I love design and startup and I firmly believe magical companies emerge when these two meet, e.g. Braun, Apple, Airbnb, Medium, YouTube, Square, and Nest. The critical mass of combined business, design and technical skills have made these companies incredibly successful.
But I always feel people overcomplicate design with their multiple principles and frameworks. Design should be simple, replicable and top of mind in a startup. At Mammoth we think of design as a state of mind, a simple yet creative approach to a problem. It’s how we think we will empathize with our users and unearth unarticulated opportunities. This is how we approach it.
Don’t be dogmatic about process, specs and beautiful renders. Speed to market, learning and building is what matters; not your pixel perfect Photoshop mocks and documentation. The thing you should strive for perfection with should be your shipped product, not your mockup. Ultimately, users see your product, not Photoshop files. Put a greater focus on designing experiences rather than on spec and deliverables.
Design narratives, not screens. While people around you will always ask to design a few screens, i.e. onboarding, sign-up flows, referrals etc.; as a designer you should always think about them in narratives, not individual screens. Because stories have characters, context and emotions. Think about a user’s entire journey — how she achieves the goal (from being a visitor to a repeat user) and not only the outcome (make her sign up).
Design with a PoV, learn and then design with numbers. I am sure when you are doing a startup, you must have started with a critical hypothesis based on some user pain you empathized with. Unlike many big companies where designers and product teams are supposed to ship and check a milestone, you the startup designer need to realize that shipping is just another daily chore for you.
Think about what exactly you are measuring to test your PoV. Start playing with analytics tools, e.g. Mixpanel, Heap, Google Analytics, to see how your design is performing with users. Analyze that performance, compare it to your initial hypothesis and derive insights. Find out what really happened, learn from and get back to shipping again and again.
In one of her seminal posts, Julie Zhuo, product design director of Facebook, posted a graphic about the design process good/experienced designers follow. It does a great job of illustrating the difficulty of the design work that happens after you ship a product at a startup. It’s all about iterations.
Design with committee and not design-by-committee. You should also involve your product/feature team throughout the UX cycle. But keep the reins with you, because there’s nothing worse than a product designed by committee. Listen to everyone, respect everyone’s PoV and design with all the insights combined.
Developers are your best friend. A designer is only as good as a developer and vice versa. She’s the one who can bring life to your mocks and all the interactions that you’d thought of and/or prototyped. So bring her a box of donuts and her favorite drink and create the magic together.
Be a part of customer support. Even better, head the customer support, that means talking to your users everyday on social media, support forums. It will definitely give you a better perspective about what to do and what to not do. It might not be as helpful as contextual research or a lab study but it’ll all keep you abreast of what’s working, what’s not and what more people are looking to get from your product.
Use pen(cil) more. Don’t jump to Sketch, Photoshop or HTML/CSS. No matter how fast you are with your digital tools, you can be at least 5 times faster with a pencil. Pencil sketches are cheaper, get you better feedback and let you iterate much faster.
Learn (always, always, always). Analytics, Git, HTML, CSS and all that left-brained stuff that we don’t really care about, matter and matter a lot for your startup. Try to get involved with your dev/test/product science team (if you have one), or step up and learn. Being a one-trick pony is okay and appreciated if you’re working for a big organization, but a designer for a startup is so much more than a designer; be a product manager, a front-end guy, a customer support hero and you will add tons of value to your company and yourself.
Take care of yourself and the people around you. Startup life can be really difficult. Share an occasional laugh with your kid, go for a dinner with your spouse or partner, play a quick game of tennis, drink a glass of wine. Enjoy design.