Design in Indian Startups

More and more Indian startups are realizing the importance of design and are incorporating it as part of their core business strategy. Design Thinking has become central to many of these startups. Startups are now increasingly bringing in designers early (e.g., Postman, Kaylabs, redBus) and a few have designers as co-founders. There are even some designers who are becoming entrepreneurs (Mayukhini Pandey of Greenopia) and are now taking advisory roles at VC firms (Jay Dutta at SAIF Partners) to help inculcate design thinking in the startups that VCs are investing in.

According to Anil Reddy, founder of Lollypop Design Studio, Indian startups since 2013 have actively seen design as a key differentiator. The focus has been to use design not just for better usability or beautiful user interface, but to help define business strategy. The trend is noticeable with products like Zomato, Swiggy, etc.

These days founders are thinking like designers and even taking short courses in design.

According to a study by Your Story in 2014:

· 70% of Mobile startups have a focus on design in business strategy as compared to 55% of Consumer Web startups

· 74% of Mobile startups have a focus on design even at the Minimal Viable Product (MVP) stage as compared to 41% of Consumer Web startups

1. Starting at very early stages/Designers as Co-founders — Company founders are very aware of the importance of design. In addition, these businesses generally have a mature UX practice already established. Startups like redBus, Urban Ladder, Clear Tax, Practo, Book My Show are a few names which have design at the core of their business.

2. Design later to address customer’s needs

1. Repair when product launch is not successful — According to Jay Dutta, venture advisor at SAIF Partners, there are still many companies who build products without addressing the needs of the user. This usually happens at smaller startups (5–10 people). Designers are not brought in because understanding user’s needs is assumed to be the role of a product manager. It is here that founders realize the importance of design and may bring in designers to correct mistakes and help make the product successful.

2. To do UI design — Usually strategy is done by the business and tech teams and designers are brought in to help implement that strategy. This approach poses challenges for designers though. They may notice that the product does not add much value to the user yet it’s too late to do any major changes.

3. Outsource design — Many startups also use freelance designers as well for specific needs (interaction design for an app, visual design, etc.) or if the startup cannot afford to have a full-time designer. According to Anil Reddy, founder of Lollypop Design Studio, startups who approach design studios for help usually have design driven co-founders or have design aware VCs who push for design driven products. Design is now essential and no longer looked as just a differentiator. According to Pallavi Naik, who has been a full time designer in startups as well as a freelancer, freelance designers are not as deeply involved in the product as in-house designers and accordingly face challenges in quickly ramping up their product and domain knowledge.

Speaking with Aditi Kulkarni, ex-VP of Design at Postman, the focus of daily design discussions is now on user flows & and journeys, funnels, analytics, drop offs, conversions, customer complaints, and pricing rather than aesthetics, screens, etc.

There are two big things all the designers I spoke to diverged on -

· Designing for Chaos — Often startups do not have a defined process. Many follow Lean UX and Agile (during the design implementation phase), however, they do not stick to it.

A few startups do design strategy and user research in the beginning, determine an MVP and then follow Lean UX or Agile methodology for detailed design and implementation.

However, there are other startups that do not adhere to a process and when designers are brought at a later stage, there is chaos. This chaos is amplified when the co-founders believe they have an “awesome idea” which may clash with the designer’s analysis of the user[Office2] .

There are times when product strategy changes midway and designers will need to quickly adapt to the new strategy to avoid chaos.

· Designing for Speed (learn quickly and churn out product fast) As startups need to build products quickly before another competitor gets there, the focus is on shipping it fast. So designers need to ensure they run at the same pace as the rest of their team. They need to quickly scale up their domain knowledge, understand users and be ready to ship the product.

Is there a Process in Startups?

Most design activities in startups do not follow a very set process. They rely heavily on the principle of “Generalists,” which means the designer has to be product oriented and multi-skilled (researcher, interaction designer, visual designer, business analyst, etc. combined into one).

Most startups spend about a year defining the product strategy and direction. This is followed by validation, as many do not do formal user research. Instead, startups like Postman use tools such as Slack and Github to help understand their users and to get feedback.

Many small startups do not have product managers, which provides some freedom for designers and other senior team members to decide what the product will be.

When startups do follow a process, it kicks in later (at the detailed design stage). And, it either an Agile or Lean UX process.

The 5 Day “Design Sprint” championed by Google, is actively followed by many startups. A design sprint is a sprint dedicated to design in a cycle of 1–2 months. The entire team converges to design and diverges while the product is under development. If the team has more than one designer, designers may be assigned to various modules and then will come together as a design team to review and brainstorm further ideas.

Process also plays an important role when external firms are hired. At Lollypop UX/UI Studio, they follow a process of “discover, define, and design.” However, the process is tweaked based on how fast the product needs to be released into the market. Lollypop also holds design thinking workshops for founders at the start of a project in order to help startups be design driven.

A few startups like Postman work on weekly basis, with a weekly demo day (show and tell). Product validation is done with A/B tests. They release a product in batches (1% of users, then to 10%, to 50% and a final release 100%).

As designers have to design quickly, most do not prototype all the flows or screens (Prototypes are quick sketches which are directly coded by the developers.). They instead have informal meetings with developers to provide design directions. For designers, “design with” is as important as “design for.”

What are the typical personalities of designers in startups?

Are all designers in startups the tattooed hipsters? Not really. According to Jay Dutta, there are two types of designers in startups –

· I’m here to make a change — This type of designer is looking to make a difference and probably joined the startup thinking they can be expressive which, is otherwise not possible in a large organization. But they can be easily frustrated if a design gets sidelined.

· Tell me what to do — These designers (usually come at a later stage) primarily focus on taking the high level designs or decisions and focus on details. They focus on solving tactical usability problems rather than strategic product decisions.

The majority of designers in Indian startups are young and fresh out of college.

What kind of Indian Startups are designers usually involved in?

The majority of designers in Indian startups are involved in designing for:

· Local services (Urbanclap, babajobs, Swiggy, Book My Show, etc.)

· Lifestyle (Myntra, Urban Ladder, etc.)

· Referrals (Practo, etc.)

· Health & Smart living (Greenopia, etc.)

· Self-assessment (ClearTax)

· Social good (Asoka, etc.)

· Social media

· Productivity and other enterprise apps (Postman,, etc.)


It is a positive sign in India that more startups are seeing design as imperative to their business success. Industry events are also being held to bring awareness of the importance of design, especially in Bangalore, Delhi, and Noida. Bangalore has many design groups like IxDA, Design Days, and Ladies that UX which constantly host informal talks/events for designers. There is also an increased focus on formal events specifically for startups, such as DesignUp. The most recent DesignUp conference in Bangalore brought together not only designers but VCs, CEOs, co-founders, product owners and tech teams as well.

The Indian government as part of the “Make in India” initiative also has design talks and seminars. Lastly, groups like Startup Saturdays and co-working spaces are also having informal talks to help entrepreneurs instill design thinking in their startups.

Article by Veena Sonwalkar, Group Lead @ HFI

Originally published at on December 6, 2016.