I failed as a designer at a startup

I started my job as a user experience designer at a startup back in the beginning of 2017. Now, about six months after leaving the startup I can look back at my time there. There’s only one thing I can conclude…

I failed. Ugh.

I failed. I failed as a designer at a startup.

Continuing looking back at my time there I can share my experience with you to help you succeed at your startup. Maybe you’re thinking about pursuing an idea or you’re wondering if you should apply to a job opening as a designer at a startup. In that case you’ve come to the right place. Let me help you out!

Being a designer at a startup. Is it something I can do? Is it something I want to do?

Being a designer at a startup is not easier or more difficult than being a designer at an accomplished, more mature company. The pros and cons are the same-- you still have to sell your design. You still have to convince stakeholders to follow your advice and invest in your skills.

Your design will not be pretty…at first.

Your design will not be understood...at first.

Stakeholders prefer working software over good looking software…at first.

Do these look familiar? They should. They are not that different at ‘regular companies’. You should not be too worried at this point. However, there’s one big difference. Pace. Things change very fast at a startup. Things have to be done very fast also. That’s because everything is new. A lot needs to be established.

Things move fast at a startup. But after a while your design will be noticed.

Things like the software you use or the way you communicate with colleagues is not yet a given at a startup. That’s why there will be less focus on your design…at first! It’s up to you to get your design noticed.

After over a year at a startup I tried many different approaches to cope with the pace. Different approaches too get my design noticed. Some of them worked and with some of them I horrendously failed. I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks you can apply to make your time at a startup a success. I’ve based them on my experience after testing them at a startup myself. It’s called user experience for a reason after all.

Here we go!

1. Test sooner…

It is crucial to test your design as soon as possible. Your startup has an idea. You need to validate the startup’s idea to see where you have to go, design-wise. If you do not do so you stand the chance of missing the target. Your startup might crash and a great idea might end up not being realised to it’s full potential. That would be a waste!

There’s a lot of way you can test ideas. One of them is by designing an MVP. More on that later. I’m going to focus on visualising your idea first. Visuals speak to the imagination.

Test in black and white

When you start your design work on a project, always start designing in black and white first. Even better still, use pen and paper if you have the time. There’s a big advantage to designing in black and white in comparison to using color from the get-go.

Black and white (left) vs full color (right). Always test in black and white first.

Just think about it like this. When you show your design in full color to someone, that person might ask why you designed certain elements to be purple, for example. When you design in black and white first, that same person might ask what color would fit the before-mentioned elements best. ‘What color’ is a far more constructive question than ‘why this color’.

…and test more

In addition to testing sooner, you should also test more. Yes, more people but also more often. Test every release. Test the test results. Test, test, test.

I failed to sell the idea of testing so I was only able to test my work every now and then. As a result I was designing based on guesses and gut feeling while I wanted to design based on test results (and gut feeling still).

Test every change you make

There’s a chance you will be working in (Agile & Scrum) sprints. Start every sprint with evaluating what you’ve designed the previous sprint. You can do so by testing your design. Iterate based on your test results during the sprint. Evaluate again the next sprint. Repeat.

2. Diversify your testing

You do not have to test with your target audience…per se. Most usability guidelines apply to human beings in general. If your startup is in the music industry for example, you do not have to test your design with a music manager or guitar player.

“The best-kept secret of usability testing is the extent to which it doesn’t much matter who you test. For most sites, all you really need are people who have used the Web enough to know the basics.” —Steve Krug

There’s a difference between usability testing and user research. You do not have to spend a lot of money and time on finding the ‘right person’ for your testing. Spend your time writing better tests and on testing more instead.

3. Release earlier

I remember working towards deadlines. Those were exciting times. They were months in advance. That’s where it goes wrong, I believe. Release early. Work with a minimum viable product to check market interest.

Now, I remember working on our so-called ‘version zero’. It was supposed to be the first version of our product that contained some of the basic functionality. We ended up postponing the release of version zero because it just didn’t feel quite right. Every day you discover something new that you can add to version zero. However, by postponing the release we missed valuable user feedback from user testing we couldn’t do.

That’s where the MVP comes in

If I should ever work at a startup again I would do things different. I would release a version zero earlier. I would go for a minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP is a very basic version of your product to test the market and see if there’s demand for your product.

Presenting the MVP. Just a page explaining your idea and a way to subscribe. Nothing more, nothing less.

A great way of designing an MVP is to build a landing page where you explain your product. On this landing page you design a form where people can subscribe if they want to know more about your product. By doing so you can measure interest in your product very early.

4. Focus on business

As a designer it can be difficult to convince someone of the value of good (UX) design. It’s even more difficult if you’re the only designer at the company. In most cases the startup is founded by either someone from a software background or a business background. It’s very important for you to get the founder on board of the design train.


5. Focus on what the startup will gain

‘What’s in it for me’ is the question you should ask yourself. What will the startup gain when it invests in you and your (UX) design skills? An easy mistake to make is to talk about what it is going to cost or what horrible things may happen if the startup does not agree to invest in UX (I’ve done that. It does not sell, believe me). Focus on what your client is about to gain instead.

I’ve written something on how to sell your design here. Take a look. — Can you do the UX for me?

6. Create a design process

A lot will change during your time at a startup. You can be working on strategy A in week one just for it to be discontinued in week two. You’ll be on feature Z before you know it. Let’s face it. Things move fast at a startup.

As a designer you have to move fast as well. Prepare yourself by working on a design process. If you have your own set of steps you take when you design something (aka the design process) you can do more work in less time. Quite nice when you work in a fast-paced startup.

Design a complete style guide to help you out in the long run.

Another way of improving your design process is to create a style guide for your projects. A style guide is a document that shows every element of your work. This includes fonts, colors, button states and more.

Style guides come in handy when you have to work on projects for a long time and when you have to work with other designers. You can always take a look at the style guide to see why your colleague designed an element the way he did or when you have to update a project from a few months ago.

7. Let’s go

I failed as a designer at a startup. I’ve learnt a lot during the process. As it turns out working at a startup is not that different than working at a regular company. It is just very high paced.

Are you thinking about joining a startup as a designer? It can be a lot of fun. Hopefully even more so with my tips and tricks. Good luck!

Did you like this post? Did it help you out with your startup troubles? Good! Now help me out by leaving me a clap or two. Thank you! 👏

Further reading

Design Without Color First

Can You Do The UX For Me?

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