Your Startup Design Kit from Bootstrapping to a Successful Product

Startups are not primarily about making money or creating stuff. Startups exist in order to learn how to build a sustainable business. Sustainability is the key for successful growth. How do we reach that? By applying build-measure-learn cycles and accelerating feedback loops. This learning can be validated scientifically, by running experiments that allow us to test each element of our vision.

It is really difficult to provide a perfect UX solution when it comes to startup product design, because startups can’t afford all the specialists that are needed to create an awesome product. Below are some tips for the major steps and what to do UX wise at each stage of growth.

We differenciate between various categories of growth stages for small businesses. We will use a 3 stage breakdown to illustrate the necessity of UX in the process of startup product design.

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startup design

Pre-seed phase

This is the beginning. At this moment, you are mostly alone and your major job is to validate the problem and your product idea as a solution.


Specifics for this stage:

  • Limited money or no money at all
  • Discovery: landing page, interviews, market research, competitor analysis
  • Just you with design skills
  • Investors: FFF (Friends, Family, Fools)

With a hopefully good idea and very little or no money, the concept needs to be explored. A simple landing page will show you how your idea behaves in the open. Why is it good to have a landing page? A few points:

  • Your product is communicated as it was an existing one
  • You can test the best Value Proposition that works and position a Call-to-Action button in the most effective way
  • You can identify the output (KPIs) to measure (eg.: email address)
  • It’s fast, it’s cheap and you don’t need to have the most unique design elements, rather spend your time with crafting the right copy.

Nevertheless, you will get feedback from your potential users on their expected behavior towards your product. You can test various ideas with several methods (ex. A/B testing). Also, creating a funnel helps map how far your users will go in the process, where the bottleneck is and where you are most probably to lose them. If there is not enough data, there is always the possibility to use qualitative research methods.

“Fake it until you make it”

Creating an MVP has it’s cost. Here are two methods that aim to create an MVP with less input development wise:

Manual-first (aka “Wizard of Oz”) MVP shifts the focus to deliver the product or service manually. Instead of coding or creating a video of the product, the “Wizard of Oz” creates the illusion of a fully working, finite product or service. In the background there is a lot of work to be done manually. Imagine a webshop with all the products, purchase possibility and delivery services. Instead of having all the above mentioned elements automated, the process is done manually, without having an inventory of the goods, without having a program to manage all the orders and shipping services.

The MVP requires significant effort, no doubt, but it is also worth trying, due to the focus it provides on the problem and not on the solution.

The Concierge test is similar to Wizard of Oz MVP, except instead faking a working product, you’re upfront about the manual work and the product or service is delivered as a highly customized service to selected customers. Read more about the MVPs in this article.

Seed phase


Now that you created the MVP (or MLP –minimum loveable product) the next step is to take your product to the market and test your proposition. This is the time and place for the lean approach to kick off! Iteration is the keyword: build, test, refine and build again in short cycles. You need to really communicate and listen to your early users and offer incentives for feedback.

Specifics for this stage:

  • Strategic planning: UX strategy (Product roadmap)
  • Prototype: Research
  • MVP

Probably most of your team will consist of software developers and designers as your focus is on developing and refining your product. Hacking some of the venture capitalists will even calculate the value of your team based on the numbers of the developers in it. They are not wrong, but they are not right either.

This is a testing and feedback phase that applies to the whole of your business. You will want to test your marketing messages, marketing channels, operations practices and revenue model. You should start building your revenues and work on how you are going to refine your revenue model in later stages of business growth. However, don’t forget that the users have to love your product. While focusing on business development – which is important – don’t forget the ones who actually use your product.

To test the product and the improvements done, usability testing is your bread and butter method. There are other methods you can use, for example customer journey mapping.

For product testing we use weekly sprints. To test the proto the main tool we use is usability testing. The most important thing is to be able to improve the proto (thus the product) as fast as possible.  Check out our process here.

A-round phase

Raising ‘Series A’ funding takes up to several months so you need to start early before you run out of cash.

Specifics for this stage:

  • Running the business
  • Building design teams
  • Creating the design culture
  • Continuous discoveries
  • Defiing own processes

At this phase the work already has a course, some parts still need adjustments (for e.g. the methodology of research, the design elements need updates, the code needs maintenance). In order to have a cutting edge product, continuous discovery is required. The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning. In lean, UX discovery and learning comes first. Many companies try to maximise their potential by implementing lean methodology in order to reduce costs and waste and to create value. This change affects the whole company, every sector, every department. At some point you will need to integrate design into the agile process as well.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” –Michael Jordan

startup design team

To maintain sustainability the team needs to work well together. It’s difficult to create and maintain a healthy work environment. Design culture defines your company’s major aspects. First you have to decide what you want to achieve. Design culture defines relationships, interactions and attitudes. In each  stage of growth, the company changes inevitably. Set core values (ex transparency) for design and for the organisation as well .


  • Invest in strategic changes, rather than tactical fixes in design.
  • Plan smarter for the UX processes to spend money more effectively, rather than skip or cut parts of the UX process just to save money.
  • Aim to get more money with a beautiful, more engaging and usable product, rather than cut costs in development phases.
  • Focus on when and how money is spent, rather than how much is spent.
  • Be ready to fail fast and adapt, rather than play it safe and avoid failing.

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I'm an insight junkie UX researcher who lives and dies for a good find. The previous line is there because it had the best multivariate test results.