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Do Founders Even Care About Design?

by Chris Kernaghan
6 min read
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I’ve encountered founders who disregard design entirely. I’ve collaborated with them, as best as possible, but the situation was always identical, as well as the outcome.

They believed they had enough knowledge and totally understood the target market they were serving. I envied their confidence, but frankly, I knew those founders were likely to either fail or forever chase growth.

I’d often repeat the mantra, “You are not the user!”, but to no real benefit. Founders stubborn enough would forge on, fuelled by copious amounts of coffee and relentless tunnel vision. The mantra, shared by many designers throughout the world, would fall on deaf ears.

I speak from experience.

Founders who ignored evidence and relied on their intuition found themselves in trouble and struggling to keep their heads above water. They’d waste time and resources on solutions that don’t work, ultimately losing opportunities and customers.

Basically, the startup version of trying random things and seeing what would work.

Again, I speak from experience and have been frustrated before when a business seemingly goes in a direction that feels doomed to failure. You see, some founders like to manage what they can, and they feel uneasy about what they can’t, such as receiving honest user feedback that might indicate a need for feature change or, worse still, a reason to pivot.

Pivoting would amount to failure in some eyes. Their idea is too gorgeous, too precious a proposition to amount to pivoting. In reality, we know that businesses should be open to pivoting depending on user needs and market conditions. 

It’s, quite literally, fundamental to survival when competition is fierce.

Founders are often more comfortable finding another engineer or a talented marketer who can promote their latest SaaS offering. But how can teams tell if a product has underlying issues without asking users? If there are concerns that need fixing, founders should be paying attention to designers, right?

Unfortunately, not always. Alas, the problems mount and apathy drifts across the team.

The founder loses the dressing room, for lack of a better phrase, and employees start looking elsewhere for open, stable, more confident leadership. Game over.

I remember asking one founder, “How can we continue business without paying attention to how your product looks and feels to your customers?” and their response was usually the same. “It’s all under control, we know what we’re doing, and we’re definitely doing enough user research.”

That business is no more because the founder valued assumptions over trying to at least validate those assumptions. Which begs the question, why hire a designer in the first place?

“Startups should conduct user research as soon as possible to gain deep insights into their target audience’s needs, preferences, and pain points. This doesn’t have to be expensive, but a simple conversation with multiple users as you work through your roadmap can bring massive benefits.” – We Are Founders, Designing for Success: The Role of User Experience in Tech Startups.

Founders who don’t conduct some form of research inevitably burn through cash reserves like there’s no tomorrow, trying to piece together an MVP or subsequent MVP to appease investors or users. 

But at this point, it’s too little, too late.

When the blame game starts, what was the problem? Or rather, who was the problem? Was it the founder who ignored advice, or the designer who failed to communicate the value of user feedback? As a designer who has worked at a failed startup, I’m torn – but not without my own share of guilt.

Do Designers Need to Be Better Educators?

In one of Aesop’s most famous fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, the ant communicated with the other ants and worked hard to store food for the winter. But the grasshopper? Well, he didn’t. He wasted his time on frivolous activities, activities that he thought were important.

Probably too busy focusing on planning meetings.

So when winter came, the grasshopper suffered from hunger and cold and begged the ants for help. The moral of the story? Communication and knowledge sharing are the means to making better decisions and actions. 

Without the ability to persuade and encourage, there’s a risk people will become siloed and isolated. If the grasshopper was the founder in my instance, could the ants have helped him understand what was coming down the road?

If you’re a designer reading this, I know what you’re thinking, that’s easiest said than done.

I often recall this story because it shows how the catastrophe could have been prevented, just as it could have been in the failed startup I was part of. The success of a startup does not depend solely on the founder, but on the whole team, and that involves communicating the significance of user research and creating a positive experience for users. 

Without effective communication and collaboration, a startup will miss valuable insights, opportunities, and feedback that can make or break its product. 

So, whose responsibility is it then? I’d say the responsibility lies with the designer, not the founder. I’m old enough, and partially wise enough, to know that not all founders are born equal. Some get it, some don’t, and some are open to learning. 

Here’s what I’ve done over the years to become a champion for user experience among founders:

  • Be clear and concise: Whether I’m giving instructions, feedback, or information, I try to make sure my message is clear and concise. I avoid using jargon, ambiguity, or unnecessary details that may confuse or distract stakeholders. I use simple and direct language that people can understand and relate to.
  • Be open and honest: Communication is based on trust and honesty. I try to be transparent and authentic about my expectations, goals, challenges, and successes. I like to think I share relevant information and insights with teams and always invite them to do the same. Most difficult of all, I’m comfortable admitting my mistakes and learning from them.
  • Be respectful and empathetic: Communication is also based on respect and empathy. I’m mindful of how my words and actions may affect users and employees. I listen actively and attentively to their needs, concerns, and feedback.
  • Be consistent and reliable: Unless I’ve been up all night with the kids, I try to be predictable and dependable in my communication style and frequency. I establish regular and effective channels and methods of communication, such as meetings, emails, or chats. Be the UX person that folks come to when they want a design question answered!
  • Be adaptive and flexible: I’m aware of the different communication preferences and styles of users and employees, and of course, adjust how I approach them accordingly. Appropriate tone, medium, and format for different situations and audiences is super important. Most important of all, is that I’m open to feedback and suggestions.

Too often, design is seen as an extra, not a necessity. But designers can change this outlook.

We know that design shouldn’t be treated as some expensive luxury, but in fact, be treated with the same respect as other parts of the business. Design can be done diligently, and quickly and provide founders with the insights they need for success.

Do founders even care about design? Well, that’s up to designers to address.

Designers: Set expectations as soon as you step through the door. Let people know who you are, what you’re about and how you’re going to bring value to the company. Transparency is key. Invite people to design sessions, from the founder to the cleaner, everyone’s opinion is valuable. Make it fun, make it informed, and make it community-driven.

Founders: Just listen. Be the ant.

post authorChris Kernaghan

Chris Kernaghan, Chris Kernaghan is a Lead UX Designer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He began his career working with a respected design agency after graduating with first class honors in Interaction Design, from the University of Ulster. After working as Lead UX Designer with several startups in the bustling Belfast tech sector, he now works on a consultancy basis. You can follow Chris at feedme.design.

Ideas In Brief
  • The article emphasizes the importance of design in startup success, highlighting the risks of ignoring user feedback and the necessity of effective communication between founders and designers.

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