Product Design in a Startup World: Opportunities and Solution

Author: Matt Grunwald, Principal Designer at Skillz

Picture this — you recently graduated college and joined the hottest startup company in the Bay Area. It has an amazing product concept with the potential to redefine an entire industry. As one of the few designers on a small, passionate team, you’re ready to help lead the product vision from whiteboard to reality. 

You kick off into the discovery phase of the design process and interview your biggest stakeholder to understand the business goals. A few minutes into the discussion, they say, “We need a minimum viable product (MVP) by the end of this month.” 

In the high-growth technology landscape, entrepreneurs and professionals often pursue ambitious goals to set their organizations apart. Determining what priorities will provide the best return on investment (ROI) within those specifications is an exciting challenge. A few key considerations will help you get started in designing a viable product and rallying a small team to achieve outsized success. Below is a collection of common design challenges and suggestions for how to uncover solutions that have a tangible impact on your business.

What’s the most important success metric for the company’s future?

A primary objective in modern design is to, above all else, deeply understand the thoughts, problems and desires of your end-user. Asking yourself questions like, “Why is there a need for this product?” and “How can it help quality of life?” will aid you in understanding the product’s main goal, as well as the best solution for your users. 

However, when designing at a startup that’s pioneering an entirely new industry with a novel product concept and undefined user base, first consider imperative business needs, such as driving revenue, installs, and retention. In this case, think of your team as your end-users and build the foundation of the MVP together. Then, you can begin establishing an internal exploratory user base through research, iterations, and testing, with the goal of a unified mission.

Here are a few tips for determining how to approach a product solution with limited funding runway:

  1. Communicate with your team, department leads, and most importantly, the founder/s directly. 
  2. Understand the goals for each stakeholder and align against the company vision. 
  3. Use a mission statement as a foundation for unified direction and define the key success metric together. Whether it’s retention for an aging product or user acquisition for an MVP with only a handful of beta testers, set a target and make it your North Star, so everyone’s aim is on it. 

Success Metric Examples: A 20 percent increase in an active session time; 10,000 installs under a customer acquisition cost (CAC) of $5; a realistic fiction prototype ready with (n) days that convinces a first round of investment

Save the Cadillac for later; what does the tricycle look like?

As a designer, you’ve probably heard of the phrases “fail fast” and “take more shots on goal.” These concepts are especially applicable in a startup environment. Instead of spending cycles thinking about the ultimate product solution, focus on getting something out the door for testing. The more times you iterate, the more data you’ll obtain to improve the long-term viability of the product.  

Start by identifying the “must-haves” that will define the MVP, or in our analogy, your tricycle. One way to do this is through the MoSCoW method, which includes four prioritization categories: Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have. If you have 100 tasks to complete to create a beautiful product, determine the top 10 must-haves for the tricycle to start pedaling forward.

Always brainstorm on a writable surface, so team members have a visual way to collaborate and discuss ideas. Stack-rank your potential solutions into the four MoSCoW categories. While  determining how to categorize solutions, remind all stakeholders of the key success metric you’ve committed to together. Decide which features whole-heartedly support it and which ones are fancy features for the future Cadillac. 

Collect early qualitative and quantitative data through primary and secondary research that validates and establishes the product’s market fit. If you have the bandwidth, incorporate other steps of the design process, like in-depth surveys, mind-mapping, and a SWOT analysis. Approach these steps with clear action items, keeping velocity and shots on goal in mind. 

When it’s time to design, don’t stray too far from the whiteboard. Begin with simple drawings that portray the user journey and overall product flow. Consider the appropriate number of steps it will take for users to reach the primary goal and hit your key success metrics. Eventually you’ll have enough ramblings and scribbles to build wireframes, which then support prototyping and the starting foundation to your design.

You might say, “We only have the weeks left before our MVP goes to market. Shouldn’t we start designing the final product?” That approach works if your first shot on goal hits the back of the net. However, consider what might happen if you miss. A key stakeholder wants the features in “Screen C” to be moved to “Screen A,” and the message in your first time user experience (FTUE) tells the wrong story. Do you have the bandwidth, resources, and time to update your hi-fidelity designs by the hard deadline? Instead, iterate, review, and refine quickly until you have built confidence in the product’s direction. 

Always be aware of your constraints and weigh the effort against the return. Just because your first product release is a tricycle doesn’t mean it should be a rusty forgotten experience from a yard sale. Put some racing stripes and streamers on it, as you only get one chance to make a first impression on the world! 

Does my product look the part?

The established fundamentals of design have existed for over a century: balance, hierarchy, contrast, direction. We use these universal principles daily to create engaging stories, products and experiences. However, a relatively new concept in both design and business is the process of “design thinking.” This important method aims to fully understand a user, challenge assumptions, and continually redefine opportunities for growth spanning a small to global scale. 

Design thinking is a useful process that helps you discover the strongest product solution. However, even when you follow a recipe, your cake doesn’t always look like the one you saw on Pinterest. No matter how ideal your solution is for an end-user, don’t forget about first-read impact and impressions. We’re all curious creatures searching for stimulation, and that typically starts visually. Your product needs to “look the part” to be successful. It must inspire and influence a user within a matter of seconds. 

I’ve met a lot of brilliant designers along my journey and have relished learning from them each day. That journey has led to many realizations, one of which is that design thinking alone won’t help a product cross the finish line. My advice is to pick up a pencil, take a drawing or painting class, study typography, learn the theories of color, hierarchy and balance. The experience will help designers lay out components on the screen, determine the correct font variations, and accurately place a primary call to action.

There are elements of design that can’t be taught, and skills that are only instinctual. The fundamental principles of design are the written word of this understanding. A strong product designer is someone that never stops learning powerful processes, tools, and techniques to improve their skills. Ultimately, a successful product designer is continuously discovering their vision and storytelling as an artist

With these principles in mind, you’ll have more agency and confidence to discover solutions that can capture the ambitious dreams of your team and company.