Experts Say: Design Can Make or Break a Startup’s Success

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By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

It was a big day for startups to learn about design in Austin Wednesday.
An evening panel for Startup Week, From Idea to Product, was led by Adrian Taylor of Pushstart Creative. Panelists were Aaron Vorn Eigen, also of Pushstart, Patrick Barrett, co-founder of Greater Good Labs, designer Ty Rarick, and Selina Silvas, senior interaction designer at Mutual Mobile, where the panel was held.
Taylor started by asking what constitutes a good product and panelists answered everything from a useful product to a sustainable product. Ultimately, Barrett said, “a stop sign is a really good product…there’s a continuum of utility and emotional frivolity that might have a stop sign at one end and mink underwear at the other. Nest has done a great job of taking commodity products and turning them into fetish items.”

Who is Your Customer?

The problem, the panelists agree, is that most people who design a product think of themselves as the user and never really explore the question of usability. Silvas said her favorite method of determining whether a product is useful is to begin by building a story around it and asking “How does this fit into somebody’s life?” “A lot of product ideas have nothing to do with a person. Just because you know it will be used by a certain type of employee, it’s still a person.”
She complained about working on a project for a company that specializes in data collection and conversion metrics. They wanted to present their metrics as validation for the viability of their products. But, Silvas said, their website was designed to drive visitors along a particular path, so the metrics weren’t based on what people chose to do, they were based on what people were directed to do. That doesn’t prove viability.
Most of the designers acknowledged they hated having to go find end users, pick their brains and change their products accordingly because, Taylor said “You’re in love with your idea and the user is going to tell you your idea is wrong.”
Rarick, who spoke at the MiniTrends 2013 conference, urged startups to look at the minitrends, where competitors are going to be in two-to-three years.

Paper Airplanes

Barrett said startups should also start by releasing a product with one feature and committing to iteration. Many companies tend to go the opposite direction, Taylor said, layering on feature after feature and believing “they’re making this awesome and better and more.” But frequently it’s more complexity than users want to deal with.
Taylor is a big proponent of making the lowest fidelity version of an item before investing in a prototype. Can it be made of paper? Then make it of paper. Vorn Eigen said their company keeps the 3D printer busy, too, cranking out prototypes.
“It’s absolutely crucial to watch humans interact with the product,” Barrett said. “Yes, you’re putting them in a really weird situation and saying you’re not observing and judging them but you are observing and judging them,” he joked. But in that context “don’t get lost on a single data point. One user might have a learning disability when it comes to your product. Otherwise you’re constantly revising for a single user at a time.”
Taylor recently held a similar talk at Capital Factory. After the panel, he said, he wants to help Austin become as successful as Silicon Valley and designing a great user experience is the key to that.

Letting Your Customers Lead—Design Research for Startups

In a brilliant move, SXSW Eco introduced “Straight to the Point:” 15-minute long sessions designed for little bits of information that don’t need a whole hour. In some cases, these sessions turned out to be pitches for business, but at least they were only 15 minutes long!
Wednesday, for example, Daniel Goldfarb partner and head of design research for Greenstart spoke on “Letting Your Customers Lead—Design Research for Startups.” Greenstart began as a clean tech incubator in Silicon Valley but pivoted to become a company that focuses on helping startups with design of everything from user experience to logos. The company still works in clean tech and it takes its pay in equity.
By investing design help into their client’s products, he said, they’re greatly reducing the risk of their investment because the most successful products are those that “delight” their users. Most startups he said don’t have millions of dollars or lots of time to do extensive market research on who their customers are or what appeals to them.

•customer discovery
•problem solution fit
•proposed mvp
•proposed funnel
followed by:
•feedback
•customer validation
•product market fit
•business mode
•sales and marketing roadmap
and, if necessary, a pivot.
Greenstart does market research, digging into customer preferences with approaches common to market research experts: such as asking people not just which beer is their favorite, but which animal best represents their favorite beer. This provokes a deeper analysis and critical thinking about customers like what they like, what attributes are most important to them about their brand of choice.
Startups, Goldfarb said, need to design products thinking about the context in which they live—technologically, socially, politically. They need to understand how people’s usage of technology is changing and what their competitors are doing.
“We spend a great deal of time talking to people,” he said, “going to their houses, watching them use things…getting at the context: What are they scared of? What do they love?”

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