Nov 07 2013

When Should You Invest in Design? Always.

Design is essential for every stage of startup.

Bootstrap all you want, but if your company isn’t applying design, you’re going to end up in the red. Businesses today must compete for an increasingly more connected and discerning customer. With limited time and so much competition, how can a company adequately explain the need their product is fulfilling? Design thinking can be applied to everything from product inception to marketing strategies to logistics and even company culture — all of which help to keep you in the black.

According to Ash Mauyra, the author of Running Lean, there are three stages to create a lean startup: Customer Discovery, Customer Validation, and Customer Creation. Depending on the state of your product, the right design solution could be a freelancer, an in-house creative, or an outside agency. But finding the right design partner is tough, especially as your needs evolve over time.

Start with Freelancers

Start with Freelancers.

Freelancers are a readily accessible source of design thinking as you build, measure, and learn. You’ll have someone (more or less) on call while you pivot your way in these early days of trying oodles of ways to find customers. Freelancers can provide tremendous value and don’t require much up-front commitment. And the positive impact that “looking good” can have is invaluable in today’s crowded, noisy marketplace.

A good freelance designer can help establish a sense of visual brand identity, perhaps creating a logo, style guide, or even making a nice website and other business collateral. A great freelancer could add even more value by assisting with user interviews or prototyping product ideas, helping to establish a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The best freelancer could be someone ready to take your business to the next level by becoming a permanent member of your team.

For digital products, tools like POP can make everyday sketches into interactive prototypes, keeping costs lower. And with the advent of consumer accessible 3D printers prototyping is within reach for budding industrial designers. Also, diagramming processes using tools like Axure or Omnigraffle is an effective way of streamlining service models and logistics (and they look better than the Visio documents you’re probably used to).

Even the payment card industry (PCI) is being rocked by a simple little Square.

There’s really no business that can’t benefit from design’s user-focused and iterative processes. Bringing a designer in early will help your company establish a better foundation and reputation from the outset.

Design Leadership

Establish Design Leadership.

Once product/market fit has been established and you’ve got signal, it’s time to consider hiring an in-house creative. After all, it is quite easy for a company to become unbalanced — heavy in engineering, operations, or some other discipline. A creative lead will ensure that a more holistic perspective is regularly considered as critical decisions are made.

Depending on your situation, it might be time to hire a full-time designer. Well-rounded creatives can think big and pay attention to the details. Unicorns can facilitate production processes and expedite your product roadmap. Ultimately, bringing someone in-house will enable your company to produce more, more quickly.

Adding a full-time employee is a big commitment though, especially if you’ve never hired “a creative.” Start by networking with the freelancers you’ve already employed — someone might be interested. From there you can expand your search with recruiting firms or classified ads. It’s worth consulting respected peers for advice or even to participate in the interviews.

Check out how design thinking by Ideo has made the new Wells Fargo ATM a better experience.

Continued outside help is another option. An agency partner will be more adept than freelancers at scaling for your needs — once you’ve identified your audience and have clear objectives to achieve success. And because agencies are a creative collective, you can expect innovative approaches to problem solving. But be prepared to iterate quickly; design doesn’t do much good if it never gets built, and a great agency can go wicked fast. Expect results, but expect to pay for them.

Design Partnerships

Create Design Partnerships.

Once customers are found and their needs are validated, then it’s time to scale. Outside creative conduits are often exactly what is needed to take your company from good to great. There are more than just ad agencies to consider. Interior design firms can kick your workplace productivity up a notch. A feng-shui’d office is as pleasing to potential customers and investors as it is to the employees. PR agencies are great at securing media attention, while marketing agencies do impressive things with your marketing dollars in order to land your message in front of the right people at the right time.

Selecting the right agency partner is not easy. It’s important that your partners “get” your business model and your culture. Many companies seek agency assistance for big projects like a redesign or big holiday marketing campaign. But that approach comes with a lot of drawbacks, not the least of which is the cost to interview, select, and on-board a new agency team. Because projects are inherently risky, costs are often inflated to protect agencies from overspending … costing a company even more in the long run.

Check out our CrazyEgg case study, and read why Neil Patel says design is a crucial investment.

When we talk to businesses, we identify as a User Experience Design Agency. With UX at the forefront of our agency tag, our engagements are guided by Lean UX principles as part of our Objective-Based Design service. Our core values are applied to every challenge, creating the soulful aesthetic that’s our trademark. We show trusted clients unfinished work in order to expedite the build-measure-learn cycle and iterate as quickly as possible to get to the desired objective. DT brings a great mix of design thinking and business strategy to craft solutions for our clients that meet their timeline and budget.

Design is Essential - Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

Great products should fulfill a need, be aesthetically pleasing, provide appropriate/responsive feedback, and anticipate problems. A great designer is an empathetic problem solver who connects with their audience and uses a combination of old and new techniques to make something better. Regardless of which stage your company is in, it’s absolutely essential to apply design thinking to your product or service.

Whether you’re bootstrapping or working on Series B funding, earmark 5-10% of your budget for iterative problem solving through design. Think about the long-term plan, but make decisions for today. Focusing on simply and elegantly solving a problem or fulfilling a need will increase your chance of success.

Consider Apple — where would they be without their signature?

In your work, when has design saved the day? Share your stories with us in the comments!

About the Author:

I'm Brent Summers, a marketing strategist who is passionate about data and design. With a background in project management and business analysis I strive to produce measurable results and help improve performance - of our design and our team. I'm most active on twitter, but you can also find me on LinkedIn and Google+.

Leave a Response

2 Responses

  1. Nov 07 2013
    Erik Levitch

    Earmarking a certain percentage for design is great, but is 5 – 10% enough? I suppose it depends on the organization and their design needs. I think you are defending the minimum and — hopefully — that creates a culture of design which in turn could mean more design!