Startup UX and Design Demystified

Danny Boice - Speek Co-FounderDanny Boice is the Co-Founder & CTO of Speek where he runs product and technology.  Speek is a 500 Startups-funded startup that let’s users do conference calls with a simple link ( rather than using phone numbers and PINs.

A serial startup/technology entrepreneur and executive, Danny started his career as a software engineer working for startups like Network Solutions and in the 90s. Danny founded his first company, Jaxara, in the early 2000s (exited via acquisition), and co-founded Speek with John Bracken in 2012. Danny attended Harvard.


Figure 1: The mythical all-in-one UX +Visual Designer purple unicorn species
** Credit for image goes to

I recently wrote an article called Startup Technology Demystified. In that piece I looked at the most common technologies used by startups and broke them down into words that could be understood by the business-afflicted among us.

Truth be told, however, there may be one single concept that is even more elusive than startup technology in the land of the entrepreneur: the difference between user experience and design.

Wouldn’t know gestalt taxonomy from a colonoscopy? Can’t tell Jakob Nielsen from Leslie Nielsen? (Hint: one is a really funny, white-haired guy. The other one was in Airplane.) Well then keep reading, my friend—I am about to fuck up your mind with some truth.

You know that Tom’s-shoe-wearing, DUMBO-romping, Warby-Parker-vintage-glasses-that-he/she-insists-on-referring-to-as-“spectacles” hipster with the tweedy impertinence and apathetic demeanor that magically make products easier to use?  That’s probably a UX badass, NOT a visual designer, and you better be able to tell the difference, home slice.

User Experience

User experience (UX) is the way a person feels about using a product, system, or service. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful, and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership, but it also includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease-of-use, and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.

Translation: User experience people think about the holistic usability of your product. This includes things like the personas constituting your users, the flows users will follow, how to make flows and screens as user friendly as possible, and what goes on (or better – gets left off of) each screen.

Some of the things that User Experience peeps will consider and/or deliver:

* Personas
* Wireframes
* Interactive Prototypes
* Copy, labels, messaging

The type of problems a UX person may solve for you:

* The ideal user flow for a new user to my product
* The information that should be displayed on each screen (and why)
* Users can’t figure out how to use this widget or feature
* Users can’t figure out how to navigate this flow
* Users register but still don’t get what we do
* I can’t get users to register from my home page

Visual Designers

Visual design is the practice or profession of designing print or electronic forms of visual information, as for an advertisement, publication, or website.

Translation: Visual designers think about the quality of a user interface, the polished graphical elements that make up that user interface, and the interactions that occur when a human uses that user interface.

Some of the things that Visual Designers will deliver to you:

* Screen mocks
* Style guides
* Interaction guides
* PSD’s (aka Photoshop files)

The type of problems a Visual Designer will solve for you:

* The look and feel of my app sucks
* My UX freelancer just gave me a bunch of wireframes…now what happens?
* What colors, styles and other visual elements should I use in my app to do my brand justice?
* Users think my company sucks because of my shitty home page

Real World Example

To give you a practical example, I am going to take you through the UX and design steps we followed to bring our Speek iPhone app to life.

Below you will see what our UX lead delivered versus what our Visual Designer delivered.

UX – Storyboards, Structural Flow, Wireframes

This is something that our User Experience person designed.  The mission was to come up with the very best user experience for getting an iPhone user onto a conference call.


Structure / Flow


Visual Designer – Design Comps & PSD’s

Final Product

If you’d like to see the final working product you can see it here.


I hear people commingle and confuse UX professionals and Visual Design professionals all the time.  I also hear people assume they will be able to find one person who is great at being both.  Both of these misconceptions are huge mistakes.  As a startup founder, you must be intimately aware of the nuances between the design and user-experience professions; knowing who to ask for what and what to expect specifically from each employee and contractor is essential to help your product succeed.

Never miss a beat

  • Adam

    Great article! Really outlined the difference in roles nicely.

    Some of the flow/wireframe docs were a little hard to read. Are full sized images posted somewhere?

    • Danny Boice

      Thanks Adam! Sorry about the images being small. Happy to share originals. Will post a Dropbox link shortly

    • Danny Boice

      Hey Adam – here is a dropbox link to original images:

  • lane halley

    Hi Danny! Thanks so much for sharing the actual UX and visual design artifacts from your project. It’s a real service to the startup community. I’d love to see another article about the working relationships throughout this process. When/how did people collaborate? Was it a fairly linear process, or was there back and forth between the parts (e.g. storyboards to wires to visual design, back to wires or maybe even flows?)

    • Danny Boice

      Thanks Lane! Great idea for another post. I’ve actually gotten quite a few questions about specific roles and resources beyond simple high level disciplines as well. I’ll add it to my list – it would make a great follow on I think.

  • shoobe01

    Only one thing I noted really: You did conflate writing with the IxD/IA brand of UXer. Good writers (if you are so lucky) have a lot of value.

    • Danny Boice

      Very good point. I really did not speak much about writing in this piece – not because it’s not important but more because I had limited space and had to focus on a few points. I 100% agree with you on the importance. Our UX person does a great job with the writing aspects of the user experience and it is a key component.

  • nannasin smith

    it was there back and forth between the part..

  • Murat Mutlu

    I’ve yet to find a top class interface designer who isn’t also great at UX.

    All those problems that a UXer solves a UI designer can solve too, it’s just often done without fanfare or a label.

    IMO It’s also easier for a great designer to become a great UXer than it is for a great UXer to become a good designer.

    When I had to conduct user research, ceate persona’s and interactions for the first time it was a natural extension of my design skills and curoisity. Designing interfaces I want to know more about the user and get into their brain.

    If you check out some of the best designers on Dribbble for example, these guys don’t place flows and buttons in random places. Any interface doesn’t that can’t consider and implement all the UX things you’ve listed probably isn’t very

    I don’t think these guys are unicorns, just good designers. I do both, always have done. Before UX was such a sellable skill I had always considered every part of the interface I was designing.

    • uxemily

      Murat, I agree. The best visual designers I know are naturally inclined to understand the UX process and incorporate it into their work. I started out as a visual designer and picked up these skills naturally, much as you did. Now I’m doing Lean UX coaching for a whole team of UX and product people – the ones who already were strong designers pick up the new skills very naturally. Other people grasp the Lean UX bit too but will never become visual designers, and that’s fine.

      I think the trick is that the very strong visual designers are just harder to find. But they’re out there!

  • Rick Kellstrom

    Great read, I am the fabled “unicorn” despite every knowing I was. I alwasy looked at wireframing and design as one. I feel that it was part of the discovery faze. I alos had to build my own prototypes which I also felt was part of being a front end designer. Working in small startups it is vital to be versatile. UI designers in most cases make the best UX designers. Now on the other hand I have many times brought in outside firms who usually bring along their lead UX designer. This guy is the typical androgynous thin guy with glasses and a plaid shirt who hangs out at Starbucks. His designs are usually mediocre yet he talks a big game because he keeps up with all the articles on Smashing Mag. The term UX designer is a buzz word now and noone knows what it is. I have tried to hire UX people and get into an interview and they tell me “Oh I don’t design anything, I design work flows and user studies” I say thank you for your time.