Two years ago I quit my corporate job to venture upon my startup dream. While we haven’t yet quite made it — and even if we never become the large company we hope to become — I have absolutely zero regrets. For building my own startup has taught me a great deal, more than I could ever have imagined. As anyone who’s undertaken to build a startup will tell you, it’s insanely hard, first of all, because you are essentially creating something from nothing. But more than that, it is the type of work that exerts your all, physically and mentally. You work endless hours motivated only by your commitment to yourself and to your product, you don’t know when you’ll start producing any income, you experience extreme ups and downs daily, sometimes believing you’re closer than ever and other times realizing just how much work still lies ahead. But despite the many challenges — probably, in fact, because of them — I have improved immensely as a designer. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Design is more than just solving problems
The first time I ever felt a need to defend my role as a designer was when I became a founder. In the startup network I stumbled upon people who questioned the role of the designer in a founders team. The expectation seems to be that it is developers or business people who are steering the wheel. But — as I have often found the need to explain at investor meetings or networking events — the work of the designer is essential at every level for creating a product people will want to use. Without that, there is no business.
If you think design is just a service, you’re not likely to think a founding team needs a designer.
Prior to building my own startup, I too had thought that the role of the designer is ‘to creatively solve human-centric problems’. The problem with this statement is that it doesn’t include the person who identifies these problems. It may assume designers wait for others to tell them what problems to solve, therefore putting design in a status of being a service. This is definitely true for design agencies, but it’s also true at many in house teams. For example, at Expedia — the last company I’ve designed for — we worked in sprints, and design tasks were broken into user stories. Now a designer might get a task to ‘design a dashboard that lets travel agents keep track of their bookings’. But suppose you felt a dashboard is not the right way to solve the problem, or perhaps that ‘number of bookings’ is not the correct metric to motivate agents — in these cases you’d have to convince upper management, which typically meant there wasn’t anything you could do about it. This approach certainly relegates design to a service.
But the role and contribution of a designer at a startup company extends far beyond that, touching indeed on each and every aspect of the company’s emerging brand and product. Working for my own startup I became, for the first time, fully engaged and involved in our company’s strategy, including the careful process of identifying and defining precisely the problems worth solving. At a startup design can’t be a service. Building a company means looking at the big picture before diving into any user story. It’s understanding both the specific advantages we have as a company as well as the technical and personnel constraints. It involves designing not only the product, but also how people will hear about it, what they’ll understand when they hear about it, is that understanding compelling enough to go through the trouble of trying it, and if so, what will make them come back a second time? — All this needs to be designed. I know we (designers) know that, but I’ve encountered many who see design as an afterthought, something you pay someone to do after all the planning is done.
Today I know what an important impact design can have when given a seat at the table. A designer’s job doesn’t have to stay within the boundaries of making existing products more usable or beautiful, and crafting a vision doesn’t have to be something exclusive to business people. When a designer is involved in strategic company decisions, the result is a truly human centered product.
I’m sure I have a bias, but I also feel that more product-oriented CEO’s are better suited for some companies. It depends on what you’re building of course, but for many, ours included, the product is the thing that has to work. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble, and if you’re the leader of the company and you don’t have the skill set to guide the team on what to build, then I don’t see how it could work. Partnering with a designer can give your business an important advantage.
2. There is a lot of common ground between product and marketing
I’ve always thought of marketing and design as separate disciplines, one leading to the other: Marketing gets people in the door, Design makes sure they stay. I learned to think about them together. But at all the big companies I’ve worked for, I was never involved with the marketing team. And since these companies had already established a strong user base, my work was focused only on the experience of existing and returning users.
Building my own startup, I had for the first time to go through herculean effort to reach new users, and to get them to want to use whatever I’m building. Just offering a product that is different or even better than the competition is not enough. Crucially, you have to make sure people know it exists. With that I found myself working on product design and marketing design hand in hand.
We thought of our product as a story that begins when a user first hears about it, and continues if she decides to enter. Keeping the same language for both the product and marketing assets made sense to us. For example, a user doesn’t just arrive at a landing page out of context — something, rather, brought her there, perhaps a friend’s recommendation, an ad, or something else. The designer must be aware of the user’s experience at every level. In our case, the copy on the landing page continued the same ‘marketing’ story that we told to get people in the door. And so it continued for all the pages that follow.
If we didn’t think about marketing and product together, our story might have inadvertently presented contradicting messages, or just not be fully aligned, or somehow confusing to users — any such issue may prevent one from staying. The energy and enthusiasm that got people to click into the landing page must continue into the product.
As designers, thinking about marketing — about how to craft a compelling narrative that will speak to the hearts of the users we’re after — helps us understand those users better. Getting people to stop what they’re doing and check out your product requires knowing exactly what motivates them, and for us this took many attempts to get it right. It’s a combination of product and marketing, focusing on the experience as the central way to sell your product.
However crowded a market seems to be, there is eventually going to be someone who will manage to change it and steal a large share from the already established companies. It may not be quite entirely true yet, but I believe that eventually the winning companies at any crowded market will be the ones who focus on user experience at every level — from getting people in the door to continuously making them want to stay. At these companies, every employee will be an advocate for their company’s users, not just the designers.
3. Designing details requires seeing the big picture
I used to think the design process begins with problems the product encounters. Today I think that’s like starting from the middle. What is the middle? It’s easy to understand the middle if you think about design agencies, where designers’ involvement is often limited to the most error-prone and fragile part of a project. But designing from the middle doesn’t happen only at agencies. The middle happens anytime you’re focused on solving a specific problem without understanding the entire story.
The problem with designing from the middle is that it doesn’t take the whole story into consideration. Where do potential users come from? What did they do before arriving to this (problematic) screen or flow? What brought them into the product to begin with? What were they feeling? What happens after this interaction? Does solving the problem create different problems later on? Today I can’t imagine design happening without having this context.
When building a startup and creating something totally new, you’re in such a sensitive spot, because no one knows you exist yet you want everyone to trust you and use your product. This situation forced us to step back and look at the big picture all the time. For example, when we saw that our on-boarding screens weren’t clear to users, we examined the post a user saw to get into the app — where did she see it and what is the state of mind someone has at that place? We did the same for all the steps the user went through before seeing the first on-boarding screen. This is important because an experience can’t be narrowed to one area (‘[this] is the flow we need to fix’) or even to one entire app. Your product is part of a larger ecosystem, and the experience reaches well beyond a person’s relationship with your product.
For every component we added or modified and every screen we changed, we always asked ourselves what is the end to end experience that we want people to have and further, does the addition or modification we’re introducing really contribute to that experience? What’s happening before people get in and start interacting with these screens? What are they thinking and feeling? What triggered them into these screens in the first place? And what happens after someone has interacted with our product? How do we want them to feel? What do we want them to have taken away from the experience?
To answer these questions we would practice clearing our minds, trying our best to imagine we never saw this app before, and going into it from the beginning every time, like a fresh new user. We’d practice experiencing the app before the design change and after it, and ask ourselves how our feelings differ with each experience.
Taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture and answering these questions for any design task you get, even if it’s in the middle, are super important. Because in the end, our design is not about the product we’re building, but rather about how that product fits in the context of the end to end experience people are having.
4. Deconstructing successful apps is the best way to develop a critical eye
Before starting my company I used to turn to sites like Dribbble and Behance whenever I was stuck. I didn’t, however, spend much time studying what design considerations might have gone into any particular piece. I wasn’t looking for such behind the scenes explanations, and anyway, that kind of information tends to be missing from design-showcasing websites. These feature beautiful products as in — these beautiful pixels that we’re drawing — is our work. Visitors (=designers) comment on and judge those screens without knowing who they’re built for — what about the people using these pixels? What about the story of the experience you want them to have?
As we were building our startup we found that looking at other apps for inspiration whenever we were stuck wasn’t enough; we had to deconstruct them. We’d spend hours studying popular apps, trying to figure out what stood behind each design decision. Looking at other apps we’d first and foremost try to understand what makes users want to keep coming back? We asked ourselves things like — what is the most important thing the user needs to know about this app, and how is the design helping that come through? What triggers people to enter the app in the first place? Why did the designers choose this particular spacing, color, words? What are they trying to emphasize? Why are tabs on the top / the bottom? Why does a timestamp sometimes show a full date and sometimes how long ago something happened? Etc.
By routinely analyzing other apps, I developed a better eye for product thinking. It helped us make better choices for our own product, which was influenced, in an informed way, by the designs of other apps. It’s important to let yourself learn from the masters of your craft, in a way where you see the value of what was done and understand the reasons for its success.
5. Storytelling is as important as the product itself
At my last job before the startup — at Expedia — I worked on designing an internal tool for my users to better do their job. That made finding research participants fairly easy. Being fellow employees, my users trusted me and happily contributed any information I needed in order to make better design decisions for their tools.
My startup experience was the complete opposite. We were building a product for consumers, and had to reach out to users without anyone knowing who we were or ever having heared about our company. I had a lot of fears thinking about how I’d reach people — why would anyone try something new that I had built? Why would people that I don’t know at all comment on a post I wrote? Why would people spend time to meet with me and talk about my product, give feedback or tell me about their personal lives?
This didn’t come naturally to me, but I learned that being open and transparent makes others open up, too. I got people to do all the above by reaching out to them in the right places, telling them about what motivated us to start, sharing experiences and funny stories about the problem we wanted to solve, and drawing a vision of how we imagine their future could look with our product. It isn’t easy to tell a story that feels true and authentic, especially if you’re feeling deeply that your product’s future depends on how and what you say now. We experimented with so many different versions, and many times no one cared. But every time we managed to craft a story that felt right and true, we’d see a large flow of new and engaged users.
For us, telling the story right involved — 1) Sharing something personal, 2) Connecting people with the feeling of frustration that triggered us to build this product, 3) Adding an image/gif that showed the frustration in an extreme yet funny way, and 4) Not asking for things that feel like a commitment, like a promise to give feedback.
Telling the right story made users feel more personally involved in the process, and left them wanting to learn more about the product. After all, users are part of your team. Make sure to consider them as you make decisions about your company and your product.