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InícioUSER EXPERIENCEWhy many startups never achieve great design(and happy users)

Why many startups never achieve great design(and happy users)

Avoiding the 5 most common mistakes founders make when building a design team and culture in their startups.

Creating a robust design structure is not as simple as it may appear. Misunderstanding its importance as a fundamental organisational change can lead to failure.

Unlike for example, back-end engineering, where one expert can overhaul code architecture solo, design thrives on teamwork. Exceptional design emerges from everyone’s input, not just designers.

Many founders aiming to enhance their product design make the mistake of hiring talented designers, but neglecting to cultivate an environment where they can excel. Consequently, even highly skilled professionals may struggle to achieve meaningful results, causing founders to unfairly blame design and overlook their own mistakes and unrealistic expectations.

Companies like Apple, Netflix, and Tesla achieved their design success mostly by enhancing design maturity and empowering their design teams.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving that design maturity, there are still common leadership mistakes that may hinder the process. Drawing from my startup experience, I’ll share some of these pitfalls and suggest possible ways to overcome them.

1. Neglecting to learn about design

According to 2020 McKinsey research around 90% of companies aren’t using design talent to their full potential, and many CEOs they interviewed have no idea what design truly is and are still using the 1980s definition of “colour, material and finish”.

Although design keeps establishing itself, still it’s a relatively new and many startup founders, often from engineering or business backgrounds, might not fully grasp its concept.

As a result, they hire designers or even build an entire design team without any solid knowledge of what the discipline is really about, how it can help the business and how its success should be measured in the first place.

Why is that a problem?

According to a study by the MIT Leadership Center, many leaders lack the crucial skill of identifying critical problems, particularly in product development, leading to significant financial losses and even failures.

Design Thinking, popularised by IDEO in the early 2000s, offers a structured approach and mindset to address the right problems and innovate effectively. By focusing on enhancing the lives of clients, this approach has helped numerous brands create offerings that people are even ready to overpay for.

Research, including studies by McKinsey, shows that companies embracing design principles tend to enjoy a 32% revenue advantage over their peers.

Unfortunately, founders stuck in outdated perceptions of design miss out on these growth opportunities. Moreover, without a clear understanding of the role of designers and how to evaluate their performance, founders struggle to hire the right designers and foster a culture conducive to innovation and growth.

The absence of design literacy among leaders and their unwillingness to address this gap is the main barrier to achieving design maturity. All the mistakes mentioned below stem from this fundamental issue.

How can it be solved?

Traditionally, the responsibility for improving the design literacy of company leadership fell solely on designers. However, this stereotype isn’t always accurate. Some of the most design-led leaders, such as Steve Jobs and Brian Chesky, naturally understood the importance of high design standardswithout needing persuasion from design experts.

The positive news is that the tech community is actively addressing this gap by providing education to both design leaders on business principles and founders on design thinking. Even esteemed institutions like Stanford University and MIT offer specialised guides, programs and courses for company leaders, aimed at cultivating a deeper understanding of the design thinking process and ideology.

The illustration showcases the 6 steps of Design Thinking: Emphathise, Definer, Ideate, Prototype, Test, Implement.
Design thinking steps. Illustration by NN Group.

Alternatively, startup leaders can learn about design just as they would with many other disciplines — by reading books, listening to podcasts, engaging with peers who have successfully integrated design into their company structures and many more.

Alternatively, startup leaders can learn about design just as they would with many other disciplines — by reading books, listening to podcasts, engaging with peers who have successfully integrated design into their company structures and many more.

2. Misunderstanding the design hiring patterns

Another reason many founders struggle to establish a great design culture is due to several common misconceptions about hiring designers. These mainly include hiring designers too late in the process, not bringing on enough designers, misunderstanding the required level of expertise, and overlooking the importance of a well-defined hiring process.

Why is that a problem?

In the past, many engineering-led teams launched products without dedicated designers. Even successful platforms like Spotify or Airbnb (then AirBed&Breakfast) had humble beginnings with design.

However, today’s expectations for UX have changed drastically. In the list of most popular apps of 2024, almost every platform showcases extensive design maturity.

Thus, starting without designers can lead to poor and inconsistent UX, noticeable by most clients. Fixing these issues later, especially in a fast-paced startup environment, is incredibly challenging.

Another mistake is not hiring enough designers. According to the NN Group’s 4 high-level factors are directly contributing to an organisation’s UX maturity — design strategy, culture, established processes, and measuring outcomes — an understaffed design team won’t be able to deliver on any of these. Even great designers may end up as mere delivery persons.

The illustration shows four factors of design maturity according toNN group. Those are: strategy, culture, process and outcomes.
Design maturity factors by NN Group.

Finally, misunderstanding the design hiring process and making rude mistakes like asking for free redesigns of companies’ existing products can repel highly skilled professionals from accepting offers or even applying.

How can it be solved?

The problem can be solved by engaging with a design advisor from the very initial stages. Fortunately, many highly experienced designers and design managers, including those with FAANG experience, offer consulting services to startups.

A good advisor can help avoid critical UX mistakes and assist with hiring a founding designer or even an entire design team if needed. Design hiring agencies can also assist with creating a smooth process to hire the right candidates.

Regarding the headcount of designers, it of course depends on the type of the business. NN Group research suggests that a ratio of 1 designer to 10 developers is good, but I believe the best approach is to align the number of designers with Product Managers. A ratio of 1 Designer to 1 PM will ensure that Marty Cagan’s famous Trio of PM, Designer, and Engineer (or engineering manager) can operate at its best.

The illustration portrays a woman sitting with her head down, gazing at people standing on a pedestal. This symbolizes the misunderstanding of design leadership by company founders.

3. Misunderstanding the design leadership

In more advanced startups and scale-ups, the issue often lies in the absence of dedicated design leadership. Many of these companies lack designated design leaders or have only a single Design Manager responsible solely for training and supporting designers. While functions like engineering, marketing, product management, and HR are well-represented in executive teams, design leadership is often ignored.

Compounding the issue is the fact that even when design management roles exist, founders and other senior leaders may not fully grasp the role’s significance. McKinsey’s research indicates that approximately 66% of CEOs lack a clear understanding of the role and impact of design leaders.

Why is that a problem?

In larger teams with multi-step management structures, the absence of design leadership has several detrimental effects. Firstly, it leads to a lack of appreciation for design and undermines its importance within the organisation.

Relying solely on advanced individual contributors (ICs) or design-savvy PMs to handle all aspects of design maturity, is not a viable solution. These individuals already have numerous responsibilities of their own and aren’t trained to effectively manage all aspects of design leadership.

When design manager roles exist but founders misunderstand their importance is the next big issue. An under-appreciated design leader who struggles to advocate for a user-centric agenda will not be able to drive any meaningful change.

Ultimately, without empowered design leadership in place, the company at its best may achieve success in terms of aesthetics and some well-designed flows, but it will struggle to achieve true user delight and capitalize on the full potential of design to drive business success.

How can it be solved?

In many cases, this issue is directly tied to already mentioned lack of design knowledge. Once this gap is addressed, company leaders will begin to recognise the significance of strong design leadership.

A capable design advisor can assist founders in hiring some great design leaders who understand the business and can play a crucial role in shaping a user-centred vision and strategy for the company.

A man in a boat with no idea were is he heading to. A symbol of company leadership that ignores the user research.

4. Ignoring the user research

According to a report from Maze, only 3% of companies conducting user research have achieved a high level of User Experience Research (UXR) maturity. In these cases, research informs strategic decisions and helps set long-term goals and priorities for organisations.

When considering this figure across all companies, that actual percentage is likely even lower, possibly halved.

Unfortunately, many founders, especially those in the early stages, misunderstand the significance of user research and may not even consider hiring professional UX researchers.

A screenshot from industry report on user research conducted by Maze. Various figures depict the different levels of UXR maturity. According to graph only 3% of the companies are fully UXR mature.
User experience research maturity levels by maze.co

Why is that a problem?

Finding reports on how research-centric companies succeed isn’t difficult; fortunately, there are plenty available. However, to fully benefit from these opportunities, it’s crucial to conduct research properly and by highly skilled professionals.

For designers, user research is indispensable. Without it, delivering effective solutions is barely impossible.

User research is the backbone of Design Thinking, encompassing key stages like Empathise, Define, and Test. These steps are vital for understanding user needs, defining problems accurately, and validating solutions. Additionally, user research helps measure the impact of solutions on user experience(one of the components of design maturity).

Companies that skip user research (or rely solely on data) often find themselves guessing or prioritising direct customer requests without proper analysis. Some even resort to copying competitors blindly.

Lastly, the absence of research leads to endless opinion battles. These battles usually end with the victory of the most “powerful” or “loud” individuals, who may not always accurately sense what users truly need.

How can it be solved?

Learning user research can be one of the most valuable investments for founders, alongside learning design. As founders delve into user research, they’ll uncover its depth and complexity, realizing its myriad benefits. Consequently, hiring user researchers, even in the early stages, will become crucial.

A skilled researcher can swiftly establish processes (supported by leadership), to ensure studies occur promptly and deliver valuable user insights to inform leadership and designers.

Ideally, fostering a culture of user empathy involves everyone on the team learning user research and actively contributing.

A horse and a man working in a field with hoe. A symbol of outdated mindset.

5. Fostering a feature factory environment

The “feature team mindset,” described in Marty Cagan’s bestseller “Inspired,”is another huge barrier to design maturity.

The teams who operate in this model, prioritise pushing out features rather than focusing on results. Success is often judged by how many releases they make, without considering their actual impact.

Cagan believes this factory-like mindset is still widespread in modern teams. From what I’ve seen in startups, there’s often pressure to move fast and make ideas become feasible quickly, which many times shifts the focus on outputs over meaningful outcomes.

Why is that a problem?

From a designer’s perspective, the feature factory approach is disastrous. Design is fundamentally about achieving outcomes, otherwise it becomes a “decoration”.

The factory mindset makes it hard to prioritise mature design and thorough research. Why bother hiring and listening to researchers to shape vision and strategy when the product team is solely focused on building whatever the higher-ups demand?

In feature teams, highly skilled design leaders often face resistance. Instead of being valued for their deep analytical thinking and user empathy, they’re seen as obstacles slowing down or “bottlenecking” the almighty delivery process.

How can it be solved?

It’s ultimately up to each leader to decide whether to empower the product team or push towards the feature factory model. All in all the feature teams are also achieving some of their business objectives.

However, if any startup leader ever wondered why no one is a huge fan of their product or why is their business struggling with things like retention, the feature team model might hold the answer.

Conversely, when leadership encourages the product team to deliver real outcomes that’s when the magic starts to happen. This approach helps teams align to define and solve genuine problems, creating an environment where design and designers can thrive.

By the way, for any founder considering transitioning to an empowered model, embracing Design Thinking can be incredibly beneficial.

Conclusion

I could have delved into more mistakes, like not allocating enough resources or neglecting systemic thinking, but I believe the ones I shared, provided valuable insights into why leaders should understand and value design and user research.

By the way, in 2011, I had the privilege of meeting Steve Wozniak in person. When I began praising Apple’s design, he interrupted me to emphasise that it was all thanks to Steve Jobs; he didn’t mention any specific designer.

Once again, behind every beloved product or service lies a leader who prioritises a user-centric mindset and inspires the entire team to transform user problems into delightful experiences. These are the leaders who grow their businesses by improving people’s lives, and joining their ranks is probably one of the best decisions any founder can make.

Thanks for reading.

The list of the articles and resources:

1. McKinsey study of 1,700 companies reveals CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all article by Fast Company.

2. The Most Underrated Skill in Management by MIT Sloan

3. WHAT IS DESIGN THINKING & WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? by Harward Business School

4. Why Consumers Are Willing to Pay More for Some Brands podcast episode by WSJ

5. Apple’s Product Development Process — Inside the World’s Greatest Design Organization article by IDF

6. An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE by Stanford University

7. Mastering Design Thinking by MIT Management

8. Design books for entrepreneurs article by UX Collective’s branch publisher Bootcamp

9. Most Popular Apps (2024) by Business For Apps

10. Four Factors in UX Maturity article by NN Group

11. Stop asking design candidates to redesign your product article by Daniel Burka for Startup Grind publisher.

12. Behind Every Great Product… There is a Product Trio article by Product Blocks

13. Are you asking enough from your design leaders? article by McKinsey & Co

14. The New Research Landscape report by Maze

15. Why user research and why right now report by User Interviews

16. Strategic UX Research is the Future by Jared Spool

17 Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan

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