Blog Post

What every designer working in a startup needs to know

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

At the core of any startup is a passion to satisfy unmet needs. At the core of a designer there’s a passion to craft a bold vision for the future. But being a designer and being a designer in a startup are two very different things. After working at IDEO for about five years, I took the leap into a startup. Here are the three most surprising things I’ve learned from the past year about design and the role a designer plays in a startup.

User research doesn’t produce user-centered design.

At IDEO, a team conducts “unfocus groups” where consumers were given a buffet of prototyping materials to build their perfect running shoe

Traditional quantitative user research does not help you envision the future. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Using focus groups and surveys to measure and predict what consumers need and want are incremental at best because they’re focused on present realities.

User-centered design is something entirely different. It’s a way to run your company — with users at the center — where you uncover, understand and are inspired by people’s needs, wants, hopes, and aspirations; what they say, feel, do (and don’t do). So asking a focus group to imagine the future is akin to asking them to do the designer’s job themselves. It’s nonsensical.

Steve Jobs introduces the iMac, or “what [computers] will look like from today on.”
Steve Jobs was notorious for his belief  that good design could create products that anticipate consumer needs. As he said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But Apple is a deeply user-centered company. Instead of relying on focus groups, they designed products they’d  want to use. Which is why, in 1998, they opted to put a lot of memory into the new iMac, to give it an optimal screen size, and to simplify the overall user experience. As Jobs explained at the time,”This has to be the computer that we want on our desks too.”

One way is to get your design team into the homes of people who would use your product, and let them experience these people’s lives first-hand. Your offering will look quite different when you begin to see the context that will exist around it in people’s lives. Another way is to randomly conduct “man on the street” style interviews where you show someone a low-fidelity prototype and get their feedback. These are fast and dirty — and really fun to do. A final way to better understand your customer is to host what IDEO calls a “Whine and Dine,”  where a focused conversation happens over food and drinks.
These methods aren’t about measuring, and they’re not about predicting. Rather, user-centered design is about starting with people — to uncover their unmet needs, aspirations and behaviors. And once you identify whom you’re serving and what they need, hold onto those insights as the sacred, core opportunities of your company.

Design and engineering don’t make great bedmates.

Hundreds of logo studies were done before converging on the final Mailbox identity.

The traits that make for a good engineering culture are rarely the same as those that make for a good design culture. Design teams thrive in the experimental, the quick and dirty, in taking leaps and being daring, and they aren’t afraid of failing as a means to learning. Engineering teams, on the other hand, thrive in understanding, in the elegant solutions that account for edge cases, in heads down and focussed spaces, and the engineers I know aren’t too keen on failures of any kind.

IDEO’s San Francisco offices have an open layout for cross-pollination of ideas through conversation.

During this past year I worked in an office that was modeled after IDEO — big communal tables, no walls, and lots of team space. You’d think this open format would foster discussion, keep the designers and engineers in lock-step and promote visibility across the company. But that just wasn’t the case. The designers were noisy, they liked their music at full volume, and they hashed through design reviews passionately. The engineers were cranking and found the noise and activity distracting.

So instead of trying to convince the engineers to be more like the designers, or for the designers to be more like the engineers, we went to Home Depot, bought some giant sheets of foamcore and built a wall. Suddenly, the engineers had a coding cave that was quiet and took over two-thirds of the office, while the designers had the other third of the space to pump their music and debate over button styles as loudly as they wanted.

The result? On the day-to-day level, people were suddenly excited for weekly meetings instead of being at one another’s throats. And at a deeper, cultural level, a respect began to emerge between the teams.

Embrace the fact that design and engineering cultures are different. Design is really well-suited to answer the “How might we?” questions, while engineering is really well-suited to consider all of the details that go into making a concept real. And if you want to build a world-class product, you have to surround these two unique cultures with the tools, space and support that will get them there. They’re complementary – you need both. It’s where 2 + 2 adds up to 5.

You can’t add back in design at the end.

Design thinking touches all aspects of your company.

A startup expresses the values of the founding team. Period.

If the founding team isn’t made up of designers or design-thinkers, design will have a hard time offering much more than window dressing. The founders represent the heart and soul of the company: What the founders burn for will be what the company burns for, and when a company is run by a team that loves product, the results are magical. Because a design-led startup is going to design not only their product, but also their culture. (It’s this mission that started The Designer Fund — a group solely dedicated to investing in designer founders.)

Dropbox’s product helps you upload and share your photos, documents and videos simply and easily.

Take Dropbox, for example. It has only three official designers and the founder, Drew Houston, is a self-professed software engineer. But the Dropbox team has obsessed over the design of their product: It is a wonderfully simple, easy-to-use, intuitive product that serves a clearly defined, core need. It is magical. And this is because — even though he doesn’t call himself a designer — Houston is a design-thinker, which is expressed through the entire product. Dropbox is clearly the result of design thinking operating at the core of the company. So for design to be effective in a startup, it has to be at the center of the organization.

But design isn’t just about product; design is a way of thinking about everything. It’s how you handle the unknowns when talking to investors; it’s how you approach ambiguity within your earliest ideas and explorations; it’s how you critique — not criticize; it’s how you talk through those ideas that could potentially alter your engineering schedule by months; it’s how you know when to keep pushing past “good enough” and on to great;  and it’s how you get from why you’re solving a problem to what you’re building and putting out into the world.

Let’s call a spade a spade here and reframe the role of the designer — design isn’t simply making things look pretty, design is about creating a vision for tomorrow. And it’s difficult — if not impossible — to dream, create and ship amazing new products when the foundation of the company isn’t set up to solve really complex problems, deal with uncertainty, and align on a definition of what “good” looks like.

Since the designer’s role is to envision tomorrow, and the startup exists to bring tomorrow into existence, that fundamental partnership is what’s really needed for a designer to effectively do their job in a startup. So if you’re interested in building a design-led startup, do it fully. Be bold in designing the future. And make that vision a reality.

Elle Luna is the Design Lead at Mailbox — a mobile email app. You can find her on Twitter at @elleluna.

5 Responses to “What every designer working in a startup needs to know”

  1. Christopher Brown

    Very true, design can be more than aesthetics. Designing for a user’s experience when done right takes into account the bigger picture -context.
    I disagree with you and Henry ford. People can’t tell you how to design a THING, but if Henry asked them some experiential questions you might find out that people can tell you about what kind of experience they aspire to. Maybe their transportation doesn’t take a shit in front of them, maybe they want to go in reverse, maybe their ideal form of transportation couldn’t kick them in the face; none of which point to a faster horse. (I really hate that quote, it’s thrown around way too much, usually to justify designer’s exceptionalism). Designing for ourselves can work when it’s something we all use (like a computer or phone) but it might be a little harder to design medical sanitation equipment or feminine care products.
    Focus groups are a tool or medium not a solution, they can be very effective in answering some questions if the scope and expectations are set correctly. Too often the focus group format is abused and used inappropriately -it’s all about using the right tool for the job.

  2. Peter Chon

    As soon as you remove the obstacles known as “managers” and “marketers”, you will have great design.

    Also, once you think you have a great design, it is time to bring in the users for a real world test.

  3. Danny K Antwi

    “Rather, user-centered design is about starting with people — to uncover their unmet needs, aspirations and behaviors. And once you identify whom you’re serving and what they need, hold onto those insights as the sacred, core opportunities of your company.”

    This is what RaveOrBash is doing for the review space. The big players in the review space have overlooked the issues within the space and we are going to make the users and consumers winners and better off for it…..We launch next year. Follow us for updates @raveorbash or visit,,

  4. Nicholas Paredes

    Working with IDEO at Startl was one of the great experiences in my entrepreneurial education. Working in a corporate environment with dedicated research, I have come to the same conclusions. The “edge” case exploration was powerful.

    Design can lead. I found that working in a “lean start-up” like mode enables this much more than trying to either engage engineering or work with business. Designers always want to talk leadership, but simply doing their jobs is nothing if not that!

    IDEO and Lean Startups are the two great influences on me as a designer now.