Why startups need design from day one

You can’t just ‘add some UX’ at a later date

Laurence McCahill
9 min readDec 22, 2013


This is taken from an interview I did recently for Business & Design — a collaboration between a design school and a business school in Gothenburg, Sweden. They’re looking at how startups can benefit from design.

So, let’s start with your definition of design?

First and foremost, I see design as solving problems in the most elegant way — good design should barely go noticed. To me there are several layers to design, but if you don’t get the basics right everything else is secondary. I believe the best design balances beauty and simplicity.

Why help startups/entrepreneurs?

In my experience they often don’t see value in investing in design, particularly early on. There’s been a culture of technology first, whereas I believe we should be taking a more people-centred approach to building products and services. Unless the thing you’re building has real value to someone, it’s just a vanity project, no matter the technology. Whilst the tide is turning, there’s still a need to educate startup founders about the competitive advantage well-designed products and services can bring. I founded a regular design meetup for startups (UX Café) for this reason.

UX Café, December 2013

In what ways can they benefit from design?

In CEO speak, higher revenues. It’s been proven that there’s a direct correlation between a well-designed product and loyalty. Customers that have a positive experience tend to spend more, more often and tell their friends. I see design as a direct route to free marketing through the positive word of mouth it helps to generate. People are now more savvy than they were even 5 years ago and so won’t put up with a poorly designed product or service if there’s a better alternative. In most circumstances a customer’s experience with your product or service is the main contact with your brand so it’s key to really work at this. If this creates a negative emotion, they’ll more than likely never come back.

“If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.” Jeff Bezos, Amazon

To me good design isn’t just about aesthetics or function, it’s about the emotional connection we make with the people we’re designing for. Startups have an amazing opportunity to build a loyal audience by make their customers happy (particularly early adopters), but too many focus solely on squeezing out the most from them and not giving much in return.

Would you call what you talk about to startups and entrepreneurs as “design thinking”?

Not necessarily, I just think of it as common sense, empathy, but I realise many entrepreneurs don’t think in the same way. Whilst many agree with the approach in principle, very few actually put their money where their mouth is and practice it fully. As startups are inherently in a state of flux, it’s key that they are in constant contact with the people using their products — their customers. Many startups lose sight of this, but the best companies realise the importance of a cycle of iterative development based on feedback from real world use. Only in this way can we create experiences that create real value for people.

“People don’t care about your solution, they care about their problems.” Dave McClure

Behaviour gap mapping in action

What aspects of design do you teach your clients?

We find that visualisation is a great start. Many people (particularly entrepreneurs), don’t think of themselves as creative, but often it’s just a question of giving them the space and freedom to generate and share ideas. We feel the best way to communicate an idea is through sketching as it helps to reduce misunderstanding and instantly creates an something tangible to talk around.

We also make a real effort to educate our clients about the value of testing early ideas or prototypes before we’ve gone too far in the development process. For startups that are new to product development this can be a learning curve. We also get clients involved in other design techniques that can aid the design process such as behavioural mapping, user stories or persona creation. We try to make these exercises fun to reduce friction and stimulate creativity.

What aspects of design do you think startups usually have the most problems using or adopting?

Solving real problems that matter to a particular group of people. This requires a thorough understanding of their customers and their world — who they are, what makes them tick, how they behave and how their product fits into the context of their lives. Too many startups assume people will flock to buy their product once it’s released but place too little emphasis on the real world problems that exist.

I also think of copy as a key element of design, particularly on the web. Crafting a killer value proposition can help cut through a lot of noise and help the user to understand what the product or service can do for them. In terms of interface design, microcopy is also key to creating a connection with the audience.

“You can do an awful lot of great design in a text editor.”
Jason Fried, 37 Signals

Do you employ any methods from the lean startup? If yes, then how does this tie into the design process?

Yes. We’ve been using the lean canvas with our clients for a while now (a variation of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas). We host an inception workshop with every new project and the canvas is our starting point for the day. It helps us to get a picture of how their idea fits into the wider business model and gets the discussion away from a prescribed solution early on. More recently we’ve created our own version The Happy Startup Canvas which includes some more high-level areas such as your values, vision and purpose. Without knowing these it makes product decisions much more difficult and time consuming, particularly for an external partner. We’ve found spending time working on the bigger picture really helps to lay some foundations — your startup DNA, if you like. Your vision should be the change you want to see in the world, and your purpose is why you’re doing what you’re doing (other than for profits).

“Your passion is ignited by your purpose, and your vision enables you to apply that spark to change the world.” Lisa Petrilli

As product people it’s our job to design the best solution, but to do this require a deep understanding of their business. We’ve adopted many of the key principles of lean since we started up in 2004 but it didn’t have all the fancy buzzwords then. We’ve always been ones to rigorously challenge assumptions and test these against the real world. What I think the lean startup has done is bring the value of a user-centred design approach to the wider business community. For those working in the design field many of the concepts are nothing new, but Eric Ries’ genius was in combining Steve Blank’s innovative work on customer development with the growing adoption of agile software development. Lean UX has taken this one step further with a focus on speed to help startups quickly create value — moving away from lots of deliverables with more focus on the experience being design.

At my company Spook Studio we design and build so we find the vast interest in lean startup has helped clients to see value in a more agile approach to development.

How would you say that the design-driven approach to startups is different from how startups normally form and build their products and services?

Generally we find that startups products and services often arise from ideas generated by the founder(s). The proposed solution is usually derived from a number of assumptions about the audience, market, etc. Entrepreneurs can, by their nature, be single-minded, so asking them to test their assumptions with other people can be a struggle for them. “But I know my customers!” can be a common response when we try and challenge a client to speak to some of them to validate their assumptions. So rather than take a design-driven approach, they adopt a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. More often than not, they’ll learn the hard way that this is a risky business.

How can startups incorporate design more deeply into their culture early on?

It needs to come from the top, so it’s about education and awareness. Founders need to believe in the strategic advantage a design-driven approach can give them. The earlier they can bring in design, the more they can reap the benefits. It’s a lot harder to bring in design when a product or service has already been developed.

I believe the best way to do this is either to have a designer as part of the founding team (The Designer Fund has been set up to invest in designer entrepreneurs as startup with these types of founders tend to have a greater success rate than the average), or to recruit the best freelance designer you can afford to help you shape the product and better understand what your customers want.

In your experience, what new insights, understanding, or knowledge do you think design gives founders?

A better understanding of what people actually want and would pay for, more empathy for their customers and their world, a way for them to communicate their uniqueness through their product or service. Technology can often be copied, design can bring in an emotion which often can’t.

Do you work with prototyping in any way during this process? If yes, then how?

Yes. Sometimes sketching and paper prototyping if we want something raw to get early feedback on, but more often than not we quickly progress to interactive prototypes using either Bootstrap or our own in-house framework. We’ve found this to be the best way to quickly reach a common understanding with both our clients and their users. We try to keep discussion and documentation to a minimum and focus instead on creating artefacts to talk around.

What other design tools and methods do you use?

Our toolkit for any particular project could include any of the following:

  • Personas
  • User stories & journeys
  • Experience maps
  • Behavioural mapping
  • Lean canvas
  • User research (both ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ interviews)
  • Usability testing
  • Mind maps
  • Sketching
  • Storytelling exercises
  • A/B testing
  • Landing page design
  • Design principles (including defining the product’s ‘make mantra’)
  • Vision & purpose exercises

When people come to your events, in what stage are they in the process of starting/running a company?

Speaking at our recent Summercamp

It depends. For our Happy Startup School events, people are often at the idea stage and still in full-time employment, some don’t even yet have an idea but are just interested in entrepreneurship. At UX Café most startups already have a product (or at very least prototype) but need help to get it to the next level.

When do you think they can benefit the most, and why then?

From day one. It’s been proven that the earlier design is brought on board, the greater the ROI. A good designer will want to understand both the business drivers and the needs of an audience, often if they are brought in midway through a project there’ll be a lot of backtracking going on. Good design can often be the difference between a product succeeding or failing.

Hope you enjoyed this post. You can follow me on Twitter @welovelean or why not download my free e-book ‘4 Steps to a Happy Startup’. You can get more posts like these by following our Medium page.



Laurence McCahill

Designer, coach, entrepreneur. Co-founder The Happy Startup School.