If VCs Understood UX…

They would…

…value design, not design value.

…seek out mentality, not ideas.

…fund process, not product.

…demand customer insights, not instincts.

…prep for testing days, not demos days.

…commission research, not follow trends.

…study anthropology, sociology and psychology, not just management, economics and statistics.

…foster collaboration, not competition.

…care about people, not percentages.

…cherish sign-ins, not sign-ups.

…teach great doers how to think, not tell great thinkers what to do.

Every day I read another story about a startup getting millions of dollars of funding with no defined target audience and no defined problem they’re trying to solve. Money that could be ending hunger is instead being given to founders who match “the pattern” but who have limited business experience and no identifiable expertise.

These startups only exist to add something new to the world without any intention of taking anything away from it — obstacles, frustration, pain. They create massive amounts of digital garbage and conveniences for no one but themselves. And their VCs give them near-unlimited access to resources to do so.

About 10 times a week I’m approached by startups who are looking for user experience talent to bring in-house and at least one of those times will be by the VC himself who’s helping to recruit the best. When I get the pitch, meet the team, familiarize myself with the product and evaluate the operation, I am repeatedly struck by how UNappealing these places would be to any UX designer with even a modicum of integrity.

Why? Because these startups — and the VCs who fund them — are fundamentally structured to be the antithesis of customer-centric, no matter how much they claim to be in the press, to their friends, and amongst themselves.

They are, bluntly put, totally full of shit.

They have pre-defined solutions and five feet of feature requirements to roll out over the next year. Their prioritizations are based solely on technology and their development methodologies are so rigid (or haphazard) they leave no time for meaningful user-centered design. They make decisions subjectively with no valid intel on the behaviors, motivations or attitudes of their target audiences. They guess all day long. No top-notch UXer would touch that with a 10-foot pole.

Frankly, I think their VCs are to blame.

VCs are like parents: they pay for companies to make mistakes within a safe environment. It’s not risk-free, but it’s a whole lot easier to grow your company with money you didn’t have to earn. And yet these parents totally fall short on their job of molding their children into responsible, helpful, contributing citizens of the world. Instead they say, “I like your instincts, here’s enough money to sit back and have more of them!”

The reason most VCs don’t mentor their startups on how to create and grow meaningful companies that impact society in positive, lasting ways is because they have no idea how. Most VCs are VCs because they had financial success with their own companies and cashed out big; that doesn’t mean those companies actually mattered to people. A multimillion dollar acquisition isn’t proof of worth to customers, it’s proof of worth to the acquiring company. They bought employees, not customers.

Most of these acquisitions are totally alienating to customers, but the acquiring company doesn’t care. They got the press, they got the talent, they got the technology, the put the competition out of business, whatever. They did it to win, not to make people’s lives better. And when founders let their companies be bought like this, it blatantly shows they were in it for the same selfish reasons.

What the hell are we doing on this planet if not helping each other? No man is an island, but many sure do act like it.

VCs, if you’re reading this, please stop trying to learn about user experience and its value to companies in a publication like Fast Company or Forbes. I urge you to read a book by a user experience designer for user experience designers (there are many great ones in the footer of this blog). Understand what practitioners actually do and why we do it. Explore our deep-rooted history in library science and human factors and anthropology. Discover the techniques we use to build empathy with the people we serve and how we shape both product and corporate strategy to serve them better.

When you think back on the companies you’ve funded, how many of them are still operating today? Of those who’ve hit the deadpool, which ones were founded on disrupting industry versus solving people’s problems?

Were you in it for the people that could be helped or the money that could be made?

The companies you fund — and the ones you choose to work for — are a reflection of your values. Your actions today will be your legacy tomorrow.

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  1. Scott Brrkun says

    I think you’re right, but so are they. VCs and many startups that accept funding are capital-centric, not value or meaning centric. They know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you know exactly why some of them will fail.

    To a pure capitalist, the only value is market value, which is why they’re proud of meaningless but high paying acquisitions. To someone interested in meaning, the only value is their sense of contribution to the world, no matter how long it takes them to retire. Of course some people seek both wealth and meaning simultaneously, but the pursuit of both is unlikely to be funded by the most successful capitalists.

    • says

      Scott, thank you for taking the time to comment. What you said is exactly what pains me and why I felt it was necessary to publish this post. With all the lessons we’re taught in the world around us, how can it still be that people choose to value money over meaning? How can people want that as their legacy? I simply don’t understand it.

      • says

        Everyone around them is wanting measurable improvements, and the easiest thing to measure is money.
        For many people, wealth is purely a financial measure, happiness (i.e. quality) doesn’t come into it.

    • says

      Yes, when I get angry I tend to use very harsh language and sometimes that can get in the way of meaning. Thank you for taking the time to discuss the issues here, Joel.

  2. says

    Your points about UX fundamentally relating to the business model are spot-on. I think the article would do better to focus less on the economics of venture capital and your vague opinions on “value.”

  3. Katie says

    Oh soo true, sadly enough. To build companies with your eye only on the numbers is to build for the next quarter, and if the company lasts longer than that, it’s sheer dumb luck.

    I know that one of the problems I particularly run into when I’m in these situations, is that the VC perception of “value” is clearly defined and has numbers attached to it. I work on experiences. If you’re trying to pin down and quantify experience then you’re clue-independent, but UX still has enormous value and huge repercussions.

    The fact that doing something well that is not immediately measurable will make a difference in the delivery of a product which makes more money is one of those hard arguments. Nonetheless, it’s demonstrably true if not measurably factual that good UX is a critical component in the creation of a successful product.

    • says

      Katie, I couldn’t agree more. It’s sad to have to convince people that there’s more to life than numbers. That we should *feel* as much as we think. Some people just aren’t built that way, or it’s beat out of them at a young age. Either way I’m proud to recognize that worth often exceeds value.

  4. says

    I value UX greatly… but

    1) If there was a single recipe, a magic combo, to create success and it would invariably involve an UX designer, then VCs would be all over UX all day long. There isn’t a silver bullet however, and much as you or me would like UX to be that silver bullet, it isn’t either.

    2) There’s a long line of uber successfull companies that started out with horrible UX (google, facebook, twitter, and so on). It doesn’t mean that UX isn’t important, or that UX is. It means it depends, on the time, the company, the circumstances etc.

    3) VCs aren’t in the business to create meaningful companies. They’re in the business of investing in a company, and getting out more in the end than they put in. Ok, to be fair, it’s mostly the VCs investors who’re in that business, but we’ll run with that even if it’s not the whole picture. Everybody tries to optimize their return of investment. And again, if UX could guarantee some kind of return, they’d all be drooling over it. But since there is no silver bullet, everybody optimizes their strategy to the best of their knowledge. Everybody does what works for them. It’s neither wrong or right, it’s just whatever floats your boat.

  5. says

    @Florian. You don’t really seem to understand what UX is. Just in this one comment you have overlooked it’s main components and / or fallen pray to myths of UX all in one motion.

    1) In UX, as in science, the fact that nobody has figured out the mechanics of the “correct” business doesn’t mean that such a thing doesn’t exist, nor does it imply that there is a “single formula” for what perfection would look like. Tere might be 20 different “correct” choices, each with a correct time and place. If you compare the “VC” of today with the “VC” of 500 years ago, I would hope to hell that we’ve got a little more figured out today. Unless you disagree, and think today’s business people are no better off than those of 500 years ago, your point is therefore invalid.

    2) All of the examples you gave had fundamental improvements to UX compared to their contemporaries. Google gave better results in faster time, Facebook was simpler, more practical, easier to use, and made better use of social motivations, and Twitter’s entire pitch is that messages are short and fast, and it gives you access to influencers like never before. I think you totally missed the boat on that comment.

    3) “VCs aren’t in the business to create meaningful companies.” is totally correct, of course. However, “if UX could guarantee some kind of return, they’d all be drooling over it” is ludicrously wrong. My job is literally to go into a company, re-design their shit, and make them more money, using UX alone. It has worked, without fail for the last several years of my career. If you genuinely believe your statement, you have no idea what UX is or how it works. Which is kind of Whitney’s point in the first place.

  6. says

    @Joel Marsh

    You’re arguing from your own perspective and extrapolate your personal experience in helping companies improve their product, to making investment decisions. It’s not the same thing.

    For instance, my personal experience is that I help people get their products off the ground using ludicrous amounts of web-coding, javascript and WebGL. I could be writing a blog post how VCs are ignoring javascript and WebGL too much, because in 100% of the cases I helped people, it was with that. But that’s besides the point. Investment is a risk driven behavior with the goal to extract more monetary value then you put in. The strategy employed in doing that is individual, and it’s never “wrong”. It either works, and the VC and their investors stay in business. Or it doesn’t, and they’re not gonna do that for much longer.

    Your personal choice is to emphasize UX and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that VCs personal choice not to is wrong.

  7. says

    Yes, this is what they would do if they understood UX differently. But that’s not what VCs are for.

    What VCs really would do if they understood UX _the way the OP implies_ is build a firm that tries to invest in slowly growing, sustainable companies, with extremely long term outlook and real, sometimes un-measurable value to all stakeholders. Arguably the underlying mantra “small is beautiful” is not one for the VC industry. Also, these will not be companies that can be sold easily or timely (much less at crazy valuations due to cancerous growth), so the VCs themselves would not be very successful.

    There’s a conundrum for an investor in building these kinds of companies: in comparison to their peers, they would most likely make less money (given the same kind of investment process, style, mechanism). That’s why bootstrapped companies with little to no outside funding can stay more focused, more consumer and employee friendly, and thus, more “integer”.

    What the VC needs is a longer time horizon, lower exit expectations, and more leeway for the entrepreneurs they back in several categories. Now, the good news is some firms are thinking more and more like that, and also the general industry shifts allow more companies to be bootstrapped to work without or with only little outside capital.

    Firms that seem to operate this way are the likes of [Betaworks](http://Betaworks.com), [OATV](http://OATV.com), and a few angel funds all over the place.

    Industry shifts that help are the ease of **develop&deploy** of today’s technology, **developer led companies** that can build their own product without much capital, and the very easily accessible, and scalable, **international market **of app stores, webapps, and creative business models.

    If you don’t like VCs, you can build your company without them. If you want to keep working on your own terms, you can. _If you talk about disrupting, don’t just disrupt the industry your product serves, also take advantages of the disruption in the industry serves you._

    Disclaimer: I do not think VCs are that bad, and I certainly know tons of awesome VCs that understand UX. Like, for real.

    • says

      Philipp, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts here. I agree that fundamentally their whole reason for being is antithetical to helping people — but that is exactly the issue I take with them. Hopefully we will see a new wave of investors who want to support natural, gradual, meaningful growth for companies who make a deep impact on society.

  8. says

    Well, to be fair, VCs probably don’t consider code any more than they consider UX. Maybe they should. And maybe you should write a blog post about it.

    My experience is from literally re-designing for additional profit, so it actually is more relevant than emphasizing code. I have a lot of respect for developers and work closely with them, and at the same time, I challenge you to present an example where the code itself effected revenue (keep in mind that improving the code to be faster, more stable, etc. is partly UX). The recent FB app upgrade was 99% code, but it was the UX that mattered most to users.

    However, the argument here — which you didn’t actually address —  is to prioritize UX, not to exclude anything else. And if you think that helping companies improve their product is not included in investing, I think we’re talking about different things.

  9. David D'Antonio says

    However, the argument here — which you didn’t actually address — is to prioritize UX, not to exclude anything else.

    Since you can’t do everything all the time, prioritizing one thing necessarily excludes something else. Optimizing for one thing will usually de-optimize other things so it is important to understand exactly what you’re optimizing for and the consequences of doing so.

  10. example says

    One mistake that people make is assuming that if someone disagrees with them, they are misunderstanding something, rather then fundamentally disagreeing with them.

    Look at the Wikimedia foundation: Adds huge value to the world through Wikipedia, makes almost no money.

    On the other hand, take some random social media company that sells for a ridiculous figure. the world as a whole is more enriched by wikipedia then, like, plurk.com.

    But as far as the VC is concerned, that’s fine. It’s a mistake to think they would avoid creating “digital garbage” if they knew how too. They just don’t care. Money is what matters to them, and it’s what they’re paid to worry about.

    • says

      And it is precisely that fact that causes me to lie awake at night trying to figure out how to change the world.

      I wish you hadn’t posted anonymously, but thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  11. says

    You’re right on the spot and I fully concur, but… is this anything we don’t know?

    VCs are basically greedy capitalists, their only interest is profit. Period. You can’t expect any kind of constructive and benevolent thinking from somebody who’s deadly focused on earning money and making profit 24/7/365.

    You can attempt to make something good for people (and perhaps you will get a reward from a higher force if you were honest) or you can focus your efforts on money and then evil will swallow everything you touch. You can’t serve two gods at the same time.

    As to the startups scene, it’s been my observation as well that in the last years “founders” have polluted the well which is the web with large piles of software garbage that does nothing useful to anyone but looks good and attractive on the outside.

    The web has actually become a worse place since that all began.

    • says

      I wish I could disagree, but I think you have it right. I just wish people realized earlier in their lives that the gratification you get from making tons of money will never outweigh how it feels to positively impact people’s lives. Sigh.

    • says

      Fred, I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      I never said that being a VC was easy, and I recognize that it requires a lot of careful analysis and willingness to take big risks. The argument I’m making is about WHY you do it — to make a profit seems to be a greater motivation than to make people’s lives better. In the end of your days, which of your investments will you truly be proud of because it had a lasting impact on society?

      Yes, I might not know a thing about venture capital, but I also don’t claim to be a pro-VC user experience designer. When an investor claims to be a pro-UX venture capitalist without having any real understanding of what user experience entails, I have to take issue with it.

  12. says

    The points you have mentioned that should be valued, are the very reason in my opinion why apple has become so great a company of success. The things they value, take them to making products people are begging them to take their money.

  13. says

    Let’s separate value and experience for a moment. In the case of tech startups, a VC may only care about the tangible/intangible value being delivered to customers and not the experience those customers walk away with. Is it possible that value can be delivered without a good experience? Of course it is!

    For example, this morning I had to convert a huge video file to MP3 format. It took forever and because there was no feedback about the conversion process, I was left wondering if the program was actually doing its job. After 5 minutes of a still screen, a basic JavaScript window popped up and offered me a download button for my converted file. It was a terrible, terrible experience but I needed it fast and didn’t have to buy any software or phone a friend for help:
    Value +1, Experience -1

    VCs need to make the most out of nothing and keep moving. They consider factors that impact their monetary contribution to a project first and sometimes Ux falls to the bottom of that list until their investment gains traction.

    I would love to hear a VC’s thoughts on this.

    • says

      I hear ya loud and clear and yes this is the explanation I get all the time. But my argument is that the experience felt through the interaction has an enormous impact on its perceived value. No different than dining out: you go for the food, you go back for the service.

      • Brian says

        I don’t understand why everything needs to be so black or white. I have never gone to a restaurant because the service was incredible but the food sucked. There needs to be a balance of content and experience and the content (your delivered product) needs to be organized and filtered out to make sure you know what you are selling. You can’t sell experience or you end up with a perfectly functioning, fun to use, piece of garbage. Even if you make that garbage easy to access and awesome to look at and its the best damn garbage in town….it’s still garbage. You need a fine balance of Product Development, Content Strategy, IA, UX, Visual Design, Semantic Development and Quality Assurance and only then will you have a product worth anything. You skip something in this list and you skimp out on your end product.

  14. says

    I am the Co-Founder of a Mobile First start-up based in London (www.etherbooks.com) that is currently in quasi-stealth mode. My meeting with VCs here in London are proving that the MAJOR consideration VCs are looking for is UX. This may reflect British culture (great history of design) or the criticality of UX for mobile APPs. Several fantastic mobile UX designers are getting acquired by VCs in London and by companies bringing the UX design experience in-house.

  15. says

    You are making a common mistake by referring to “VCs” as a generic category. There are a number of different archetypes which have different motivations, behavior, experience, philosophy, and viewpoints.

    Several of the archetypes have many of the attributes you criticize. But others have the ones you laud.

    I’ll give you an example from my personal experience. You say “If VCs Understood UX they would cherish sign-ins, not sign-ups.” I couldn’t care how many sign-ups a company I invest in has. But I care deeply about DAUs, WAU, and MAUs. And of these three, DAUs tops the list – by a lot. I want to see people coming back EVERY DAY to use the products. That’s the most powerful measure.

    • says

      Brad, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Yes, I know I was painting VCs with a broad brush, and like any group of people there are segments. TechStars is one of the few startup accelerators I’ve seen that teaches customer development and UX — though I don’t know that they enforce it. I’m glad that there are investors out there like you who want to focus on different metrics, perhaps those that indicate a meaningful relationship between company and customer. Please do what you can to enlighten other investors who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I’m always happy to be a resource for them and you. Thanks again!

      • says

        “Enforce” is a tricky word in the context of an accelerator (or VC for that matter). I don’t believe in “enforcing” anything – it’s up to the entrepreneur. I help, support, enable, suggest, coach, cajole, inspire – but never “enforce.”

        Also – while I’m a co-founder of TechStars, I was really thinking about my VC activity at Foundry Group (www.foundrygroup.com). Several companies that I think are extra-ordinary at UX include MakerBot (www.makerbot.com), Oblong (www.oblong.com), SendGrid (www.sendgrid.com), and Gnip (www.gnip.com). The values above are deeply wired into how the function as companies.

  16. Kathy Sierra says

    It seems most tech VC’s view their domain the way most publishers do: as a hits-based business. You throw a bunch of stuff out there knowing most will fail, and making nearly all your money on the tiny sliver that goes REALLY BIG. (warning: huge over generalization here) They don’t seem to believe there IS any sort of reliable formula, process, approach, POV, etc. for creating successful companies, so we’re left with “pattern matching”, or funding a previously-successful team (which DOES make sense).

    I think if VC’s were convinced that there WAS a more reliable predictor of success based on a process, they *would* happily move from a hits-based view (that is not far from random) to something with a greater percentage of “hits”. All that said, I think there’s plenty of evidence that UX is NOT that predictor, although I think it holds a powerful key…

    We have all seen a zillion examples of beautifully-crafted, or exquisitely-coded products and services that get nowhere. We have all seen a zillion horrifically-designed, bug-rich products and services that users love in spite of (or even strangely, at times, BECAUSE of) those flaws-we-claim-must-be-eliminated.

    Just as some claim that if it isn’t full of social, it cannot possibly work today, or if the company doesn’t “engage with their fans”, it cannot possibly succeed.

    I think the same “magic formula” exists that has always existed. It is not about the company, or the product, or the service, or the code, or the design, or the “engagement”, or the UX. it is — and always will be — about the user *results*. Unless we’re looking for a very quick fad-then-gone business, nothing can be sustainable if it does not make the user more powerful in some meaningful way (and only the user decides what “meaningful” means).

    Look around at the products and services you use, faithfully, including those you grumble about and those that are a constant delight. The thing we love most — the attributes that matter the most for success — do not live in the product or service. They do not live in the code or design or social-engagement or UX. The attributes that matter live in the user. We should be reverse-engineering and “pattern matching” not on the companies or products or services that were successful… We should be reverse-engineering *THEIR USERS*.

    And that’s why in a roundabout way I do agree that UX can hold the key, but it is only when UX is extended (and I know you believe this, Whitney, but many do not) to the POST-UX. When user experience is seen as only those experiences when the user is directly involved with the product or service or company (from un-boxing through support, etc.), we are still missing the one most important element: what happens AFTER those experiences. What IS the post-UX UX? In the end, all that matters is what happens when the clicking/swiping is done. What do they NOW feel? What do they now SHOW for it? How are they now better in a meaningful and — better still — OBVIOUS way? It is those moments that create a reliable, sustainable result in both WOM (word of mouth) and WOFO (word of obvious) that is the heart and soul of authentically “viral” and lasting growth.

    The bar is awfully low, too. Given that most companies are out trying to convince users how cool and awesome the company is, there’s a fabulous opportunity for the companies (including VC’s that fund them) to waltz in and prove to users how cool and awesome the USERS are (and can be). And no, that does not mean proving the users are cool and awesome simply because they now bask in the glow of the cool and awesome company. It has to be FOR REAL. And again, the kind of deep ethnography and empathy you talk about, Whitney, holds the key. But great UX alone is not enough. And in some cases, not that necessary if the POST-UX UX is powerful.

    Some of my most beloved products are those that make ME amazing at something that matters to me, even if I am kicking and screaming and swearing at the product while using it. Of course if I am kicking and screaming and swearing, I’m obviously having a compromised experience… One that might prevent me from producing something wonderful. But I’ll still take a poor UX that makes me truly better at something I care about, than the beautiful, artful, exquisite “Who Cares” product.

    (oops, sorry of the book-length comment. You pushed a button. As you so often do :)

  17. Paul Mc says

    Your post reminded me of a scene from the movie, “I’ll Do Anything” where Albert Brooks’ character talks about his process for making movies:

    What I do is interview first–
    then read–maybe do it all over again
    the next day. I call up people the
    actor has worked with–check him
    out. If he’s famous, I do an opinion
    survey to test how much people like
    him. If he’s not famous, I put him
    on tape and show it to everyone I
    can grab. I believe in screen tests;
    I believe in replacing if the dailies
    are bad, in cutting people out if
    the previews aren’t there. Because
    I’m not doing movies for theaters
    where they serve cappucino in the
    lobby. I’m doing popcorn movies. You
    want to know what I like? Come to my
    house, look at my lamps… you won’t
    find it in my movies.

  18. says

    I can see your points, Whitney, and they’re valuable as always. But I do see an irony here, which would be summed up by a VC posting “If UXers understood VCs”. One of the issues I sometimes have with the way UX is formulated as a practice is that “championing the user” is a fairly one-way affair. That is, the UX designers are there to design for the user’s experience and shield them from all the nasty forces from above conspiring to make their experience a bad one.

    All of this is good, but the irony is that the empathy lens is seldom pointed in the other direction. What is the UX of being a VC, for example? What are their needs, motivations and behaviours? What are the systems and services they are working within and how does it drive their behaviour? Every provider of something is a user somewhere else.

    It’s here where I’d make the argument for service design’s approach (sorry if this makes someone reach for their gun) for both VCs/managers/suits and designers/creators/coders. Of course UX plays a huge role in it too, but the underlying mantra is designing with people and not just for them. That means recognising the forces and dynamics in play in the entire service (business) proposition, not just those of the end user. The staff working backstage, the management having to report to shareholders (be it public or VCs). Every frontstage design decision has a ripple effect upwards just as management decisions have downwards. Nobody is doing any user a favour if they force design decisions that trigger unviable business model and no VC is doing anyone a favour if they make business decisions that turn into unpleasant user-experiences. Either one of those scenarios will cause failure. Twitter is a very public example of this dynamic going on at the moment.

    The VCs versus UXers isn’t a useful dynamic, because they’re both wrong. Only a holistic view of the business/service proposition that understands design and management decisions affect the overall quality and thus the bottom line is really going to succeed (c.f. Apple). And then only with a decent pinch of luck.


  1. […] expert and consultant got a lot of attention couple of weeks ago with her piece titled: “If VCs Understood UX…” One sentence in particular grabbed my attention: If VCs Understood UX they would commission […]

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