.

Not to get overly philosophical on the matter, but if you look at the world through a researcher lens, you can imagine every new idea is just an untested hypothesis waiting for the right experiment.

I’ve decided to articulate all of my startup ideas as a hypothesis, and here is the general formula I used: 

Because [knowledge, assumptions and gut instincts about the problem], users are [in some undesirable state]. They need [solution idea].

The nice thing about writing up all my ideas as hypothesis is that they are concise, yet complete. You can see the prior knowledge I’ve gathered, the assumptions I’ve made, and where my head is currently. Also, as I gather more knowledge I can edit the hypothesis to match. Continue reading “Three startup ideas (Startup Challenge – Part 3)”

Interview with BlastPoint

Alison Alverez and Tomer Borenstein

Meet Alison Alvarez and Tomer Borenstein, the founders of BlastPoint.

Before starting BlastPoint, Alison had a career in building big data tools for large Fortune 1000 companies. Through her work, she came to realize two things:

  1. When it comes to big data systems, everyone asks for the same subset of features.
  2. Only really large companies can afford to hire data scientists.

She believed that by building technology that met the ~90% of data needs, she could make data science tools accessible and affordable to businesses of all types and sizes.  Alison pitched her idea at a CMU entrepreneurship event and met Tomer, an experienced software engineer and recent Computer Science Masters graduate. In 2016 they launched BlastPoint, with the mission to make big data accessible, usable, and affordable to all types of businesses. They have been making headlines ever since, and most recently won the 2017 UpPrize social venture competition.

Continue reading “Interview with BlastPoint”

Self-study research

notebook, pen, and baby picture. With text "Self-study research" over top.

Throughout the Spring, I had been posting a blog entry about once a week. I had a writing schedule that worked well for me. Then something happened that disrupted my routine – I had a baby. This is my second child, so I had a better idea of what I was getting into. But I was still surprised (or rather, reminded) how much an infant disrupts your entire life. I had high hopes of continuing to work on my start-up challenge over the summer, but baby #2 put the kibosh on that.

However, having a second child gave me even more ideas for potential startups. There is so much worry and work that goes into pregnancy, giving birth, and caring for an infant. And I think there is a lot of business potential in products and services that make parents’ lives easier.

So while I didn’t have time to write regular blog posts over the summer, I did have time to engage in a little self-study. Continue reading “Self-study research”

Criteria for success (Startup Challenge – Part 2)

Over the past several days, I’ve generated 60+ startup ideas by following my idea generating process I blogged about last week. When I look over my list of ideas I have a lot of “gut feelings” about them. Some of the ideas seem too simple, some seem too complex, some seem dumb, and some seem beyond my skill set. While I think it is important to, at times, trust your gut. I also think it’s important to not throw away an idea before you at least consider its merits.

In today’s post I’ll go over my personal criteria to evaluate each startup idea. Similar to my idea generating process, I created this list of criteria for myself. I designed this list to help me think critically about each of the ideas I generated. I recommend that you take what I’ve written here as a starting point, do some more reading and research, and create your own idea evaluation process tailored to what’s important to you.

Continue reading “Criteria for success (Startup Challenge – Part 2)”

3 ways to validate your startup idea without building a damn thing

picture of yellow measuring tape, with the words "validate first, build later" written overtop

Last week, I shared my ideas about MVE’s: Minimum Viable Experiments. To recap, an MVE is a type of experiment that should…

  • require minimal set-up,
  • require minimal cost and materials, and
  • ultimately help you determine whether you’ve got a startup idea worth pursuing, or not.

MVEs are great because they take the focus away from building and shift it towards validating. In fact, I think that the longer you can pursue your startup idea without building anything, the more open you’ll be to new ideas, and the more successful you’ll be when it comes time to execute.

So to help you embrace the validate first, build later mantra, I’ve created a list of three ways to test your startup idea without building a damn thing:

Continue reading “3 ways to validate your startup idea without building a damn thing”

The MVE: Minimum Viable Experiment

picture of beakers and experimental jars with the words "the minimum viable experiment" written over top

You have all been dutifully instructed to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” A lot of ink (virtual or otherwise) has been spent making sure you do your customer research. But as much as the start-up crowd seems to value research,  it still seems like you can’t call yourself a “real entrepreneur” until you build something.

For example, if you spend your time investigating better ways to help senior citizens get to where they want to go, you’re just a do-gooder. But if you tell everyone you are making the “Uber for Seniors,” you are suddenly an entrepreneur.

Even the Lean movement, which espouses an experimental approach, puts a lot of focus on building something. (That “something” being the “minimum viable product.” Emphasis on product.)

I think that would-be entrepreneurs would find a lot more freedom to explore and grow their ideas if there was less pressure to come up with a “thing” to build. Instead, it may be better to focus on conducting worthwhile experiments. So in this post I’d like to introduce the MVE: minimum viable experiment.

Continue reading “The MVE: Minimum Viable Experiment”