"A Five-Step Process For Conducting User Research" on Smashing Magazine
"Negotiation: Logic and Emotion" by Ted Leonhardt

Envisioning the Balance: Gauging the Growth of Design-Led Startups

Envisioning the Balance

The time and place are set. You meet, shake hands, order your pour-over coffees or craft beers. You chat about how things are going in your lives. Then the moment comes. The startup founder pulls out the appropriate smartphone, tablet, or laptop, and asks if they can receive some feedback on their product.

I have many of these conversations every year, most often with startups that employ designers as one of their core founders or first hires. The founders I meet with often have design training and are well aware of the benefits of taking a human-centered design approach to their product from day one. Their team understands that a visually beautiful user interface and an "intuitive" user experience emerge from deep understanding of user needs, paired with a willingness to experiment in order to define and refine the product's functionality and content.

However, when designers are seeking to bootstrap a startup product, there are issues that crop up along the way that have to do with the design of their business. Designer founders may not be familiar with how to formulate key performance indicators for their product. How to bring new methods into their business to improve workflow. How to handle the myriad issues that crop up as a product scales from a rough prototype to a system that millions of people are hammering on every second. 

A startup needs to balance the different factors that lead to business stability in service of quality product design and smart growth. This means that whenever possible, they should be getting ahead of issues before they impact the quality of their product experience for customers. Startups that take the time to pair decisive action and experimentation with just enough reflection in the following areas can formulate action steps that'll help them reach their business goals with more clarity.

In order to help design-led startups, I've generated a questionnaire that I use to help early founders understand the different types of growth their organization may experience. The questionnaire focuses on six areas of concern that have cropped up over and over again in my mentoring conversations:

  1. Team Cohesion and Culture
  2. Expressed Value of Product Solution
  3. Financial Stability & Business Model Experimentation
  4. Technology Platform
  5. Product User Experience & Brand Expression
  6. Measuring Product Success

I'm sharing this questionnaire here for you to adapt, build upon, and share alike with others under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. You can either duplicate it from this Google Drive spreadsheet, which I've posted in a view-only format, or refer to the text included below in this post.

Before I go through the questionnaire's contents, I would like to clarify the way you can use it as a diagnostic tool. 

The statements in each area below are representative of the working state of early-stage startups that I've encountered, organized from high maturity to low maturity. For each item, read through the statements and consider how you'd describe your startup in relationship to that item. Some founders are aware of all the items in these areas and are actively working on all of them. Some are aware of most of the items here, but haven't reached a stage in their startup's growth to formulate a point of view. And, in some cases, a few of these items here may be "unknown unknowns" that haven't been dealt with yet. That's why, in the spreadsheet format of this questionnaire, there are areas for you to fill in associated with each section. For each item, you want to answer the following:

How Is Our Startup Doing Here? Where does your startup land on each of the items provided here? The point is not to exactly match one of the statements or another startup. The point is for you to take a moment and articulate how your startup is doing in that area and what level of maturity your organization may have in that area.

Why? Are there any issues or root causes that you can identify, which are either making you successful in that area or holding your startup back?

What Actions Should We Take?: What would you do next to improve how you handle this area? This can often be done even for areas where your startup appears to be doing fine.

Important disclaimer: What I'm sharing is not exhaustive and has been a continual work in progress for my personal advising of design-led startups. This is not meant to be a quiz that you finish, and at the end, say, "I scored 26, so my startup is doing great!" The point is to help you be more strategic about how you plan the growth of all the different facets of your startup and its products. If you do edit or expand upon this questionnaire and share it with others, please write me at david at changeorderblog dot com so I can link to your work and we can all benefit from your input into future versions. Thanks!


1. Team Cohesion and Culture

This area will help you understand the people that work at your startup, as well as those who support its strategic and operational goals from an advisory perspective. (I am leaving detail about investors out, as that topic merits its own blog post.)


a. Leadership

High: Experienced, balanced team. Good overlap and chemistry between business, technical, and design roles. Ideally will have the collective expertise to provide leadership and stewardship for multiple versions of the product. (This doesn't mean that all team members need to have founded or worked at startups before.)

Medium: At least two leaders/founders that work well with each other and do not overlap core skill sets/expertise. Some of the expertise necessary to design, develop, and ship a great product, with the right support from staff/advisors.

Low: At least one leader/founder that has skill set and expertise to launch a startup and/or ship a good product. Actively seeking partners to join their team, either as core staff with necessary skills, or as co-founders, to support the venture.

None: Founders have the desire to create something good, but lack skills to build a team or create the product.


b. Culture

High: Leaders have a strong sense of the culture they want at their startup, and make deliberate decisions to encourage it. Staff have space to influence corporate culture and help guide where the startup is going.

Medium: Leaders don't have an explicit perspective about their startup's culture, but it's been emerging from their decisions and they're starting to put it into words. Staff has had an impact on corporate culture and where the startup is going.

Low: Leaders and staff are just fresh enough working together they haven't been able to establish working chemistry, but they are aware that their decisions will have a cultural impact and are considering how they want to cultivate the team independent of just making the product.

None: Leaders and staff have not cultivated a positive culture and atmosphere that inspires ownership and action.


c. Staff Composition

High: Staff is hired to be smarter than the founders. They are the best at what they do, collaborate well with other staffers and the founders, and are interesting people to spend time with when not working.

Medium: Staff is hired to be smarter than the founders and a good culture fit, but there aren't enough people to understand how that culture may evolve based on more employees.

Low: Staff is hired to be hard workers. It isn't clear yet about how culture fit factors into the hires.

None: Staff is hired to get things done. They sometimes aren't a good culture fit.


d. Advisors and/or Board 

High: Startup has a solid set of advisors and mentors across technical, business, and design needs. Investors provide advice and support for the company's short- to long-term plans.

Medium: Startup has a few good advisors and mentors that help them across most of their needs. Investors provide advice and support for the company's short- to mid-term plans.

Low: Startup has one or two advisors, mentors or investors. The founders recognize they need to expand their support network and are attempting to grow that base. May have no investors providing advice.

None: Startup has no advisors or mentors. Or if they do have a few advisors, they aren't receiving useful advice from them that helps them focus their efforts.


2. Expressed Value of Product Solution

This area focuses on how how much a startup may need to learn about unmet customer needs and the markets they plan to serve with their products.


a. Understanding of Problem Space 

High: Deep, nuanced understanding of market and or industry vertical. Recognizes what major problems exist for people in those domains, either through extensive work in that domain or through strong foundational research.

Medium: Has a good understanding of the market they are considering entering. Recognizes what major problems exist for people in those domains. May have worked in that market or conducted cursory foundational research.

Low: Startup is aware of the vertical and category they're targeting, but lacks insight into how it operates and what problems people have within that space. May have lateral expertise that can be brought to bear on this market.

None: Startup has no knowledge of the problem space or vertical they're considering competing in.


b. Proposed Problem to Solve 

High: The startup can speak to the "Why?" They are able to elegantly frame what problem they are trying to solve and who they want to solve it for. Has a strong sense how both users and businesses may value potential solutions to that problem.

Medium: The startup's "why?" is visible, but not crisp. They can speak to the problem space in detail, and for whom they are creating a solution. However, they may not be fully sure what value that problem has, for both users and industries. 

Low: "Why?" isn't clear. The startup has a sense of the problem space, but is struggling to home in on exactly what makes it an important problem to solve.

None: The startup can't articulate the problem(s) they are solving. Instead, they point to a technology or capability.


c. Proposed Solution & Core Product Concept

High: The product is novel and has the potential to disrupt a market or create a whole new product category.

Medium: The product could quickly be a player in a mature market against similar products, or lead the competition in a nascent one.

Low: The product could get lost in the pack as a fast follower, and the startup may need to consider opportunities to differentiate or pivot.

None: The startup knows their solution isn't competitive, but their team isn't willing to find a more valuable problem to solve and/or pivot yet.


d. Realization of Solution 

High: The startup has data on how to best improve and extend the functional set of their product, which is in beta and/or widespread use.

Medium: The startup has generated an alpha product and begun to receive feedback on the minimum viable product from a diverse set of users.

Low: The startup's product is functionally prototyped and is being used internally, but is not yet in user's hands.

None: The startup's product is still at screen comps, wireframes, or technical prototype of the back-end services.


e. Pitch quality

High: The startup team is able to concisely state what their product does, and why, in plain language. You immediately understand it on a logical and emotional level, and can see the value of the product after just a minute or two.

Medium: The startup team is able to describe their solution, but there is some fuzziness around what it's intended to do, and why. With a minute or two of discussion, you understand where they're headed. In five minutes of discussion, their vision/dream becomes clearer.

Low: The startup team struggles to explain their product. They have only logical or anecdotal evidence regarding whom it would be useful for, and why.

None: The startup team can't put into words what their product does, or why.


3. Financial Stability & Business Model

This area focuses on how the startup believes they can support their product from a funding perspective, balancing scale potential, funding, and their organization's ethical impact. (Note: Scale and product reach is relative per the startup's goals, so scale could refer to large user base, paid user base, existing user base serves as foundation for serving multiple customer bases, maximization of reach for one audience segment, and so forth. Feel free in your responses to update the below statements to fit the goals of your startup.)


a. Potential for Scale

High: The startup's product could scale to capture the majority of a market and reach into other markets internationally. 

Medium: The startup's product could scale to capture a large percentage of a market, but isn't likely to be international in its growth potential without substantial effort.

Low: The startup's product could scale to capture a small percentage of a market, probably only within their nation.

None: The startup's product fills a small niche or community need, and is unlikely to grow beyond that without major changes.


b. Product Reach Across Audiences or Industries

High: The startup's product has the capacity to maximize reach within their market, taking major share from competitors. It could be easily provided to multiple industries or audiences with minimal change.

Medium: The startup's product can reach a broad portion of a market. It could be provided to one or two additional industries and/or audiences with some design and development effort.

Low: The startup's product will reach a decent amount of the market. It is tightly wedded to one or two industries and/or audiences.

None: The startup's product will reach a small subset of the market. It can't be torn from its target audience/set of explicit uses.


c. Moral and Ethical Bottom Line

High: The startup is fully aware of societal and environmental tradeoffs. The team chooses corporate operations and product solutions that lead to sustainable net-positive effects that can be measured for customers, company, and society. 

Medium: The startup is aware of societal and environmental tradeoffs and is currently benchmarking their corporate and product impacts. Their benchmarking will be used to recalibrate corporate and product decisions in the near future.

Low: The startup has good intentions, but is not capable of articulating or understanding the net-negative effects of their product decisions on their customers, company, and society. They are willing to put instruments in place to measure corporate and product impact, but will need help determining how to do so.

None: The startup is unaware of the net effects of their product on their customers, company, or society. They are unwilling to put instruments in place to measure this effect and benchmark from it to make improvements. 


d. Competitive Landscape

High: Low competition. Welcome to the blue ocean.

Medium: Medium competition. There are some major competitors, but they have not fully captured the market and/or customers are not fully satisfied with existing solutions. 

Low: High competition. Competitors within the space have maximized their customer base and revenue with solid products. 

None: Extreme competition with razor-thin margins. It would be absurd to enter this market without a category-defining product.


e. Strategies for Monetization

High: The startup can clearly describe realistic ways that their solution can be monetized. They have done testing with users to (dis)prove their assumptions and/or have examples of similar strategies succeeding in execution.

Medium: The startup has plenty of ideas as to how they could monetize their product, but only one or two seem realistic or viable. They might have done testing with users to (dis)prove their assumptions.

Low: The startup has a few ideas regarding how they could monetize their product, but they have not tested those ideas.

None: The startup wants to just make the best product possible and worry about how they'll make money from it in sometime down the road.


f. Future Fundability 

High: The startup is highly attractive to investors right now due to their current product success and/or revenue base. The company has enough investment capital in place to keep running for years—even if they have to begin to scale. Or they launched, and are already breaking even on the way to serious profit. Batting away offers of funding or purchase.

Medium: The startup has enough capital to keep afloat for a year, before they have to be profitable. The burn rate isn't too bad month by month. The startup has had a few success points, and feels solid with their current investor base and/or product revenue. Additional funding wouldn't hurt.

Low: The startup is burning through capital quickly, and only has half a year or more before they have to scramble to put additional major funding in place. There are major stage gates/goals in place with the startup's first set of funders. The startup can't advance to a new funding round until those goals have been achieved.

None: The startup is within a few months of scrapping the product. They have minimal runway and must immediately reach ramen profitable, pivot, or fold.


4. Technology Platform

This area outlines the technical foundation that must be in place for a startup to have a defensible position entering their market, as well as the organizational impacts that technology decisions may have on how a startup operates.


a. Unique Technology

High: The startup has a unique technology advantage via custom services, APIs, IP, or data sources. Abstraction layers protect core code from being influenced by changes in any supporting technologies. It would be much easier for competitors to license their core technology than try to recreate it. 

Medium: The startup has one or two unique services, IP, APIs, or data repositories that could be duplicated, but would take some time for competitors to do so. Abstraction layers protect core code from being influenced by changes in supporting technologies. Some competitors might enter into an arms race with the startup in order to take their market position.

Low: The startup has mashed up or recombined existing services, IP, APIs, or data sources in a way that could be duplicated quickly. They are too early in the product development process to build up abstraction layers for code base, but they plan to do so. Competitors are probably already working on duplicating their ideas, if they are public-facing.

None: The startup uses all off-the-shelf services, IP, APIs, and data sources with minimal technology investment in how they are combined. Once it goes live it can be duplicated with little to no effort.


b. Platform & Infrastructure Dependency

High: The product's technology platform has minimal dependencies on functionality from outside platforms, partners, and ecosystems. There is plenty of room to maneuver when making decisions regarding how the product may scale under increasing usage. If they were to tear out third-party infrastructure out, it could be quickly replaced. 

Medium: The product has some dependencies on outside platforms, partners, and ecosystems. Scaling the product would require making some tough choices, including recreating select portions of the product's technical architecture and/or building custom services to replace third-party services.

Low: The product has major dependencies on outside platforms, partners, and ecosystems. Complete restructuring of the product's technical architecture would be required if any of those pieces were to become unavailable. 

None: The product requires 100% use of outside platforms, partners, and ecosystems for the product to function.


c. Stability of Back-End Services

High: "We have contigency plans in place. It's all been thought through." There are multiple redundancies in place for critical services. The startup draws from best-in-class vendors, as necessary, for virtualization, uptime, and/or and delivery of services.

Medium: "If we have to scramble, we think we're covered." The product has had a few issues with consistent uptime or delivery of services, perhaps due to traffic or demand, but the team is currently putting redundancies into place or refactoring to deal with those issues. The startup draws from solid vendors as necessary.

Low: "We know there are stability issues. We'll cross that bridge very soon, before we put our product into market." The product is not mature enough to provide fully consistent uptime or delivery of services. The startup team knows quality of service delivery is necessary for their product's long-term health, but don't have the time or money yet to make it happen. They may be drawing deeply from outside vendors, or not be working with the correct ones.

None: "Right now we only have 200 users, so stability doesn't matter yet." The product may still be in a beta or alpha state. The startup team has a lot of work to do to understand what stability looks like at varying levels of scale.


d. Development Workflow Optimization

High: Startup workflow set up to maximize collaboration and speed to design, develop, test and deploy new product features, requirements, or content changes. Any staff member can be assigned changes to review and push live. Draws from, builds upon, or invents new best practices based on cutting-edge thinking in workflow such as DevOps.

Medium: Startup workflow has been optimized in many places to encourage collaboration and speed throughout the development process. Some of the staff members can be assigned changes to review and push live. Draws from or builds upon best practices based on recent thinking in workflow such as DevOps.

Low: Startup workflow has some automation in testing and deployment, but not all staff members can review and push live changes. Aware of new thinking and best practices in workflow management, but haven't been able to operationalize aspects of it yet.

None: "Um… what's DevOps?"


e. Front-End Development

High: Product is built to up-to-date web standards (HTML5/CSS/etc) across devices and platforms. If it's an app, the startup team has made informed decisions about web/native trade-offs. Have fully researched development impacts on their product based on current trends such as responsive web design.

Medium: Product is built to up-to-date web standards, but certain decisions may not fully rationalized across devices and platforms. If the team has apps, they may have invested in being native without a strong reason. 

Low: Not fully aware of how to use up-to-date web standards, but the team is becoming educated and "has the religion." Not fully clear how they may deal with device fragmentation from a front-end development perspective.

None: Needs to be educated about web standards. Hasn't implemented them on any part of their product.


5. Product Strategy and UX Design

This area focuses on how the product's functionality and content fit user needs, and is expressed through quality UX/UI design. Different startups handle design in different ways, such as bringing design more closely into the development process, or developing a design organization that is responsible for product quality as a peer to engineering.


a. Product Definition 

High: The startup team knows the product's core feature set. Their product and feature set is tied to personas, user goals, tasks, and user stories that are prioritized by user value and product usage feedback.

Medium: The startup team knows most of their product's core feature set, but may still be experimenting to refine it. Their product and feature set is tied to a few clear goals and tasks, but they're still exploring who the target personas are for their product and gathering usage feedback to prioritize their user stories.

Low: The startup team hasn't fully defined what their product is yet, but they are currently running experiments and receiving user feedback. They are now receiving data that will help them make key decisions about which features make the most sense as part of their product, as well as who their target personas are.

None: The startup team has a key technology or theory regarding the audience they are designing for, but they have not yet tested it.


b. Information Architecture

High: The team has fleshed out comprehensive information architecture and predictable interaction models for their product across all target screens, including any necessary application/content mapping, navigation and search, and templates/patterns for major screens. Not only that, but the product feels easy to use because all of that work is solid.

Medium: The team has considered the product's information architecture and interaction models, and it is represented coherently across the product. The product has a few rough spots that could benefit from refinement, but otherwise, the product can explain itself.

Low: The team has some rough ideas of the product's information architecture, which are being tested in the product. The interaction model for the product isn't clear yet. Not so easy to use.

None: No notion of information architecture or interaction model yet.


c. Content Strategy

High: The startup team understands what content should be included within the system and has generated all of it. Content modeling, tagging and other necessary taxonomies are well reasoned and tested. There are resources to support regular content generation and updates.

Medium: The startup team has a content strategy they have created, including a draft taxonomy that is being tested. Need to put it fully into action and prove it out with the startup's available resources.

Low: The startup team doesn't have a content strategy yet, but knows they need to get one together and are starting on it soon. 

None: The team is not considering content as part of their product yet.


d. Rapid Prototyping of UX Solutions 

High: When appropriate, the startup team has whiteboarded, sketched, wireframed, visually designed, and/or created motion prototypes of critical tasks and problem areas in product. The team has created code prototypes where appropriate to resolve key UX moments or move directly into trying out solutions within the product. 

Medium: The startup team has proven out some of the critical tasks through the design process (per the above), and in some cases through functional prototypes.

Low: The startup team has proven only a select number of tasks, and not rigorously. The team is just starting to prototype as part of their product design and development process. 

None: Straight to code without a plan of how to handle key tasks or problem areas. In some cases, major design decisions are offset to testing whatever comes out of a sprint rather than formulating hypotheses and prototyping them iteratively at increasing fidelity.


e. Visual Design Language 

High: The team's product has a stable visual design language system in place. They know how to evolve it based on user input, as well as how it stretches across different screens and operating systems. The design language directly connects to the startup's brand and their marketing.

Medium: The team has begun to work through the visual design system of their product, but haven't fully connected it to their brand and/or their marketing. They may have outsourced it, and it's pretty good, but they aren't sure how to own it wholly as a business.

Low: The team has taken a stab at a visual design language, but it's not consistent. Or they outsourced the work, got back some solid design solutions, and are unsure how to implement it across their product or business.

None: The team doesn't understand how to set up a visual design system and how to implement it across their organization.


f. Execution of UX Solutions in Product

High: What the team has designed is embodied in the product, or is even better in execution.

Medium: What the team has designed is in the product, but there are some areas that are rough around the edges when the functionality ships.

Low: What the team has designed is often "lost in translation" when developed.

None: Design is a retroactive "fix-it" solution for issues in what's shipped.


g. User Testing

High: User testing is a critical part of the product design process. The team validates key tasks through testing with a variety of methods (rapid user testing with prototypes, A/B testing with user base), and when necessary, will move from evaluative testing to generating solutions with customers to better identify and meet their needs.

Medium: Key tasks have been validated for the product through a few evaluative research methods, and a regular testing protocol has just been put in place. The startup team is excited to be doing more testing and research in general. 

Low: The startup team isn't fully familiar with how to do testing or user research in general, but they want to get started right away.

None: "Why would we ever need to do user research or testing?"


h. Marketing and Messaging

High: The team has a unique name and brand position. It has been tested with users, baked into their brand and identity system, and trademarked. This position is supported by a messaging and marketing strategy that clearly describes the unique value of their product and how it connects to the product, the brand, and drives their marketing efforts.

Medium: The team has a solid name and brand position for their product, but it hasn't been run by their audience, baked into an identity system, and/or trademarked. The team has a draft messaging strategy tied to their position, but they haven't fully thought through their customer-facing marketing and brand communications. 

Low: The team has name ideas and a rough sense of where the brand needs to go. The team has a few jottings regarding how they want to message their product, but it's not crisp or formalized. There's room to create emotional and logical resonance.

None: The team has not created a draft name or brand position that states their product or service. The team has not formulated their messaging. They don't know enough about what they're making to have a sense of how to market it yet.


6. Measuring Product Success

This area is focused on how startups can build towards a vision around business and product success, supported by discrete measurement and analysis of data gathered from customers. For most startups, this area can be a moving target.


a. Metrics and Analytics

High: The team reviews meaningful metrics and analytics associated with their product, regularly making informed decisions for product improvement from what they discover.

Medium: The team reviews metrics and analytics associated with their product, but they are still tuning how to analyze data they've gathered to drive product improvement.

Low: The team knows they need to build the review of metrics and analytics into their workflow, and they have a plan they're currently executing to get the system into place.

None: "What are metrics? What are analytics?"


b. Key Performance Indicators and Metrics of Success 

High: The team has a set of meaningful key performance indicators that help them make informed decisions, based on data they are gathering from across their business. They are reviewed regularly by the startup management team, helping to inform major decisions.

Medium: The team has a few meaningful key performance indicators that they have just now put into place and are tracking data to establish a baseline. They are reviewed regularly by the startup management.

Low: The team is generating their first set of key performance indicators. They plan to review them regularly.

None: The team doesn't know how to formulate key performance indicators or understand their role in managing their business.


c. Long-Term Success Criteria

High: The startup team can describe what success looks like for their product and customer base, directly tying it to their company's business model and long-term plan.

Medium: The startup team can describe what success looks like for their product and customer base, but may not be able to tie it to how their business will grow intelligently.

Low: The startup team can describe what success looks like for their product in the short- to mid-term for their customers, but they can't tie it clearly to what their business may look like.

None: The startup team can't articulate what success looks like in the long term for their company, their product, and their customers that they serve.


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