Designing for Start-ups

by November 22, 2005

As the barriers to entry for Web application providers continue to decrease and investor interest in the Web continues to grow, freelance designers are quite likely to find themselves working for a start-up that’s trying to carve themselves a slice of the Web 2.0 pie. Though this type of consulting work usually offers significant flexibility, there are a few unique aspects of working for a start-up that designers should be aware of.

Because most start-ups run lean and mean, their employees tend to take on multiple roles to fill in gaps in expertise and role. Consultants working for a start-up are no different. A designer brought in to work on the visual design of an application is likely to do some coding, interaction design, or information architecture. A field researcher may be called on to put together and administer a quantitative survey. As a result, expect to have your horizontal skill sets put to use. If you’re more comfortable staying within your area of specialization, bring along your Rolodex to fill in the gaps (through outsourcing) of the specific design process you need to succeed.

While on the subject of process, don’t expect any to be in place. Start-ups build processes as they’re needed and no sooner. As a result, I’d recommend walking your client through your design process in order to properly set expectations. This is the exact opposite approach I’d advocate for working with established companies that have been interacting with designers for years. Over time, these companies have developed processes that work quite well for them. As a consultant, you are better off trying to adapt your approach and deliverables to already existing processes within the company. I’ve seen several design companies shown the door when their pitch consisted entirely of describing how they do things. Though start-ups are also more interested in what you are going to do for them vs. how you are going to do it, they are more receptive to being educated about how you and the design process work.

In fact, designers can expect a lot of opportunities to educate start-up clients about the value of specific processes and deliverables. There are a few reasons for this increase in “explanation time”. First of all, most start-ups have limited resources so all expenses need to be fully justified and well understood. Second, there’s always a big idea behind a start-up and thereby a tendency to believe the big idea will carry the day. Introducing variations, enhancements, or modifications to the big idea (which the design process often does) is likely to result in vigorous debate and extensive explanations. These big ideas also have champions- mostly in the form of founders or early believers (initial employees or investors). As owners of the company’s vision, they are likely to be extremely passionate about that most crucial of customer touch points: the product design.

Of course, extensive involvement from a company’s founders and visionaries can be a significant benefit for designers as they are able to directly work and review with the owners of a product vision. (In established companies, many layers of hierarchy are likely to separate a consultant from the actual decision makers.) This provides a unique opportunity to be part of the product strategy as well as the product design. The big idea that forms the heart of start-up is often just that: an idea. It needs to be refined, explored, tested, and made real. A process ideally suited to the rapid-prototyping and abductive thinking design mind.