On Building Measurable Design Into Your Startup (Lessons From Warm Gun, 500 Startups, Etsy, Instagram, Mint, The Designer Fund)

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By Tracy Osborn (Founder & Designer, WeddingLovely)

Warm Gun, the design conference run by 500 Startups, was held last Friday in San Francisco. Dedicated to measurable design, Warm Gun advocates design that isn’t just pretty visuals. Instead, design should influence the user and convert visitors into loyal fans and paying customers.

With over 20 speakers on two tracks, topics ranged from hiring designers, design tactics for your startup, measuring design using metrics, and the illusive unicorn — the multi-talented designer founder.

Here are some of the presentations and takeaways from the conference:

Use Design To Invoke Emotion

Indifference will kill your product. Use both love and hate to get people to talk about you and what you’re doing. Dave McClure in “Designing for Emotion: Sex, Love, & Violence” advocated tapping into emotion to impact behavior of customers. Using his traditionally eye-searing slides (complete with comic sans and rainbow text), McClure spoke about the importance of showing rather than saying, taking risks, not being afraid of pissing your customers off, and standing for something you believe in.

Use Design As The Soul Of Your Product

 

Heroku builds design into everything they do using a central theme, shared Todd Matthews in his talk, “Thematic Design: Finding the Soul of Your Product”. Cohesive design builds trust, calmness, and a sense of completeness across the entire product line. Heroku built a brand using design which has infused every piece of their interface, both online and off. Respect the details and build a design theme that integrates into everything you do.

Be Fast. Iterate Fast.

Important to any startup is the ability to move quickly, launch features, and fix bugs as fast as possible. Even with 1.4 billion page views a month, Etsy still practices continuous deployment with an average of 50-60 production code pushes a day. Randy Hunt shared in “Design for Continuous Deployment. Hell Yes.” that sharing deployments and being able to work quickly helps employees trust each other and feel empowered. Every employee is encouraged to push live code, not just engineers — and new employees are required to deploy on their first day at Etsy.

In “Designing for Mobile Speed: Secrets to Lightning – Fast Mobile Design”, Mike Krieger, the Co-Founder/Engineering at Instagram spoke about how a fast interface was even more important than how beautiful it was (though that certainly helped). Instagram built speed features into their app such as adaptive preloading, immediate visual changes when the user does an action (to imply the action was completed immediately — such as a button changing color when it is tapped, instantly rewarding the user), and even built non-optimal engineering feats such as allowing a user to upload in the background while filling in their details. The application feels fast, which makes the entire interface a pleasure to use.

Hire Designers By Being Real

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Jason Putorti, former lead designer at Mint and currently at Votizen, spoke about bringing designers into a startup in “The Developer’s Unicorn: Tactics for Recruiting (Good) Designers”. Biggest tips? Be down to earth and real about your company — no “Klout for Video Games” or “We’re the Next Facebook”. Don’t forget to communicate your needs of a designer effectively as well; don’t ask for a “design rockstar” while listing every task and requirement under the sun — find out what your startup actually needs and put everything in real, actionable terms.

When searching for the right designer, don’t just focus on hiring from popular startups in the tech areas such as Silicon Valley or NYC. Some of the best designers today originally were hired from non-tech locales, such as Rebekah Cox, currently the product designer and manager at Quora, who worked at the University of Iowa before being hired at Facebook. While visual design experience is important, also see whether the designer has other important qualities such as copywriting experience, good design and critical thinking, and plenty of empathy rather than ego.

And don’t just relegate the designer to an employee position, because…

Designers Make Kickbutt Founders

Designers are so important in early stages or, even better, as a part of the founding team. Take a look at startups such as Airbnb, YouTube, Flickr, and Tumblr, which are all amazing successful companies who have put an emphasis on design with designer founders.

Enrique Allen, founding designer at 500 Startups, relayed inspiring stories of designer founders and how they’re instrumental for startups in “Designers ARE Founders too! The Future of Design Founders in Tech” — especially as “unicorns” — founders who are strong in design, marketing, and development.

Allen founded The Designer Fund to promote a community of designers investing in designer founders through mentorship and funding.

As a part of The Designer Fund with my company, WeddingLovely, their support has been instrumental to help me to find support and build a successful company as a solo designer founder.

Interested in applying to the Winter 2012 class of The Designer Fund? Applications to join The Designer Fund are now open.

Conclusion? Focus On Design Early & Don’t Stop

The traditional idea of a founding team being a marketer and developer is falling away in favor of a design-focused team building products that look beautiful, work fast, invoke emotion, and are a pleasure to use. The Warm Gun Conference as well as organizations like The Designer Fund are helping to promote this new and important trend in startups.

Want to see more? Check out the some of the videos from the conference livestream!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Tracy Osborn is the Founder and Designer of WeddingLovely, dedicated to making wedding planning less stressful while promoting local wedding vendors. With vendor directories such as WeddingInviteLove and WeddingPhotoLove, Tracy is also building a webapp to walk couples through every step of the planning process. Prior to founding WeddingLovely, Tracy freelanced design and front-end development for startups. Follow her on Twitter at @limedaring.