Startup

Mastering Design Partnerships

Roi Amior
August 15, 2021

In the early days of a startup, there are many questions and very few answers. Who really wants to use your product? How much are they willing to pay for it? Which killer features will make users fall in love with it?

The good news is that you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — answer these questions alone. Design partners are key for helping early stage B2B startups understand their target market.

But it is not so easy to gain the value you expect from these relationships. Your design partners are all very busy and your relationships are based on good will, but in order to derive real benefit you need them to be active. You’ll have to figure out how to keep design partners engaged, make them want to use your product and provide as much feedback as possible.

Here’s how we navigated our design partnerships and gained huge value from them in the early days of our product development.

Set The Correct Goals

Like every relationship in life, expectations are everything. Be clear about what you want to achieve from a design partnership, namely:

1. Lean development

You don’t want to waste time and resources developing features no one needs, so validate your product ideas and plans before investing in them. The Lean Startup methodology is all about running experiments and measuring the results immediately to make quick decisions. Until you have enough data to measure, ask your design partners for answers and then pivot or persevere accordingly. Tip: try to ask concrete questions like: “Do you find this report useful, and for which purpose?” “Is the new design more clear, and if so, why?” “Who will need this dashboard in your organization?”

2. Real world market requirements

No matter how smart and experienced your product managers are, they could never think of every potential customer need. Listen to your design partners carefully, characterize their work routine and discover real life use cases. Features which address their needs will probably be among the most valuable your product will offer.

3. Test and fail gracefully

The nice thing about design partners is that they don’t expect your product to be perfect; they accept bugs, downtime, and technical issues. This gives you important safe ground to learn how your product stands up to real customer environments, huge amounts of data and users who take it to the edge.

Not All Design Partners Are Born Equal

There is no single mold for design partnership. Some partners may sign an agreement, others might pay a basic fee and still others might just provide you with a warm relationship and a willingness to help out.

The classic and most important design partnership is the fully-invested type. This DP (design partner) will find the time to invest in your relationship, implement the product and actually use it, despite its loose ends and limited value. This DP most closely mirrors future usage by real customers, and helps you uncover usability gaps.

However, not every DP will dedicate this much time to using your product. Early adopters like to experiment with new innovative products, and agree to try yours because they believe in your vision. They provide necessary validation on features, plans and use cases, and your challenge is to gently encourage them to use the product more to get more feedback as you move forward.

Some other DPs are people who really love your vision and approach, but don’t lead their organization into a formal/full design partnership. We call them informal advisors. They are happy to talk to you occasionally, and you can expose them to work in progress, brainstorm new ideas and run experiments like usability testing. They will contribute to your knowledge, but won’t be able to share information about their organization or actually use the product.

Although the fully invested DP is your holy grail, and you should find them asap, it doesn’t mean you should neglect or avoid other types of DPs. Each DP type brings value to your startup in a different way and provides a different perspective on your product, and you need as many different points of view as possible. The more users play with the system, the better the feedback you’ll receive.

What Worked For Us?

In order to gain real benefit from a design partnership, be sure to manage it carefully. Yes, this requires time and attention, but the potential value is huge.

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you start:

  • Establish personal relationships — At the end of the day, your partner is a person, not a company, and you should nurture the relationship accordingly. We always saw our DPs as part of the team, so we delivered full transparency and plentiful updates from under the hood. We also tried to introduce them to more people from our great team, to deepen the personal relationship and strengthen the commitment from both sides.
  • Choose wisely — If your product is really interesting and you have the right network, you might get more than a few suggestions for design partnerships. But not every candidate will serve your goals and honestly, you don’t need many (we find three to five as best practice). First, DPs should cover your key personas. If your product is aimed at two or three buyer personas, try to partner with organizations where your points of contact will represent the different personas. Second, they must reflect the first phase of your Go-To-Market strategy, or in other words, be as similar as possible to your first customer wishlist.
  • Ensure consistent communication Just like with your customers or investors, it is important to maintain ongoing communication and show your DPs real progress. Cultivate a trusting relationship by responding to their feedback quickly, so their confidence and willingness to invest their time will increase. To facilitate this openness, we created external Slack channels to make this communication more instant and engaging than emails, meetings or phone calls.
  • Consult as early as possible. Naturally, everyone likes to show off a finished product rather than a work in progress, but with DPs you must do exactly the opposite. The sooner you consult them, the more value you’ll get. We shared prototypes of every page in the system before writing even one line of code, and their insights and influence were crucial. Our design partners shaped our integration roadmap and priorities, and many of our roadmap items are based on use cases we heard about when discussing premature ideas with DPs. This approach helped us to stay very lean, and proved its worth later on when we met potential customers.

To Sum Up — Navigate Wisely

A design partnership is a very personal and sensitive relationship. While we highly appreciate their enormous help, at the same time, we always tried to gently drive them to higher engagement with the product, without pushing too hard. Pretty soon, you might find yourself wondering, “when should I try to convert them into paying customers and how will it affect this special relationship?” The keys to dealing with this complexity, in our opinion, are trust, transparency and the willingness to walk a long road together.

We saw how working with the right partners from the very beginning helped us stay focused on key use cases, define our MVP (minimum viable product) scope, and develop it within two months. We enjoyed an intensive feedback loop that continues to shape our product according to real market needs, and we can see the results when facing the real market. And as evidence of this successful relationship, one of our design partners became our first paying customer.

We believe that our design partners have played a key part in our journey so far and we are grateful for their help in enabling us to get a few steps closer to our desired product-market-fit.

Roi Amior
Passionate about Product, People and Ideas. Appreciate honesty, good wine and open-minded people. Co-Founder and CPO at anecdotes.

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