The Case for a Designer in Residence

Design is one of the key differentiators in the success of a start-up. It’s been exemplified in success stories like, Gilt Group’s end-to-end aesthetic and experience and even larger successes such as Facebook’s clean and constrained interface trouncing MySpace’s DIY interface approach. Yet, founding teams rarely include designers and in a lot of cases treat design as an afterthought. The logic goes something like, “let’s get it up and running and then we’ll just slap some colors on it.” This approach fails to take the experiential needs of the startup’s customers into consideration creating a product that, in most cases, focuses more on providing a technological solution rather than an actual experience. This hurts the fledgling brand right out of the gate, making trust much tougher to gain. Given the fireworks-like nature of company launches (come out with a big burst and fade quickly out of site), getting these customers back for another visit becomes an even greater challenge.

With extremely limited resources the focus of the founding team becomes writing code and getting customers. There is typically no budget for design and with little understanding (it’s still rarely taught in school) of the value it brings to the table no urgency to seek it out. This is where the VC can step in.

The concept of an Executive in Residence is a common one for VC’s – experts available as advisors to young companies offering insight, advice and leadership. This concept can directly map to Design with the offering of a Designer in Residence (DIR). The DIR becomes the advisor that focuses on the portfolio company’s user experience, design and customer-centered activities. In the same way an EIR guides the start-up through challenging business problems and important strategy decisions, the DIR focuses the company on customer segments, helps them understand their needs and guides the experience design of the product to support the needs and pain points of the target audience.

The benefits of this advice are many. Most importantly, this should generate a superior product offering greatly enhancing the chances of success. In addition, it builds Design into the DNA of the company from the outset. This ends up permeating decision-making, hiring and strategy direction within that company as it grows, matures and succeeds. The DIR, in essence, plants the seeds of Design in the startup and helps them take root. By providing this service to their portfolio of companies, the VC lets the founding teams focus on what they do best while helping to broaden the vision of how the companies’ core offerings should be executed.

In an environment overflowing with new startups, it is the ones that have taken user experience and design into consideration that stand a greater chance at success. A Designer in Residence can provide exactly this type of valuable guidance within the confines of a startup’s limited resources.


About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is a lean thinking and design evangelist, spreading the gospel of great team collaboration, product innovation and evidence-based decision making. Jeff is an author, speaker and thought leader on the future of product development and design, often teaching workshops or giving talks on building cultures that support teamwork and innovation. Jeff co-founded Neo Innovation, a lean/agile product firm in NYC. Prior to that, he led the UX design teams at TheLadders and Web Trends. Earlier he worked with and led small teams of software designers at AOL. He is the co-author (with Josh Seiden) of Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience and the upcoming (Harvard, 2016) Sense and Respond (
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