GV Library Design

Cheat sheet: Understanding the role of design in startups

This article was originally published at The Wall Street Journal.

We are entering a golden era of software product design. Advances in software engineering allow us to create new products faster than ever, so we rely on design to differentiate products and make them useful, understandable, and desirable.

But what is design? It’s pretty confusing. We can talk about form, function, style, substance, utility, desire, colors, brand, copy — and it’s all design. I like how John Maeda put it in his recent Accelerators interview: “The word “design” is poorly designed.”

What’s an entrepreneur to do?

I’ve spent the last 3 years working with over 50 startups in the Google Ventures portfolio. This has given me the chance to develop a system for understanding design. It seems to be useful for entrepreneurs, engineers, and almost everyone else. I hope it’s useful for you, too.

Let’s start with a definition

Design is the process of figuring out what a thing should be, what it should do, how it should work, how it should look, and what it should say.

This definition is broad, but it’s kind of a relief. No wonder design is so confusing — we can use it to figure out almost anything!

Design can be applied to software, business models, clothing, cars, or anything else you can imagine. At Google Ventures, we’ve used design to make better medical reports, help people save money with coupons, renovate our office, and sell coffee beans on the web.

It’s also nice to know that design is not just for designers. The best design work is multidisciplinary — with software, for example, product managers, engineers, and marketers collaborate with designers to figure out everything about their product.

The components of design

OK, design is a broadly applicable, multidisciplinary process. Now let’s look a little deeper. What are the components of design? What separates “design” from just “deciding things”?

1. Empathy

Design requires understanding people’s needs, frustrations, and desires. Empathy helps us spot problems we can solve and gives us a head start on designing solutions that are likely to be successful.

How to do it: There must be a thousand ways to build empathy. Here are a few you can try: interview prospective customers, read articles and reports, talk to friends, study market trends, or spend time with new societies or groups.

2. Patterns

Researching competitors, reading case studies, and building empathy for customers helps us find common ways of doing things — these are useful patterns to follow or avoid as we design our own solutions.

How to do it: The best way to spot patterns is by looking at other products in your category and taking notes. For software products, there are also design pattern libraries we can reference (e.g. Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library or UX Archive).

3. Divergence

When you’re working on a problem — especially a tough problem — it’s easy to get stuck on the first solution that comes to mind. Design encourages us to generate many solutions and quickly evaluate them before spending a bunch of time on the details.

How to do it: Divergent problem solving doesn’t come naturally to most people, so a few hacks can help here: challenge yourself to spend an hour coming up with different solutions, work in a low-fidelity medium (like paper) so you can’t get too detailed, or ask your team to work individually to invent solutions in parallel. (Read about how we diverge during design sprints.)

4. Prototyping

The path from idea to finished product can be long, but design provides us a shortcut: prototyping. The best prototypes don’t take too long — they can be crude, like a Keynote presentation — and they help us answer specific questions.

How to do it: At every stage of the design process, ask your team what we don’t know about this solution. What questions do we have? Make sure your prototypes answer these questions. Adopt a prototype mindset by looking for creative ways to prototype and test your ideas. See how we prototype during design sprints, how we use “free prototypes,” and some unexpected prototyping ideas from my partners Jake Knapp and Daniel Burka.

5. Validation

At every stage of the process, design gives us tools to validate our assumptions and decisions. Do people want this product? Does it make sense? Is it easy to use? Can we get more people to sign up? Can we help people become active users?

Validation is most powerful paired with prototyping — we can iterate quickly by creating and testing new prototypes. And after launching, we need to make sure our design work has the desired effect in the real world.

How to do it: Make “validate” the final step in each iteration. Check out GV’s guide to research for an overview of techniques, including interviews, metrics, and surveys.

Putting the pieces together

Every company uses design differently. The best design-driven companies adopt all five components and make them integral to everything they do. Not only do these companies create better products, but they work more quickly and confidently — using design to invent, prototype, and test as they go.

Design can be overwhelming, but it’s a powerful process that everyone can use. If you’re wondering how to get great design at your company, start here.