The “design” problem among Indian startups

This is going to be a very long post on design and startups in India and in particular the questions we have about design as a important discipline in India.

Speak to any investor and mentor / advisor in India and you will constantly hear the refrain “Indian companies need to get better at design” or “We dont design our applications very well and that’s the reason we dont have world-beating companies”.

Speak to an entrepreneur in India and they will state that “getting designers in India is very hard” and “hiring a design firm in India is very expensive”.

Over the last 1.5 years, we have been trying to solve the “design” problem for startups at the Microsoft accelerator and met with limited to no success.

The first part is to frame the “problem” correctly. Let us focus on the stages a startup goes through and look for opportunities and the needs for a designer. Then we will try to outline the solutions we offered and why (I think) they failed.

We’d love some advice on where we are going wrong and what we can do to solve this problem first for us in a small scale and then largely for the community in general.

In the very early stages the entrepreneur has an “idea” and they want to solve a problem. At this stage, they end up “napkin-ing” a solution and then trying to find ways to build a solution. Most entrepreneurs in India already believe they have a solution, so they do think they would be best at “designing” a solution as well. So the designers role is largely relegated to “give me some good color options” or “make me a kick-ass logo”, or “build a sexy website”. Most of this work is either done by friends or colleagues who moonlight and help the entrepreneur by offering a design.

In most hackathons  (over the last year I have judged and attended over 30 of them), the designer is the only role that is very hard to find in teams. You will get 20+ hack teams and only 4 designers. The teams that have convinced the designers that their idea will “win” the hackathon have designers. The rest of the teams end up largely having engineers perform “minimal” design.

The next stage is when the company is beyond the wireframe stage and actually building an application – mobile or web. At this stage, most folks would like to “hire” a designer, but complain that design talent at $8000 – $10,000 per year (4L to 6L INR) is too expensive. The entrepreneur believes the role of the designer at this stage is to take the “wireframes” they have designed and put together psd files, do a few revisions and then create the HTML and CSS files. Most entrepreneurs use inexpensive agencies or freelance consultants at this stage since they can’t afford to hire a full time designer. They also believe that hiring a full time designer is not something they can afford, since once the design is “complete”, they dont think there’s any work left for the designer. They’d rather hire a developer full time to keep adding features.

The stage beyond this is when they get some customer feedback and actually have users who are working with their application. This results in feedback that entrepreneurs are surprised with – things like – “It is not easy to use your application” or “I dont think the application is very nicely designed”. The other indirect way they get this feedback is when they tell me “I am not able to charge a premium for my product even though it has the same features as a US clone because my customers know that my app is designed in India”. At this point they do take design somewhat seriously and try to hire a designer. If they have gotten to this stage it is very likely that they have some funding so they can afford the designer who charges $10K per year we mentioned before.

Finally when a company is growing and scaling, new products, new features and new capabilities force them to think about design more seriously and they do end up hiring a design team – think of companies like Zomato, Cleartrip etc.

That is the background of the problem we encountered, which we have tried to solve in different ways.

Version 1 of our solution was to hire a seasoned design firm to do a 2 day (shortened from 5 days) workshop on design for entrepreneurs. While very well received initially, most entrepreneurs felt they liked the content, but they needed a person to implement the learning from the workshop. In other words – do it for me, don’t just tell me.

Our version 2 of the solution was to offer a design mentor for each of our startups who would spend 1/2 day or 4 hours each month helping the company with design. These mentors were seasoned practitioners at other companies who took time to help startups. The feedback we received after 3 months was there was too much “advice – gyan in India” and too little “action”. The entrepreneurs felt that the design mentors were able to point out issues that needed fixing but they were not willing (or more likely did not have time, since they were in a full time role already) actually implement the changes. Given that most entrepreneur teams did not have a full time design person on staff, the “advice” was useful and obvious, but they could not be implemented.

Version 3 of the solution was to hire a full time design staff of 4 resources (including a project manager) who will work with the companies to help them with the user experience, design and development of their application. These resources were available to all our companies, and they could very easily sign up to use these services, by just speaking to the project manager and outlining their design requirements, which could be as small as a new logo to as involved as a new website design or as complicated as redesigning a new application user experience.

After 4 months we abandoned the program, for 3 reasons. First, the resource utilization was less than 25% by our startups. Second, the design firm came to the conclusion that requirements from several teams were too vague and simple and third, many companies did not value the design team enough to give them quick turnaround (i.e they took 4 weeks to respond to the designer) on their design which they requested in the first place be done “in a week”.

Now we are back to the drawing board. While the high level problem “Indian startups need design help” gets visceral reactions including furious head-nodding and shaking of the head from investors, entrepreneurs and others, we still dont know what the solution to this problem is.

If you are an Indian entrepreneur who is in one of these stages, I’d love some advice and comments on what would be the ideal way to help you solve the “design” problem.

Or just let me know if I am barking up the wrong tree and let me know if there’s really no problem.

Afterword:

This post touched a nerve with over 20+ comments in the first hour of posting. There are a few clarifications to make. The design firm we used was excellent, because the same team is used by our accelerator at Israel and they LOVE working with the team. Second, I am looking for some suggestions on what do you think we should do to help, instead of just comments like “Founders should do design”. They don’t help us understand what we should do to help our founders.

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63 thoughts on “The “design” problem among Indian startups”

  1. Concur with you here on all accounts. Also since being a part of the solution in one of the cases. Does it boil down to entrepreneurs actually not caring for design but in reality they just look for sexy visual design? When can we start seeing design-cofounders in India?

  2. What we do at HasGeek: hire good designers and pay them what they are worth — on par with or above engineering talent. While we work with consultants and pay Rs 30-50,000 per person week (which is what good design talent costs), we also believe design should be an in-house, customer-facing role right from the start.

    The trouble with digital design starts right at the source: design schools still don’t take digital design seriously. The top design schools in India graduate 10-30 students each per year with digital design training, and hands on HTML/CSS skills are an even smaller number.

    It’s not a startup’s problem to fix the supply, so the only real options are to (a) pay what it costs, or (b) get design training.

  3. umm. the wrong tree it is. design is an approach not an outsourced function. ‘getting’ designers to make your app look pretty is a left-brained approach to a right brain problem. oh well its not a problem. you need to envision design and usability as part of the process of creating your product. That’s the job of a founder. Its part of the core product. Adding a layer of aesthetic over a product is not design. Its something the founders themselves need to be intense about and you perhaps need to pick teams that already have some cross-pollinated DNA. Also you could add a ‘Garry Tan’ (designer-in-residence) like approach but only to ensure a minimum bar of aesthetic acceptability. my 2c.

    1. What should the founder “not do” in your experience. If everything is done by the founder, then why hire anyone. This is the entrepreneur as the superman thinking that kills Indian entrepreneurs.

      1. Tsk. tsk.
        Design thinking is part of the creative process of building a product. it doesn’t make you a superman wannabe. What kills Indians as entrepreneurs is the cloner approach, the quick flip approach and the billion dollar company approach. This came out in stark contrast on stage at NPC when Rahul Sood was the only one talking about designing products with soul, while everyone else was tom-tomming the rise of India’s billion dollar companies. We don’t need another conveyor belt approach to building startups. puhleease. Make products you love. love building great products. period.

        What should the founder not do? I have no idea. I only know what s/he should be doing when s/he’s building a pathbreaking technology product in this decade.

    2. Excellent point. It is necessary for the founder to have a vision and it will be an added advantage if he is able to integrate usability along with the solution to a problem he is solving. Otherwise, someone in the core team is supposed to have it. I am not contradicting your point, just adding an idea that anyone in the core team can have a clearly laid out though process.

      1. I agree. I’d use ‘founder’ and ‘core team’ interchangeably when it comes to initial product development and design. At the end of the day its a sense of ownership over the ultimate product that everyone on the team must share.

  4. Mukund,
    Three points:
    1) This notion that India does not have good designers is an urban legend – there is plenty of great design work being done here both in large studios like say Prime Focus (who did most of the VFX for Avatar) and in several smaller companies all over India.
    2) To aver that “Indian startups need design help” to create the next global product success is a lazy fig-leaf as it provides an aphoristic way to explain away the lack of meaningful success stories. If anything, the design problem is not due to a lack of designers but rather due to a deeper malaise of not applying a more rigorous design-led approach to product development in the first place (design is not just about pretty icons and fancy user experiences) and that problem cannot be solved just by hiring good designers.
    3) Finally if you parse the design imperative in India, you will notice that having a compelling design is neither necessary nor sufficient to succeed. For instance, Cleartrip might arguably have the best designers and best design but it is far from being in the leader in the online travel space. At the other end of the spectrum, you have apps with truly appalling design (IRCTC being the canonical reference) but who are killing it in terms of traction.
    Cheers,
    Sumanth
    PS: Regarding the problem with the design resource at the accelerator, there is a much easier way to solve this but will share it with you privately (don’t want to berate you in public!)

    1. I dont think I ever said India does not have good designers. Read again. I have said it is hard and expensive. I agree with #2 and #3..
      Regarding problem with the resource at the accelerator, we have tried all 3 approaches, but we found that rare is the entrepreneur who believes design is important. Not necessary or sufficient to win, but important enough to care about.

      1. “we found that rare is the entrepreneur who believes design is important”

        I think you’ve nailed the problem right here Mukund, and I think that’s what Vivek was talking about too. If founders don’t understand or care about the role of design (as a shaping function, not cosmetic), hiring/outsourcing/training will all produce less than desirable results. Perhaps the trick is in educating them in the correct role of design for their startups, on a case by case basis. The design role will be different for different products.

      2. If the entrepreneurs at the accelerator do not believe that design is important then anything that you try is doomed to fail in any case.

        Be that as it may, would you be gross offended if I threw open the possibilty that the reason all your 3 approaches failed is not because the approaches themselves had an instrinsic problem but because the powers-that-be at the accelerator themselves did not (do not?) follow a design-led approach? Providing these resources is great but not enough…every one of those three approaches could have succeded if these efforts were corralled and sheperded thoughtfully. Of course I might be completely mistaken here but am speaking from our stint at the accelerator, anectodal as it stands.

  5. Hi Mukund,

    I am Abhishek, and I run a digital solutions outfit in New Delhi (established 2007). In the past we offered digital marketing services to brands and agencies, and now we have our own product and a small educational offering for school kids. I second your views on ‘design problems’. Following are my thoughts.

    One, in all the above ventures except for our own design has always been an afterthought. None of the brands was willing to pay for the designers. Mostly, they pay for a built up product. Also, in the startup circles the paucity of resources forces them to go without a designer on board, again an afterthought. I always had to fight for including the cost for designing things.

    Two, most of the designers have learnt design following the best practices of the west. They too fail to appreciate the ground realities of the Indian product ecosystem. Either the designer is biased towards a great piece of aesthetic design or giving in to the client’s demand and coming up with a useless design. Most don’t take a stand.

    Lastly, design thinking has to be hard coded and not sprinkled as a beautification measure. Earlier our services were perceived costlier than the rest because we’d involved designers and later when we were developed our product and platforms, we had a designer as a constant and equal member of our team.Though I had borrowed the above principle by following people like Jason Fried of 37 signals and Mike Monteiro of Mule Design, I have tried to look for solutions for this market.

    Abhishek

  6. I think one element that you should have discussed with design is the user experience. Just creating a design without a good onboarding process will not get you good conversions in the long term no matter how slick the UI is. Good UI definitely helps but a good user experience enhances the usability of the product.

    Also, I don’t think you always need a very good UI. A simple one would do if it’s coupled with a good user flow. Taking a page from the mailchimp design, I don’t see anything fancy in their UI. They have a simple left navigation panel that takes you to your main components and then simple options which gets your job done. However what works for them is the simple user flow which takes the user to the right place in the shortest number of clicks possible.

    Maybe Indian startups need to look beyond the design aspect only.

    A good article though. Thanks.

  7. You Mention that the Version 3 was abandoned because ‘ The design firm came to the conclusion that requirements from several teams were too ………… in the first place be done “in a week”.

    Were you able to get the feedback from Start Ups who used this design team ? What was their feedback regarding the Design Team engaged ? Well Looks like you chose a wrong design team, as it appears that they do not have an idea to how to work with a start up. Your version 3 will be a great help to start ups,provided the Design Team understand the Start Up Mind set and is Start Up Friendly and also understands the Pains and Pressured that a start up undergoes till they hit it big.

    Raj

  8. Mukund, congrats on being so persistent in solving this problem. This is a real threat for Indian startups.

    All the three modes – design mentor, design consulting and design workshops – have exactly the same problem as you outlined even in Delhi-NCR. I concluded that there is no short term solution to this problem. In the long-term we need to expand our design capabilities and capacity. The good news is that this is just a training gap and many of the techies can be trained to be newbie designers in a couple of months.

    My personal project (non-starter so far!) was to build a community around http://www.hackdesign.org. This is an online course that claims to make someone ready for being a designer in a few months.

    1. I think to solve the “Design” problem – the founders & entrepreneurs need to understand what problem they are dealing with. An understanding of “fundamental design 101” is a pre-requisite to even participate in a debate like this.

      Most times we have no clue what do we really need, just few wants & desires mainly based on visual design & not on usability ( the core of design – how people use it & not how it looks !! ).

      Its imperative to understand basics of design for entrepreneurs like any other craft like financial modeling, frameworks, prod strategy, channels etc
      Once you understand you can better judge what people / talent pool / competencies you need.

      I completely agree with Arpit – me being a first time entrepreneur myself – make sure to educate myself at http://www.hackdesign.org ( for design ), http://www.codecademy.com/ ( bit of code ) to understand underlying issues.

      Most of times its the ignorance that leads us to lot of noise and not focusing on the basics needs in a startup ecosystem.

    2. I think to solve the “Design” problem – the founders & entrepreneurs need to understand what problem they are dealing with in the first place. An understanding of “fundamental design 101” is a pre-requisite to even participate in a debate like this.

      Most times we have no clue what do we really need, just few wants & desires mainly based on visual design & not on usability ( the core of design – how people use it & not how it looks !! ).

      Its imperative to understand basics of design for entrepreneurs like any other craft like financial modeling, frameworks, prod strategy, channels etc
      Once you understand you can better judge what people / talent pool / competencies you need.

      I completely agree with Arpit – me being a first time entrepreneur myself – make sure to educate myself at http://www.hackdesign.org ( for design ), http://www.codecademy.com/ ( bit of code ) to understand underlying issues.

      Most of times its the ignorance that leads us to lot of noise and not focusing on the basics needs in a startup ecosystem.

  9. This is a good information. We created a product and won great customer base because we had a very good design.

    We also got successfully acquired recently because of the time spent to understand the customer demands and brought that into product through a simplified usable software and structured design.

    more on us is here :

    Volodyne Technologies is a software company with an intense focus on the Clinical Research Industry. We are based out of Bangalore, India. Our founders are engineers from premier engineering institutions in India. We bring deep industry expertise having previously worked with a leading business applications company, and a leading IT Services multi-national. Volodyne Technologies software assets are being acquired by a Clinical Site Solution company recently.

    We created a Cloud based site CTMS software for clinical research sites.

  10. Hi Mukund,
    At our startup we do all the design In House, I’m the Co-Founder and one of my important tasks is design. As a startup we are almost on a day to day basis changing different parts of the product and that includes a lot of User experience changes, including viral flows and how the user actually uses the product.

    Having an Agency wont make the cut because you wont have the agency to work along with the founder/team. And its an expensive proposition.

    Having a freelancer is the same as an agency except cheaper.

    In my opinion companies should invest heavily in designers because your customer is interacting with your product (UI/UX) and not your code.

    One suggestion might be to head over to design schools and hire a few interns? The other suggestion is to get on board a co-founder who’s design oriented.

    Because the truth is if your UI is bad people automatically think you are unprofessional and they walk away from it the minute they land on your site. Translates into all your marketing efforts going for a waste.

    Invest in designers it’s what separates Great products from mediocre ones

  11. Mukund,

    This is an interesting and contentious topic. As someone who is bootstrapping a product and also as someone who is ploughing the same domain from my consulting/service offerings, I have quite a schizophrenic perspective of the problem.

    Firstly, the problem itself. I think you are framing the question in too narrow a frame and constraining it mostly to visual design. Visual design is only one part of overall design, which includes product and process design too. Some of these are visible (visual and product), while others (process) is not that visible, but impacts your experience of the product.

    Secondly, why does this problem exist here?

    a) Value Prop: The market demands best bang for the buck at the bottom INR in an immediate time frame. Value accrued from good design takes time and is almost universally seen as a cost center. There are ERP/PLM/CRP software products in the market that bill at $60-$60 per seat on a monthly basis. They may look ugly, but bring in the money. There is zero incentive for companies to improve this state of affairs as it will cost more money to do that, without any immediately perceptible upside.

    b) This permeates a culture where design, of any kind, is an afterthought. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest things force fit even in a product that has just cleared the MVP stage. 99% of the times, if it is not in place on day one, it will never be in place as part of the core process.

    c) Process design is driven by previous experience. Most people have never experienced this even after 10-15 years of working in big established companies where the culture is aligned more towards shipping to meet targets than anything else. Poor experience drives poor processes.

    Thirdly, how to solve it?

    As you have already seen, there is no easy way out. And a large part of the problem we are trying to solve is not a lack of design talent, but aligning the use of that talent to value (by either longer term savings or improved sales) that is perceptible.

    The first step towards that is to log and instrument the crap out of everything. Strangely, this is more an engineering problem and less a design problem. Yet, it is hard to find geeks who will measure. If you don’t measure, you can’t back-up any assertion. If you know that process is attempting writes to a log file that does not exist, which causes a 0.5 ms delay for each request, which adds up to lost time and added processing costs, you can push for a better process that ensures something like that will be prevented.

    Secondly, instead of airdropping designers into teams at a later stage, drive teams to design experiences. Buying an item from a store is an experience that starts with discovery, goes through validation, hits the transaction stage and culminates in delivery. Even a failed checkout is an experience that needs to be designed properly.

  12. To a large extent hiring a designer at an early stage entirely depends on the product ( considering only web products). For a product like AirBnB or Pinterest where in their highlighted value proposition is their design and simplicity, of course the MVP ( Minimum Viable Product) should be as sleek and aesthetically pleasing as their final product should be. That’s what validation is for them.

    However for a product that is trying to validate a particular solution to an existing problem, its more about getting the user to validate the solution per say. For eg: like you said during the initial stages of the product it might be as simple as creating a landing page and validating if the users subscribe to your idea and then if that is so build a prototype and understand usage and get feedback. One can easily manage at this stage without an in-house designer. The idea is all about putting in minimum resource ( money being one) to get to this stage. One needs to be frugal at this stage but not so much so that you end up with a horrible prototype. A really good designer would be worth 30k-40k/ week. Spend on it and plan on your requirement upfront to minimize the outlay.

    The third stage, where in one has validated the idea and is looking to grow and optimize is where I feel an in-house designer is absolutely necessary, There would be plenty of interaction challenges, variations and template changes that would be required to optimize conversions and engagements and one would need to ship these changes pretty fast to test each of the variations. A small optimization would go a long way in improving your revenue or engagement. A better option than spending more money on driving traffic on to your website. A good designer does not come for free and the entrepreneurs should understand this. Like you said, if a product has reached this stage it’s very likely that they have some sort of funding as well, so they can very well afford to have a design team.

    My 2c.

  13. Completely agree with you Mukund, In India and specifically in Tier II cities like Ahmedabad it’s tough to find a quality UX/UI designer.

    While developing our product Spoonzo (www.Spoonzo.com) we have approached 40+ designers across India and tried few of them before finding the right guy for the job…. and this exercise take hell lot of time so until the organization consider design as critical part in product design and commit themselves to deliver world class design we will come acorss such inputs from market.

  14. I think the base of the problem is that the founders do not appreciate the importance of good design. Once they do, practically any of these solutions could have worked.
    It could be made some kind of mandatory requirement to get a design analysis/approval done by an in-house expert for some part of funding, and to clear the analysis would need some design thinking and effort. This will force them, which other than failing and learning, is probably the only way people learn in India.

  15. Disagree with your post!

    First point:
    This is an era of Full Stack Hackers. Generalists, is what we call.
    And so, you should never hire just a designer, he should well know to hack backend code, Iterate and push changes! This completes Project life-cycle and everyone is Hacking on code.

    Second Point:
    If you are expecting super Great Design, then bring great minds as co-founders; Give them total autonomy and total control to Hack & iterate faster.

    Third Point:
    Please stop hiring them and paying them peanuts.
    The main reason is that in India, Indian developers with good Design skillsets get paid like peanuts for their work. This is another bigger reason!

    If you want quality and experience you need to pay more, expect Rates(180+$/hour). And this is exactly the same reason we never work with Indian entrepreneurs, you get under-paid and under-valued + Frequent changes – Pivoting.

    Quality and Experience always comes with a price.
    The price is money and/or Autonomy.

  16. Every founder wants to build a beautifully designed product. When s/he ships out the product, s/he does the best that s/he can (considering the money, time, effort constraints). It is only customer feedback that gets you to understand whether your design is good or bad?

    If you want to solve the problem of design, I’d suggest you start looking for early adopters for your resident startups. Get them feedback! Qualified feedback.

    I redesigned my own website thrice and my bounce rates were still upwards of 40% and then I got in a designer to help us and we got it down to single digits. But for us to measure bounce rates, we had to get sufficient number of qualified visitors first.

    In our product, We designed our funnels vertically but when the 15th customer told me he’d prefer a horizontal view, we changed it. But that meant I had to get 15 demos lined up. No infact I had to get 150 demos lined up because the first 135 demos, the customers only discussed functionality (does it do this? ) and didn’t quite reach the design.

    Measure the sign-up to activation metrics. No founder wants to be on the other side of a customer call where the customer says he is not going to use your product, because its not slick or intuitive or user friendly.

  17. Very rightly put… Design is *the* Achilles heel for all products, and more so for startups… The real problem lies in the founders not seeing it as a life changing thing. Most people look at it just as a component.

    Whereas in reality, it is the only real component that matters. If you have 10 solid features, which makes perfect sense in theory, but can’t put them out in an understandable and likable format, you will essentially have 10+ adhoc items.

    Design is what stitches a product. And design too, is considered by most just as Visual Design (from graphics to html/css). Its not just that. UX is the primary component of design in the early stages.

    You have to, have to have to get it both right for your product to sit in the hearts of your consumer… Only then will they be the early adopters/product evangelists that you want them to be…

    We at @getechoed, have been through the same problem and know there is no easy solution to that, primarily because of lack of funds… We work around it, by reading a lot (I mean a lot) and trying to do the best ourselves. (And still the output is not what we expect it to be).

    The real solution lies in educating startups on the power of design in making or breaking a startup.

    The way Slideshare started as a niche product, they spent a good amount of time (read years) in educating the community for the need of good powerpoint designs. They had innovative ways of making their point. They held design competitions and rewarded the best made PPTs. That was important for them, since their product needed to have good PPTs, not just any PPTs. And look at 80% of the decks on SS today. They are all eye-candys… The change didn’t just happen overnight. Since I worked there for more than a year, I am aware of the challenges they had.

    So, my best bet would be to consider the next 2 years, the building blocks to a strong ecosystem of design entities. Education being at the tip of the cavalry.
    Once people realize the value of design, they will begin to allocate funds for it upfront, and not just hire interim solutions… Totally agree with @jackerhack’s comment here.

    The idea needs to be engrained in the minds of all aspiring startup enthusiasts, and then and only then, will the design (UI, UX) aspect rise to world standards.

  18. Finding a good UI designer is not that difficult a job. The more important thing for the entrepreneur is to understand the importance of design. If he is convinced, as an entrepreneur he will find a way to get it done.

    For developing our Newsapp application, We used Behance and Dribble to get our UI designed and even though being a really early stage startup, we spent a good amount of money on UI design ( quite a bit more than what you have mentioned here). Have a look at it here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.plash.main

    The major problem here is coordinating with them ( especially if you have minor changes to be made) and ensuring that they stick to the timeline.

    Also, it is important for the startup team to do their research on design and what they want before the get to a designer. If you just go with an Idea, I want an awesome UI a) you will take a lot more time b) it surely wont be great ( most of the designer wont work on more than 3 different ideas for a product; the number of iterations are also limited sometimes)

  19. I was recently chatting with a friend who is applying to universities in the USA to pursue her MS. She is awe-inspired by the detailed processes of applying to each university and that too after the already detailed process of having taken the GRE and the TOEFL. She is amazed by how meaningful and focused the process is towards the universities knowing the purpose of the student, amongst other things, and in the process also make the student move closer to clarity towards his/her purpose of pursuing that course.

    This is the exposure to detailed design students get there, right in the beginning. I am not saying that we replicate this. Why I mentioned the above was to indicate that design(not just visual) is not embedded in our culture, in our approach. We are not trained to think about purposeful design. So, we are already a few steps behind before we start.

    It is about the intention of some of us who want our nation to primarily churn more successful startups to create an entrepreneur and innovation powered economy.
    To be very critical of our concern here, a bunch of us here love design & are inspired by it.
    What we think:
    We want successful startups. And we can add the design aspect to a product by adding resources, training, etc to the equation.
    How is it really?
    Some of the potential successful startups face lack of design of strategy or the lack of design of the product itself as a barrier to scale up. They are facing this barrier because this design was not part of their purpose or the initial thought process OR because they didn’t learn while they proceeded.

    So, like Kingsley and Vivek highlighted, it is more to do with the purpose and approach of people. One thing I can certainly opine about is that the solution to the culture problem doesn’t lie under the umbrella of things you are out to do. One of the things you can possibly do is identify criterion in your selection process that examine the presence of not just a purposeful idea but a purposeful idea with a purposeful(even if broken) design in the vision of the entrepreneurs.

    1. Like the saying goes: Even God helps those who want to help themselves. You being there to support startups, while you can always evangelise the importance of design, you cannot use your valuable resources to make in-house startups realise the importance of design. You are probably better off vetting in those who have a sense of what they are doing and carry the importance for design that you are looking for.

    2. Very well put. We don’t care for design as a society. Look around and we see 100’s of instances of poor design impacting our lives. But we don’t care nor do we notice. Saying that I am sure things are changing, and this post where we are discussing the value of good design while developing a product, shows that we are starting to recognize the value of design.

  20. I don’t think design talent is hard to find or overpriced. It’s just most founders misunderstand design (make it look pretty!). I’ve been through it myself. Mechanical engineer designing surgical instruments, getting vague feedback (“but it doesn’t feel right”) from surgeons, learning usability on my own. I’m not a designer, but I have a better appreciation for how design influences my product now. I think most founders run into the same wall, but I’m not sure how many identify the problem. We recently ran a couple of lean startup sessions at 91s and it was eye opening how people were blow away when we showed them a couple of A/B testing examples of subtly different designs. It simply wasn’t in their conscious sphere of though.

    So um, start handing out free copies of The Design of Everyday Things?

  21. For any startup/business to succeed , it really needs 20% of money(revenue) to put on branding than just bootstrapping on the business . According to me , all these tech entrepreneurs who venture into a startup, should be taught about the essentials of branding and not just the service/product’s coding . So, the way to handle / address it to is to is eventually by connecting to fellow startup ad-agencies who could closely work on with them at a better price and associate with them to build a brand.

  22. mukund, my $0.02: a) there is a very important step before “design” that most people in india ignore – studying your target user, immersing yourself in how s/he currently handles whatever problem you are trying to solve. if you don’t obsess about this, you will end up obsessing about some part about execution based on your assumptions b) ideally, this should be done by a “diverse” team – functional designers, graphic designers, engineers, psychologist – because it’s a complex interplay. diversity in the design team is absolutely essential c) out of this exercise should come a set of design principles, which needs to be an integral, super important part of the spec doc that the program manager prepares, and these design principles should be the beacon/touchstone/filter through which every choice is made. i feel that this process is worth the investment and simply hiring a designer in house will not help, especially because many designers are uni-dimensional in their skill and mindset.

  23. Extremely, well written article. Mukund – classic example – Compare the MicrosoftVentures.com site with your Indian counterparts. None of the Indian sites will closely match with the new MSVentures site. Even the Accelerators cant find good designers. 😀

    I had Cofounders in my previous startup who counter argued my importance of designs by showing some stats of top performing sites such as Alibaba and CraigsList. Those are the kind of people you still have in the country and may be they are right. I dont want to get there.

    How to improve this whole process. To be honest, I dont think you will find designers in India for startups. First of all, in India, I dont think we are used seeing good colours naturally. The green that you see here is completely different from what you see in Scotland. The kind of monitors that we use also restrict us from understanding the difference in colors.
    And with the kind of money startups operate with, I dont think it is possible for us to hire a designer who has travelled outside India and uses the iproducts. If he has both the qualities then you will have to sponsor his next itrip.
    Also adapting new design trends is something we are still lacking. There is something called a Flat Design revolution happening. I dont see any websites in this types yet in India.

    The Solution – Stop looking for designers in India. Get them from Poland, Turkey, Portugal…etc. Just skim through, the designer profiles in Behance and Dribble, you will know what I mean.

    For a new product that I am working on I skimmed through Behancce and found some great designers in Poland and Turkey. I also found one in India. I sent them my requirement document with the product wireframes. They have all quoted me below 600$, where as the Indian designer quoted me 1400$. And I also feel in India we dont have the concept of UI and UX mature enough. Atleast I dont see experts in UI and UX. We will have to wait till it gets matured then every street in India will have a kickass designer sitting jobless.

    And guys please dont think I am against India. – I love my Country and I am proud about it:)

  24. Extremely, well written article. Mukund – classic example – Compare the MicrosoftVentures.com site with your Indian counterparts. None of the Indian sites will closely match with the new MSVentures site. Even the Accelerators cant find good designers. 😀

    I had Cofounders in my previous startup who counter argued my importance of designs by showing some stats of top performing sites such as Alibaba and CraigsList. Those are the kind of people you still have in the country and may be they are right. I dont want to get there.

    How to improve this whole process. To be honest, I dont think you will find designers in India for startups. First of all, in India, I dont think we are used seeing good colours naturally. The green that you see here is completely different from what you see in Scotland. The kind of monitors that we use also restrict us from understanding the difference in colors.
    And with the kind of money startups operate with, I dont think it is possible for us to hire a designer who has travelled outside India and uses the iproducts. If he has both the qualities then you will have to sponsor his next itrip.
    Also adapting new design trends is something we are still lacking. There is something called a Flat Design revolution happening. I dont see any websites in this types yet in India.

    The Solution – Stop looking for designers in India. Get them from Poland, Turkey, Portugal…etc. Just skim through, the designer profiles in Behance and Dribble, you will know what I mean.

    For a new product that I am working on I skimmed through Behancce and found some great designers in Poland and Turkey. I also found one in India. I sent them my requirement document with the product wireframes. They have all quoted me below 600$, where as the Indian designer quoted me 1400$. And I also feel in India we dont have the concept of UI and UX mature enough. Atleast I dont see experts in UI and UX. We will have to wait till it gets matured then every street in India will have a kickass designer sitting jobless.

    And guys please dont think I am against India. – I love my Country and I am proud about it:)

  25. Hi. While I read the whole article, its tough to go through all the comments. Here is our experience.

    We started over a year and half ago and have done it the following way.
    * Focused on functionality and usability of the web application we were designing on our own based on our understanding of what is valuable and how it is used.
    * External website, colors etc were not of importance then.. Just our our neutral color choices
    * Got users very early on and they started giving us inputs on what is required etc.
    * Design has evolved over time. 3 Major UI changes (including how the menu is placed etc) and many minor changes (web application part)
    * Also evolved external website a little now and then

    So, UX was focus until now.

    Now, when we have a fair user base and hope to go for scale, we are taking up a major overhaul of our Logo, External Website and also Web Application by hiring professional designers. It does cost but now, we are sure it makes sense and is essential to get the “Cool looks”. We dont think hiring a full time person makes sense since we get a team when we subcontract but only 1 mind when we hire.

    Hope that helps.

  26. If one of the founders is not design professional, it is almost impossible to get the design right on their own. They might be very right on idea, problem & its solution. But translating that to workable product need design professional help.
    I rolled out my enterprise product to 3 of my beta paying customers built by only engineers. Then I realized serious flaws in the design & UX. All the functionalities exist, but its too hard on users. I then stopped selling & used a company which specializes in UX design for product companies. They are doing a fabulous job. There was no way we could have made it ourselves. The whole approach of ‘Information Architecture-UI framework-Wireframes-Visula Design-Usability Testing” requires professional help. The money I am spending on them is not very when compared to spends on Engineering, Sales & Marketing.
    I am sure the company I am working with can provide workable solution for Indian start ups.

  27. Interesting topic. Design, when viewed as a customer’s defining experience can change a start-up’s viewpoint.

    When we did our start-up a couple of years back, we started with the customer experience. In our case, that meant how kids would interact with our product i.e. children’s apps. Specifically, interactive story books. That meant shoving our “we know best” ego out of the way and instead observing how kids use touch tablets. For hours. And days. And when we developed the first interaction experiences, we always, always tested it with kids and observed keenly on what appealed to them and what did not. And we trashed what did not appeal. We checked every aspect of the app umpteen times with kids.

    Also, since we were good at the tech and project management aspects, we reverse outsourced the other crucial aspects – we hired an upcoming painter in Ukraine to do the story art, we hired a narrator in the US to do the voice-overs, we took the best of free music and sound effects from the west. We did all this because the target market was the west!

    The result was a best-selling (paid) app in the US, Canada and even the Netherlands (where we hired a Dutch couple to narrate for us). The app was critically acclaimed in the US media as well. The trailer still exists on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1JMM-I5zwk

    Although we didn’t monetize enough as a company in the apps space, the above experience validated the importance of design, especially starting with good design from day 1.

    When start-ups realize that user experience is not just about the color palettes or the fonts or the website, their viewpoint can change. Also, B2B start-ups tend to think that a good user experience (UX) or design applies more to B2C businesses. I am asked by upcoming start-ups for advice on their pitch decks or their product strategy and I cant bring myself to tell these guys to hire a good designer, even as a freelancer, to optimize the workflows and to jazz up the appeal of their product from “yet another product” to “wow”.

    What start-ups need to understand is that their future monetization will depend upon how usable their product is. How well designed it is, how much their end users will passionately advocate for it.

  28. I believe for any startup the design problem will be solved to some extent by one of the 3 approaches you have talked about. None of the approaches will provide a 100% and precise solution and none of them will provide an outright wrong output too.

    As long as end users do not get very demanding about the experience, we really will not solve the problem. We are jugaad people, as long as it does the job cheap and fast – we don’t really care about the experience. That translates into the products we create as well

  29. Mukund, you started off a 3rd world war with the word “design”.
    *** Apologies for a preachy first half ***
    People interpret design in one of the three ways.
    1. Color scheme/ template / logo / CSS
    2. User interface/Visual Design
    3. User Interaction/Usability

    To me, the first is a hygiene issue. Just don’t overdo it. The second is more important – but there are standard patterns; so comply with best practices there (unless your value prop depends on your experience being remarkable). The third in my opinion is the highest order of value – and perhaps most difficult. Without understanding persona/users, their motivations, cultural context and host of other things, it is very hard to nail that right. Not everyone needs to emphasize on design from the get go (critical for self service and not so critical for full service offerings).

    Also, for pure cloud offerings usability/interaction is the way your users figure you out, so design choices create a lot of skew in engagement and adoption. So, design becomes critical part of the product and we need to calibrate and validate design choices too. But our current approach is non-scientific. We look at design from aesthetics point of view – not from product point of view.

    I am going to stop here with the preachy part to say that I surmise 2 reasons for the challenges you faced. Given my limited knowledge of what else was tried at MS Accelerator, I may be wrong about them, so ignore them if they are irrelevant.

    1) Design didn’t become part of SDLC. If design is treated as a “feature”, deserving its own user stories, it will get tested, measured, validated and improved. It will automatically get respect. So, the first suggestion is to make folks write user stories around design.

    2) Sometimes spoon feeding creates an environment of entitlement. At the same time, as a stakeholder in the startup’s success, you don’t want to make it too difficult. So strike a balance – establish role models for best design; and penalize or create deterrents for poor designs. There are various mechanisms to do this – not going to bore you with it.

  30. Mukund,
    People interpret “design” in one of the three ways.
    1. Color scheme/ template / logo / CSS
    2. User interface/Visual Design
    3. User Interaction/Usability

    To me, the first is a hygiene issue. Just don’t overdo it. The second is more important – but there are standard patterns; so comply with best practices there (unless your value prop depends on your experience being remarkable). The third in my opinion is the highest order of value – and perhaps most difficult. Without understanding persona/users, their motivations, cultural context and host of other things, it is very hard to nail that right. Not everyone needs to emphasize on design from the get go (critical for self service and not so critical for full service offerings).

    Also, for pure cloud offerings usability/interaction is the way your users figure you out, so design choices create a lot of skew in engagement and adoption. So, design becomes critical part of the product and we need to calibrate design choices too. But our current approach is non-scientific. We look at design from aesthetics point of view – not from product point of view.

    I surmise 2 reasons for the challenges you faced. Given my limited knowledge of what else was tried at MS Accelerator, I may be wrong about them, so ignore them if they are irrelevant.

    1) Design didn’t become part of SDLC. If design is treated as a “feature”, deserving its own user stories, it will get tested, validated and improved. It will automatically get respect. So, the first suggestion is to make folks write user stories around their design.

    2) Sometimes spoon feeding creates an environment of entitlement. At the same time, as a stakeholder in the startup’s success, you don’t want to make it too difficult. So strike a balance – establish role models for best design; and penalize or create deterrents for poor designs. There are various mechanisms to do this – not going to bore you with it here.

  31. I’ll take a stab at turning this around and say that it’s equally upon the designer to understand how a startup actually works. Designers have somehow created these intrinsic expectations of entitlement and prefer working in silos than in collaborative environments. In other words, designers themselves are, to a large extent, responsible for this situation. And since most of the country is still design-illiterate, money becomes the only social and economical stimulus for a designer to function and that’s where it starts hurting the ecosystem.

    Now turning back to the non-design-enabled entrepreneur/startup, it’s extremely important to understand the importance of design from day 1. It’s also equally important to understand (AND acknowledge) that designers are as skilled in understanding users as the entrepreneur is in understanding customers. It also needs to be acknowledged that understanding the product and the business model is as important for the designer as executing the design is to the entrepreneur.

    TL;DR –

    It’s about fit! Entrepreneurs, please focus on how beautifully a designer can give shape to your product rather than focussing on a beautiful product. Designers, please understand that it’s not a one-shot-one-kill world out there and focus on getting your processes right!

  32. I agree. The problem qith start up is not just design but in other areas like marketing also. New start ups are coming up mainly by techies. They know technology very wel but dont understand in WHAT FORM users are expecting it. They dont understand their target audience and expectations. Main focus is on what my app is giving and not not on what people want. You can not expect users to use your app as it is. You need to attract people touse it.

  33. Hi Mukund,

    At http://thinkplaces.com/ , we continuously A/B test our designs and make changes every other day and test our conversion rates, this is crucial for a startup and its really hard to do it when you don’t have a full time designer on your team.

    I would really focus on helping startups finding a full time designer who is passionate about the product and helping them budget for the new hire.

    Thank you,
    Krishna

  34. Well articulated, Mukund. I’m a bit biased when I say that the problem isn’t just about not having dedicated design resources but one where design isn’t a part of the product in the first place. Just to be clear, I’ve met a lot of Indian startup founders who believe design rests in how something looks. The idea in itself is wrong. Design is but how something WORKS.

    I believe the problem can be tacked with great PRODUCT MANAGERS who can plan the product out and make prognostications about the future of the development of the product and hence, the business. I can code (pretty well) and design. But, as a founder, it is often my responsibility to make sure that I get the product right with the right design sensibilities. Once I put on the hat of a product manager, I’m able to see the product through which includes design as a major part of it.

    So, my suggestion would be that you focus on getting good product managers who would oversee the products being built and get design involved into the process. Having a product guy as a part of the process from the start would alleviate most of the problems you’re facing at the moment, in my head.

  35. Hi Mukund

    I too faced problems working at the other end as a UX designer. Which forced me to think of a model which would be good for a startup as well as a designer. I experimented with different models of engaging with a startup. Here are my $ 0.02 on the product stages and whom to hire

    1. Functionality validation by senior UX designers ( > 5 yrs ) – The dirty design phase where you make a quick cheap prototype just to understand the acceptance of the product in the market. You should hire an senior UX designer who has experience of working on various products. He will be able to tell you the quickest way to validate your product because he has seen so many himself/herself. He is the best person for designing to product architecture and making it scalable and future proof. He ll also be able to tell you about different ways you can present your product to the user.

    2. Usability validation mid level UX designers ( 2 – 5 yrs ) – Once you know the product is validated you can hire a mid level designer to do this job. They have developed a decent understanding of what is usable. The senior UX guy wants has moved into product strategy and may not be too interested in ‘generating wireframe options’

    3. Aesthetic design by Junior designers ( 0 – 2 yrs) – The last phase should ideally be handed over to junior designers as they have fresh ideas. They want to make ‘awesome looking’ products. Hand over the wireframes to them and they should be happy to churn out visually stunning ideas. If you hand over the first 2 phases to junior designers there is a good chance that they ll make awesome looking unusable stuff. ( I have been through this phase and now laugh at what I created). Some designers are trained in Interaction design for digital products and may be able to handle phase 2, but these designers are rare ( read – not enough schools training them )

    Its just about choosing the right designer for the right phase.

    This is based on what has worked for me over the years of consulting companies like ixigo.com, BhartiSoftbank etc and observing how my interests have changed over the years. I am currently in between phase 1 and 2.

    Best

    Shaurya

  36. Hi Mukund

    I too faced problems working at the other end as a UX designer. Which forced me to think of a model which would be good for a startup as well as a designer. I experimented with different models of engaging with a startup. Here are my $ 0.02 on the product stages and whom to hire

    1. Functionality validation by senior UX designers ( > 5 yrs ) – The dirty design phase where you make a quick cheap prototype just to understand the acceptance of the product in the market. You should hire an senior UX designer who has experience of working on various products. He will be able to tell you the quickest way to validate your product because he has seen so many himself/herself. He is the best person for designing to product architecture and making it scalable and future proof. He ll also be able to tell you about different ways you can present your product to the user.

    2. Usability validation mid level UX designers ( 2 – 5 yrs ) – Once you know the product is validated you can hire a mid level designer to do this job. They have developed a decent understanding of what is usable. The senior UX guy wants has moved into product strategy and may not be too interested in ‘generating wireframe options’

    3. Aesthetic design by Junior UX designers ( 0 – 2 yrs) – The last phase should ideally be handed over to junior designers as they have fresh ideas. They want to make ‘awesome looking’ products. Hand over the wireframes to them and they should be happy to churn out visually stunning ideas. If you hand over the first 2 phases to junior designers there is a good chance that they ll make awesome looking unusable stuff. ( I have been through this phase and now laugh at what I created). Some junior designers may be able to handle phase 2 because they are trained in interaction design for digital products but such designers are rare ( read – not enough schools for the field )

    Its just about choosing the right designer for the right phase.

    This is based on what has worked for me over the years of consulting companies like ixigo.com, BhartiSoftbank etc and observing how my interests have changed over the years. I am currently in between phase 1 and 2.

    Best

    Shaurya

  37. I think, the teams don’t realize the value of design in economic terms, the only way they will take design seriously is if one can connect the products success with usability, desirability and eventually market success. I guess, everybody already knows these.

  38. Let me put in a few words here to look at the same problem space from a different perspective, and that is the Design Education space, as I am involved in that currently at Design schools and also Product Management Institutes. I believe that one of the solutions to the problems outlined in your post could be addressed by getting startup to be more engaged with the Design Education space and also get the Product Managers to get introduced (and sensitised) to Design. For the numbers, I think there are less than 5 programs in India that actually give you any sort of degree in UX, HCI, UI . There are many colleges and universities that give you a course / certification in UX/UI, but in my opinion they barely manage to introduce you to the field and not make you an expert.

    Historically India has had a lot of Design Graduates, but very few UX/UI graduates. Over the years, many people saw the lucrative domain of the UX/UI and hence shifted from product design / graphic design etc to become UX/UI Designers. A lot even migrated from web design to UX. What this has resulted in is many students who study Product / Communication Design for years, and one course in UX start calling themselves UX Designers. Correcting this problem will take time.

    What has happened is a problem of supply and demand. There is a high demand for good UX Designers, and the supply is very less. In the ideal world, you would want your UX guy to understand Design (the T shaped professional with expertise in IxD, and knowledge of Visual Design etc), understand Business and also be able to engage with the Technology team.

    On the solutions part there are two way approach to this:
    The Design education for the present day itself has to change. Design schools need to encourage Entrepreneurship and as well as facilitate interactions with the startup ecosystem. With the number of jobs and work far outnumbering the number of quality designers out there, getting a job in design, even if you are little awesome is easy. Hiring designers for startups with less pay is difficult, as the designer gets recruited by the larger firms at a higher pay. So the startup is forced to make a choice between the not-so-awesome designers who then again demand a high pay, because their counterparts in the companies are getting high pay. Many design graduates do not actually understand the mode of operating of a startup, and what impact Design can make at the company level is also not familiar. Today Design education needs to give equal importance to understanding businesses as well and some aspects of Technology.

    The second thing is that, companies ought to get involved with Design schools more. [Different story that there are very few design schools here]. Get the design graduates onboard your awesome ideas at an early stage. You need to open up to allow discussions with Design schools. Float Case competitions (as they say in B schools) for Design schools. You do not need to spend too much for it too! These would train designers to be hackers right from their college days. At the school that I head, we follow a studio culture, where the whole program is based on projects, and often these projects are floated by the industry. Once the design schools start knowing that there are these companies who value design, the chances of them joining your startup are higher. More Design schools outside India are engaged with the industry. Lack of visibility from the startups often result in the students believing that the Design job is only at the larger companies. What this results in is the graduates taking up a full time job, and then freelance with the startups in parallel. The outcomes of this are highlighted by you in the post.

    On the other hand is the case of Product Managers engaging with designers. At the Product Leadership institute that I teach, I strive to sensitise the enrolled students on the values of UX/UI/Usability. That’s really the best you can do. Expecting them to do UX Design is unreasonable. So, here it is that very basic acceptance of the approach to thinking from a User perspective and breaking the myth that Visual Design is UX. Visual Design is in my opinion the Last In First Out. A pledge every product manager or startup founder should take : I will get Design person onboard at an early stage of the Product Development Life cycle. Many designers are now open to exploring the option of equity as well, so that could be an option to explore. UX is building from Bottom up. Visual Design is Top down.

    Recruiting Design Graduates / Designers
    For startups wanting to get good designers (is there any who does not want one?), one needs to ensure whether the designer has a entrepreneurship acumen or not, as only if they do, they would understand the core value add your product / service is providing. This can often be evaluated through various kinds of assignments, and the level of engagement and solution that the designer has thought about. Often the companies wants User Experience Designers, but what they actually mean is Visual Design. So that clarity needs to come from the companies too. If you need someone who can code, seek out for a UX Developer. Matching expectations itself could lead to solutions.

  39. Although I’m not an Indian Entrepreneur, I do feel qualified to offer some advice, due to the startup experience I’ve had, as well as managing UX teams.
    My professional training in interactive design and my career experience has led me to embrace a more holistic, Lean UX approach. The bottom line is – Usability and Design aren’t optional features. They need to be baked into the solution, and that step needs to be governed by your management team and process. Moreover, UX needs to be embraced along with Business Analysis, and driven by methodology that holistically guides the process and teams.

    I would advocate that all startups be run with a mandatory process driven by Lean UX methodology, tailored to their individual needs. This means that the team becomes holistically collaborative in each phase – Designers included. This also means that you routinely provide “proof of concept” testing in usability as well as technology. If not, you are going to pour all your investment into a huge gamble – a gamble that you don’t need to take.

    Regarding quality assurance, I would strongly recommend applying the right amount of H.E.A.T.(referring to a Convergiaplanet proprietary tool: Holistic Experience Analysis and Transition) to all the startup eggs being hatched in your incubator. If you don’t have the right methodology in place to assure quality outcomes, you’re going to gamble on half-baked solutions, many of whom run the risk of becoming the visual equivalent of premature chicks. Keep in mind that Big Data without UX, is also doomed to falter and fumble for reasons well documented in an HBR article penned earlier this year.

    Recommendations to resolve your challenges:
    1. Implement a holistic (UX/UI/BA) governance model that becomes as necessary and business critical as the Financials section of a business plan.
    2. Use Sr. UX and IT Business Analysts (or hybrids) to help forge the road ahead.
    3. Implement new standards that your startups need to follow, acknowledging and implementing the mandatory steps to follow.
    4. Provide adequate reports and documentation to demonstrate the value-added dimensions and ROI of this approach.
    5. Put comprehensive metrics in place to help measure your outcomes.

    Why use mandatory usability and design? At the end of the day, half-baked is still half-baked.

    Some history For well over a decade now I have worked in corporate America, largely doing Sr. UX Architecture and UI Design contracts, coupled with hybrid Business Analyst skills. My professional training in interactive design includes studying under Piotr Szyhalski, http://mcad.edu/faculty/piotr-szyhalski.

  40. Very valid problem Mukund, your post highlights it really well. No direct solution, but some observations –

    1. Assuming one of the founders is the chief product manager, he/she should be at the least very strong in interaction design and have a view on what good visual design is.The founder need not know how to do either but needs to understand these aspects very well. Else working with even the best of designers is not going to drive an output that matches business interest. I have interviewed tons of product folks too here and this skill-set seems to be lacking, either because there are very few B2C PMs who have worked on classy websites or have a flair for working with great designers. This skill-set needs to be driven hard in the founders – thankfully it is learnable but with a lot of effort and some time.

    2. Good designers are rare. We have also faced a massive issue when looking out for urbanladder.com. There are few small networks (Yahoo, Adobe) or the ones who hate being part of a corporate set-up are doing freelance stuff – either they are tied up with too many projects or they work out really expensive even for funded companies. (leaving aside the rare good ones in Indian start-ups like Cleartrip, Zomato)

    3. At the end of the day, good design = brand + content / messaging + customer story-boarding + interaction design + visual design of website + physical product design where you are selling goods + information design + marketing collateral design (and much more). It is probably very difficult to anyway get all these skills in 1 single person. Even within the design community, it is very rare that you get 1 person who is strong in both visual and interaction design, leave alone the other aspects. So working with a strong freelance design firm for the initial version of the product is well worth it. It is left to the founders and the team to excite the design team to work with them over a longer period of time. The last option you tried was probably the best – you have to do the necessary prep work on your founders to make sure the design team is super occupied. Good teams always love such a challenge than having only 25% of your time occupied.

  41. Very valid problem Mukund, your post highlights it really well. No direct solution, but some observations –

    1. Assuming one of the founders is the chief product manager, he/she should be at the least very strong in interaction design and have a view on what good visual design is.The founder need not know how to do either but needs to understand these aspects very well. Else working with even the best of designers is not going to drive an output that matches business interest. I have interviewed tons of product folks too here and this skill-set seems to be lacking, either because there are very few B2C PMs who have worked on classy websites or have a flair for working with great designers. This skill-set needs to be driven hard in the founders – thankfully it is learnable but with a lot of effort and some time.

    2. Good designers are rare. We have also faced a massive issue when looking out for urbanladder.com. There are few small networks (Yahoo, Adobe) or the ones who hate being part of a corporate set-up are doing freelance stuff – either they are tied up with too many projects or they work out really expensive even for funded companies. (leaving aside the rare good ones in Indian start-ups like Cleartrip, Zomato)

    3. At the end of the day, good design = brand + content / messaging + customer story-boarding + interaction design + visual design of website + physical product design where you are selling goods + information design + marketing collateral design (and much more). It is probably very difficult to anyway get all these skills in 1 single person. Even within the design community, it is very rare that you get 1 person who is strong in both visual and interaction design, leave alone the other aspects. So working with a strong freelance design firm for the initial version of the product is well worth it. It is left to the founders and the team to excite the design team to work with them over a longer period of time. The last option you tried was probably the best – you have to do the necessary prep work on your founders to make sure the design team is super occupied. Good teams always love such a challenge than having only 25% of your time occupied.

  42. This is a very potent analysis of the design world in India. I think we as a virtual country need to mature and give designers and visualisers there share of credit and recognition. Being a writer myself, I can very much relate with most of the stuff what you’ve written Mukund. Long read, but totally worth it.

  43. Being an entrepreneur myself and being gone through this, I would totally agree with you Mukund. This is a serious problems in Indian Startups. Understanding the need of a UX/UI is what most entrepreneurs don’t get.

    As an solution architect I encouraged my team to simultaneously work on the both the designs. When I say both, I mean the application architectural design and the UX/UI design. User experience has to be given outright weight-age against any other thing in the product development lifecycle. I made it very clear to my executive team that we won’t be start development until we have a UX/UI design which appeals to be developed.

    Well looking at all the things that you have done, I don’t suppose that there is anything more we could do to make entrepreneurs understand the importance of this.

  44. Sir,

    Must say, its one of the most eyeopening read outs..

    As an entrepreneur, i have always tried to get the best in class design for my product. but here are few problems i am still facing. (i am not a design pro)..

    1> A freelance designer always treat your product like a PROJECT. This means, he will stick to the timeline and will try to complete max work in min time.

    2> A design agency, again raises the similar problem to a Startups, specially to the novices. Its too difficult to co-ordinate with them and get things as per your requirement.

    3> If a founder is clear about the product and feature, but not good at design, this leads to disasters. Firstly, he wont have a clear cut design foresee of the product. Second, if he is inclined towards classy design, there is no good forum to hire or partner good designers. (Behance, proved to be a nothing more than a Freelance Designer Site). Third, Colleges teaching design doesn’t take web designs seriously.( I am from Pune where there are two good institute for Designs.. MITID and Symbiosys Institute of Designs, have actually broke my back)

    My concern is..

    Can any one come up with a Platform (similar to Behance) to provide design interns / designs partners / co-founder for StartUps..

    Why only Students and why for Start Ups…??

    1> Design student have sufficient time to work in a Startup parallel to their studies.
    2> A good student of design has Great Opportunity to get into a StartUp company as Core Team member or a Partner.. (StartUps Need them Badly)
    3> Cash Crunch situations of a Start Up in Ideation or Prototype Stage.. (Actually during all stages till they get some funding or atleast, growing traction.

    Would like some help from all mentors in this forum.. Help us in finding a way to a good In House designer…

  45. Hello Mukund, well put post!
    Totally agreeing to the issue you raised, the only thing which is stopping me to go ahead with my venture is unavailability of a good designer as I believe it is the design of my web application which will differentiate it from several other products in the market and I don’t want to go ahead with in any way an inferior product. I also couldn’t join an accelerator program to avail in-house design services as I am currently studying in an MBA program. So, it would be very generous of you if you can guide me and give me any suggestion you have as to how to go about it. It would be also great if you can provide me some top quality design companies/ individuals operating in India. You can mail me your suggestions at rahul_kd15@iift.ac.in. Thank you and looking forward to your help.

  46. Dear mukund,
    First hats off to your efforts. At my start-up i am burning midnight oil either myself or in search of a good designer and at other hand people are leaving what has been placed in plater.
    After reading your post i feel you are like a mother who want to feed her child as she belives it is must for his health but the kid is in no mood as he gets food before hunger.
    I believe if a founder is not exploiting the facilities provided, it means still he has not felt the need, Though its a sorry state but the only way to change it his self realization and at initial stage till founders wont involve it is impoosible to help them. Be it legal or design or accounts as notihng is streamlines.

    Rahul

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