Practical Advice

The design led startup: A guide for founders

Practical Advice

The design led startup: A guide for founders

Words Isha Maggu

February 2nd 2023 / 10 min read

You’re in a hurry, and you approach this door—would you push or pull? 

There’s maybe a 50/50 chance of someone pulling it, when in fact, it was meant to be pushed. But it’s not you, it’s the door. It’s not designed to be intuitive. 

This micro-moment of confusion has a name—the Norman door, named after Don Norman, who discusses this phenomenon in his book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’. So why does this matter? Even though the door is functional, its design gives ambiguous signals of usability. That negative micro-moment is the first interaction that someone has with wherever that door is leading to. Even if it’s just momentary, they might feel frustrated or even humiliated. It’s easily solved—flat handles to lead users to push, or signs to direct.  

The bigger picture is this—if you are design led, then you’re increasing your chances of avoiding these problems. Being design led includes involving your users in your product creation process, working with designers, and finding best practices when creating your product. And just because you have a product, it doesn’t mean your job is done. You need to take in feedback, rethink your customer experience, and iterate your product. By building your business with a design mindset, you’re constantly striving to create seamless and delightful interactions for your users.

In my experience working with founders, I strongly believe that good design is what can differentiate a successful startup from a less successful one. In this guide, I’ll explain what design in this context is, and share four core principles on how design can help with:  

  1. Creating an amazing experience for your users

  2. Making better decisions through prototyping and iterative learning

  3. Having a well-rounded leadership / team set up 

  4. Fostering user centricity, creativity and experimentation in your entire team 

What does it mean to be ‘design-led’ in a startup?

When people think of design, they often think of what something looks like. While that’s an incredibly important part of any experience you create, it’s so much more than that.  

“Design-led organisations utilise design tools, processes, and mental models not only for aesthetic and functional product or service design purposes, but even more to generate insights to make better strategic decisions.” (Ross Republic

“Design is also not limited to a particular department or phase in the development process. Design-led organisations have an intentionality around how experiences are designed in all, or at least most, aspects of the business.” (Superside

For early stage startups, I would say that being design-led is two fold. Externally, beyond aesthetics, it’s about a commitment to your users—in terms of your brand, your end-to-end experience, and the needs/desires you’re addressing. Internally, it’s your company culture and values. Being design-led doesn’t just mean creating a design function, and sidelining everyone’s voice who isn’t a designer—it means that everyone in your organisation is an advocate for your users.  

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Four principles for being design led:

1. Creating an amazing experience for your users

Some of the best founders are obsessed with creating a memorable and seamless product for their users. Having a functional and aesthetic product that meets your user’s needs is now the bare minimum. It is already assumed that businesses are relentless in finding their users’ problems and designing for their needs, or for what they may desire. Users expect seamless digital interactions: companies who consider every microinteraction a user has with their product, both online and offline, can stand out. 

Airbnb is a great example of this—co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are both designers by background. While we all know Airbnb as an online booking platform, they are aware that “99% of experiences happen outside of the website/app”, with design for interactions including unlocking a door, accessing the wifi or allowing and guiding first time hosts to set preferences for their first guests. They have also recently introduced “Adapted”, which focuses on adding more clarity to accessible and step-free homes. These kinds of design and product decisions make your users your ambassadors, and create positive memories when using your product.

On Airbnb’s design page, they describe themselves as being design-led. “Design influences everything we do at Airbnb. Behind the scenes, it shapes our work, how we build new tools and the ways that we share and interact with our global community.” 

They understand how to use design to enable their product to come to life and step back when needed. Alex Schleifer, Head of Design, explains: "People are in constant motion and interacting with your tool in specific ways throughout the journey. You need to bring your tool forward when it's most needed, and hide it when it's not. And then you need to build the transition from the digital world to the real world.” 

2. Making better decisions through prototyping and iterative learning

Design-centric companies are constantly learning, testing and iterating with users. It’s acknowledging that just because you have a product launched, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘done’.  Having regular design reviews, tests, and feedback sessions can enable informed iterations. And it can have a direct impact on your bottom line—one online gaming company discovered that a small increase in the usability of its home page was followed by a dramatic 25% increase in sales. 

One of our portfolio companies, Acre, is focused on creating a seamless end-to-end mortgage journey, ensuring their users can pick up the platform very quickly. Alex Salas-Wardman, Acre’s Head of Design, explains that they co-create their platform with their users, consistently testing their ideas with prototypes and user interviews. They validate before spending time building. They also encourage their whole team (from their CEO to developers) to use design thinking techniques, think about user needs, and treat new ideas as experimentation. They are able to leverage a strong user experience as a competitive advantage. 

By ignoring this, you’re in danger of spending time on building something that users might not need or use. You can iterate on it later, but you would have lost time and resources to build those first versions of the product. But with a design-led approach earlier on, this could be avoided and you could have more constructive iterations. And as a startup, it can be as simple as finding a few potential users, creating a quick prototype, and chatting to them about your ideas.  

Five founders who started as designers

Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest (previously Product Designer at Facebook)

Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter (trained Graphic Designer)

Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, co-founders of Airbnb (both studied at Rhode Island School of Design)

Stewart Butterfield, founder of Flickr (worked as a Web Designer)

Rashmi Sinha, founder of Slideshare (studied Human-Computer Interaction and started a UX consultancy)

3. Having a well-rounded design leadership / team setup 

If design isn’t one of the voices in the room when important decisions are made, user experience, brand, aesthetics, and internal design culture may not be prioritised. More creative people can display new ways of thinking and different styles of management. Our portfolio company Worldr, which recently raised $11m, has a Chief Design Officer on the team. They’ve shown they care about customer experience, focusing on seamlessly integrating into customers’ existing communication channels, and building an easy-to-understand product.

Dmitry Nikonov, their CDO, sees “simplicity in the product” as his responsibility. He explains that he does not want to overwhelm interfaces with unnecessary elements, and is always striving to make the product as understandable as possible, both visually and functionally. “People feel scared when they don’t understand something—especially in this [privacy & security] industry. I believe that design can bring light to this darkness.” 

If you can’t do this, bring a designer into your startup early on. Tudor Cotop, CTO of one of our studio ventures HealthKey, wants a designer as his first hire. He explains that “UX is the most important. If people don’t understand how to use your product, they won’t. If you get it right at the beginning, you don’t have to re-work. Your brand can also really differentiate you from others on the market.”

When thinking about your first hires, consider how important having a designer is for the type of product you are creating. Remember that designers can contribute to much more beyond UI and brand. Product Designers in early stage startups often have strong product thinking, user research skills as well as UI experience, and can advise on the kind of actions that need to be taken from a design perspective. 

4. Foster user centricity, creativity and experimentation in your entire team 

Design-led organisations have intentionally thought about how experiences are designed in most aspects of the business. 

Apple is a commonly used example of this: everyone on the team is design-first. It’s been embedded in their culture over the last three decades. They make user centricity part of the culture, as well as everyone’s responsibility. According to Mark Kawano, a former Senior Designer at Apple, “Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better… much more than any individual designer or design team.”

When looking at a product, each function on the team should be questioning simple things such as: does this make sense, or does this create a good user experience?

I recently worked on a startup called Nabu, building an AI-powered NFT valuation system. I saw a design-led approach from all functions I worked with. In a classic lean product squad, designers usually work independently on user research and design according to user needs, then hand over to developers to build what they’ve designed. At Nabu, however, involving tech and business development team members in user findings sessions and brainstorming sessions created a more harmonious relationship and more productive conversations when thinking about product build. We were aware of user needs as well as technical and market restrictions and opportunities, rather than being siloed off in separate functions. 

Our very own Chief Studio Officer Claire Morris leans on her experience as a designer to drive forward values she learned in the rest of the teams and studio ventures she works with. Her main message is to use design to reduce complexity and drive momentum: “Complexity is the antithesis to productivity. Take a step back and think about the bigger picture. Present thoughts in a simple way, make it easy for people to understand. And use storytelling where possible for the delivery of information, and use design thinking principles to get to the right answer more quickly.” 

From a practical perspective, you can run workshops to encourage your teams to participate in experimentation and play. You can involve others in user insight, brainstorming or design crit sessions, but also remember that it’s a mindset shift for some and you’ll need to work on building a culture of experimentation.

"So much of design is about different perspectives coming together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Giving people creative license to experiment plays a significant role within that. To experiment means to find out what works, what doesn’t and why for different scenarios, which in turn creates more effective design." Johanna Drewe, associate creative director, Studio Output.

TL;DR—Checklist for being design led

  • Focus on creating a great user experience—spend time understanding your users, and how you can exceed their expectations, and share this knowledge with everyone in the company  

  • Continuously iterate your product, even once you’ve shipped it—you’re never “done” 

  • Advocate that design is everyone’s job—encourage a user-centric culture in your company and ask for everyone’s insight when it comes to improving the customer experience

  • Have a design advocate on your team—whether it’s a designer as a first/early hire, a chief design officer, or an external design partner 

  • Track design activities just as you would track revenue

In conclusion: the business case for being design-led

Being design-led allows you to build better products, faster. It brings you closer to customer satisfaction, building brand loyalty and trust, and encouraging word of mouth referrals. Great design shows customers you care for them and what they think, and can create a more emotional connection with them, building loyalty and trust. 

It is also more widely acknowledged that design led businesses are increasingly important for business success. A McKinsey report analysed 300 companies over 100,000 design actions over a 5 year period, and found that design-focused startups make 32% more revenue and 56% higher total returns to shareholders compared with other companies. These were relevant to all industries.

Design doesn’t need to be a nice-to-have, nor does it need to feel like a major step. It can just start with a shift in thinking that can even come about with having one design advocate on your team. Even dedicated venture funds, such as designerfund, are being created to encourage design led businesses as it’s clear that it’s crucial for growth and success. 

And hey, if you’re a designer, it’s increasingly common for designers to become founders and create design-led businesses—even Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky is advocating for more creatives to become founders.

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About Isha

Isha Maggu is a Product Designer at Founders Factory. She’s worked on a number of Venture Studio projects including Temple, Bad Influence, Nabu and HealthKey. Prior to FF, she worked as a Senior UX Designer at Accenture Interactive and Product Designer at Clariness, and completed her Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction.

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