The Benefits of Design Research for Tech Startups

Created July 28, 2020 The Business Value of Design

Most startups are perceived to be user-centric at their core, perhaps due to the fact that the idea behind the solutions most startups provide, stems from the need of a user, usually the founder or someone close to them. So by their very nature, startups are seemingly positioned to exist having an innate practice of walking in the shoes of their customers and understanding their needs. 

However, if you take a closer look, as startups work towards growth, and are encumbered with the same challenges as many businesses, the practice of pausing to understand their customers or ‘do things that don’t scale’* becomes lost in all the madness. Yet, the very practice of understanding, and empathising with the customers they serve, is critical for growth, competitive advantage and success in the long term. 

Tech startups in today’s digital age are inclined towards innovation, mainly due to their nifty size, influences from the trends in the cultures in which they were birthed, and the advance technology they are using to build their solution. However, a hugely missing part of the innovation equation (and one that many are missing) is the need to truly know the people you’re building for and to leverage all the advantages listed above to serve those needs. The benefit of this is invaluable for tech startups, in the short term and long term also. 


Innovation venn


So what is this practice and how can one jumpstart it within their start-up? Even more, what are these benefits? Hopefully, this article answers all these questions and gives every tech startup out there who hasn’t started leveraging this practice, the nudge to jump right in.


The industry terminology for seeking to understand people, their lifestyles, needs, motivations, behavioural patterns and drivers is termed Design Research. Design Research (not to be confused with Research Design), uses a wide range of methods and activities to uncover the patterns and drivers behind people’s actions and decisions. It is used within the design industry, specifically the areas of User Experience and Interaction Design, to iteratively and creatively discover and explore people a.k.a users with the aim of building rich and satisfying experiences for them.


From a business standpoint, Design research helps businesses improve their bottom line and competitive advantage by allowing them the advantage of discovering their users’ needs, behaviours and attitudes, so as to better build for them. 


As opposed to market research’s goal of deriving data from a larger sample size, Design research aims more in-depth, seeking to understand a smaller sampling of people but more deeply, seeking out factors like how they live and what drives their decisions. Simply put the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind what they do. This act enables startups to better meet their customers where they need it most. 


Success stories to prove the value of design research abound in the tech startup industry. A very well known one being Airbnb, who’s mentor advised the founders to ‘go to where their users were’, prompting the founders to travel from San Francisco to New York to see why sales were stalling. A no doubt tasking door to door visit of their growing New York customer base, led them to make albeit small changes that caused profits to double in a week. Link here

Another is UberEats who adopts design research to understand, not just their users, but the entire ecosystem of their food delivery service. These are a few of the many tech startups examples who used Design research to better serve their users and gain notable success in their industries.

Food delivery chain

With design fast permeating business, tech start ups must consider taking the time to step aside from building, ideating and marketing of their products to study the ways their solution is being experienced by their audiences. Utilising design research to serve the needs of their audiences is an investment that brings in returns in spades.

For startups and teams not knowing where are ways to start, consider the following steps:

1. Decide from the on-set to include the humans who use your product, into your processes. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is famously known to reserve an empty chair for the customer at every meeting. The ’20-year old’ tech start-up has mastered this, with founder Jeff stating, ‘ "Obsessing over customer experience is the only long-term defensible competitive advantage," In the same way, build a practice of ‘listening’ to users and iterating as user testing informs.


2. Hire UX researchers, this could be an individual or even a firm, however make the investment of hiring professionals who’s defined tasks is to incorporate users’ needs into the product or solution your building. 

3. Incorporate user-centric design practices into your operations. This includes making everyone aware of the value of understanding and building for your customers, and continuous habit of listening and building i.e. testing and building.

Taking these steps will ensure any tech startup begins to reap the vast benefits of Design research. 



*from the story of Airbnb, as written by Y-combinator’s Paul Graham
  • DODO admin



    Susan is an avid lover of design. When she’s not working, you can find her reading, eating or admiring anything that’s a combination of aesthetics and functionality done right.

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