The fundamentals of startups have changed. Years ago, a novel idea or proprietary technology are all you needed to get funded, launch a product, and build a company. But that’s just not enough anymore — early-stage teams need to create a fantastic end-to-end product experience, and to do that they need someone to help with user experience design.
And yet how many founders put as much emphasis on finding a true UX design expert as they do building out their advisory board? I think for all the talk about design on business tabloids like FastCompany, all the chatter about the importance of great design, design MBAs, and design thinking — business culture, especially VC culture, still doesn’t get that good design is a expertise, a craft honed over the years, and young startups need an expert.
Let’s talk about a two different scenarios for as startup and the role that UX design plays in both:
Take a moment to imagine this: you are the founder who just landed $500k of seed funding to build a new mobile app. What are some of the most fundamental tasks that will determine early-stage success of your product and team?
These essential milestones for an early-stage startup are core to what a user experience designer does. Now, imagine that you’re running a small yet profitable enterprise software startup. You have a great sales staff of and several million in revenue each year, but aren’t growing as fast as you’d like. What are your biggest product challenges?
In both cases, the mission-critical milestones for either startup are focused around user experience design.
User experience design is a field that spans many domains, including visual design to cognitive psychology and technology. Too often CEOs, founders and investors who haven’t worked with a UX designer before label them as a production resource — they assume UX designers are just downstream, post-founding hires that sit in front of Illustrator or Photoshop and churn out PSDs, screen designs and figure out where buttons go. So, these founders decide they just need a visual designer, or wait to hire an internal design resource all-together. It’s no wonder why so many first-time startups fail.
To make matters worse, there’s a new design culture on the web today de-emphasizes expertise and thoughtful design. It’s a culture of Dribbble pixel-perfection and photoshop thumbnails, emphasizing beauty above functionality. While Dribbble is an incredible design resource, Photoshop details like drop-shadows and linen textures seem to trump fundamental design thinking, like: “What does this product do?”
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
– Steve Jobs
What this online designer mentality suggests is that any interface or design which isn’t a work of art to begin with is flawed. That designing beauty is the whole of the process, rather than a later stage in finishing a product.
There’s also a disconcerting trend of “product design unicorns” &mdash UX designers are expected to be experts at graphic design, logo design, and UI design all at once. That’s an absurd expectation, like expecting a full-stack developer to also be your biz dev director and sales team lead.
Perhaps “UX Designer” is now just a misnomer, or the wrong label — “user experience” is often used to describe so many different things. But the fundamentals of what it has been and why it started as a profession decades ago was as a field that focused on the skills and techniques needed to champion a user-centric product vision within cross-disciplinary technology and development teams. Regardless of any startup’s size, that role is as essential as it ever was.
Whatever the reason for this misunderstanding of what a UX designer is, does, and can contribute to a startup, it’s a damn shame. A good UX designer is not an expert or specialist in one part of the product puzzle, but rather a generalist in it all. They can be can be a head of product, product manager, and team leader all in one. They can think strategically about a product roadmap, but also tactically about what needs to get done this week to meet a milestone. Yes, some can do pixel design work as well as thinking strategically, while some can wireframe interfaces and then prototype them in code. And maybe therein lies the rub: as a generalist, UX designers all have slightly unique skill sets, rather than just a list of capabilities.
UX Designers can and should be one of a startup’s greatest assets. Just in the same way that founders have subject matter experts, VCs, and technologist on their advisory board, I’d suggest founders should consider having UX designers on their advisory team, and rethink what they mean when they say “designer.”