09/19/2014 01:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Startups Can Apply Design to Create Superior Customer Experiences


Co-written by Paul Hagen

For a startup to succeed it must do more than simply develop a clever product or evolve features that mimic an incumbents' value propositions. Rather, it must design customer experiences that substantially improve the value propositions by a magnitude. Why? Because new capabilities like cloud-based computing, digital distribution, crowd-sourced funding and global outsourcing make product-focused innovation easy to mimic. Thus, reputation and word-of-mouth that derives from a customer experience play an ever critical role in success.

Getting an innovative market and technology mix right is challenging in and of itself, since one has to identify and engage with a small dispersed group of unknown potential future customers. Even after a startup clarifies the user needs and wants that it will attempt to serve, its early adopters are moving targets. As they integrate an innovative solution into the work they are attempting, their needs and processes change. The start-up now needs to consider a broader set of implications beyond just the features and functions of a product.

However, how do cash-strapped startups design breakthrough customer experiences? These three core design processes will vastly mitigate the risks and improve the likelihood of success for start-ups:

1) Watch your target customers
Before coding your first line or building your first prototype, get out of the garage and talk to and/or observe the customers you're targeting. Many individuals have great ideas for products in the vacuum of their own heads and make assumptions about what customers want without actually observing them trying to solve a problem or talking to them about what they need. Metamason, a Southern California start-up that is part of The Design Accelerator project in Pasadena California, began with a research problem to inform their product offering and market: How to improve the dismal fifty percent compliance rate of masks to treat sleep apnea. In addition to helping design the right service for customers, this research begins to inform who is a target customer . . . and more importantly, who is not.

2) Define the right problem you are solving for the customer
Use the research above to make sure you are solving a problem that your target customers actually care about. Methodologies like "customer jobs-to-be-done" help reframe what you are building from the customers' perspective. AirBnB storyboarded the customer's journey in its now well-publicized "Snow White" project to help define its strategy and mobile service offering.

3) Co-create and test quickly
Prototype "minimum viable product" ideas quickly in a low-resolution way (e.g. sketches, mock-ups, wireframes, storyboards) - don't worry about getting it exactly right the first time, because you won't. The idea is to fail quickly and iterate to get it right. Again, get target customers involved in this process early, even going so far as to have them sketch ideas. One key difference between designing offerings for existing and new users, is that the first group calls for a focus on the users' behavior while the second requires focusing on the users' activities. To do this, one has to belong to the potential user group oneself or work closely with these groups to co-create and test the offering.

Startups have distinct advantages over incumbent companies. They are not encumbered with an existing operational or technology stack to overcome; they are not addicted to bad profits; they are nimble and can re-define marketplaces; and they can leverage new capabilities to scale rapidly. However, to take advantage, they need to make solving customer needs a priority ahead of developing whiz-bang product features. Simple processes from the design world can help keep the focus on mastering the customer experience.

Special thanks to Paul Hagen for researching and co-writing this article.