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One Year of Design at the World’s Largest VC Firm

It’s been about 12 months since I started at NEA as a Designer-In-Residence. We have about 450 companies in our portfolio and I’ve been fortunate to connect with a good 10% of them (400 to go!). I’ve worked with CEO’s, Founders, and Heads of Product and Design at companies all the way from the seed stage to Series D and beyond. 

I’ve spent time a good deal of time getting to know the products and processes of our various companies across verticals from consumer (like Pocket and Casper and Goop) to enterprise (like OnShape and Plaid) to those working on more fundamental tech (like Sentons) and every flavor in-between. I’ve also had exposure to different mediums, such as hardware (Desktop Metal) to data (Enigma) to chip sets (PsiKick) to healthcare platforms (Bright Health); it’s been a remarkable opportunity to learn what our portfolio’s needs are with regards to design and product across every dimension. If the breadth of our portfolio—both in terms of verticals and stage of growth—is a representative sampling of the broader start-up market, we have certainly come a long way in our appreciation and understanding of what value design brings to the table. From reviewing wireframes and user flows, to product development roadmaps, to branding and positioning, to how to hire a design team, the conversations have been wide-ranging. I’ve attempted to catalog the highlights of what I’ve heard below. 

First and foremost, there hasn’t been a single team that I’ve met that hasn’t thought that design adds value—not just to their primary user’s experience, but also their core business needs, whether it be customer acquisition, engagement, or retention. This is a healthy base to work from: the belief that design has a seat at the table on par with product, engineering, and marketing. At the same time, there is a wide delta of knowledge around ‘how’ to have design add value. How to deploy design cross-functionally within a fast-growing org, how to build (and hire in) a world-class design team, and how to build a design-centric culture. In light of these ‘how’ questions, we decided to launch the Future of Design in Start-Ups Survey in collaboration with other design leaders to begin to collect data and best practices in high-growth companies. We hope to be publishing the results before the end of the year— stay tuned for that release. 

At the highest level, what these fundamental ‘how’ questions have led me back to, is that the ‘basics’ of solid design-driven product development focused on the user are still valid and necessary, even though they may sound old hat. Standards such as user insight research, user personas, customer journey maps, prototyping with users, etc. still yield a lot of value and provide a backbone as you build design muscles within your team. They also allow for stakeholders outside of design in a company to ‘see’ and experience the value. You can’t skip these things. Knowing thy user is still paramount. A ‘design culture’ isn’t only about making things ‘pixel perfect’, but also about infusing the customer’s voice, perspective, and needs into the way in which the company builds product and delivers services. And in order to deliver a true ‘end-to-end’ experience, you need an organization that cares about the customer across the whole journey, and that’s what designers do best in a collaborative way within an organization. User-centricity has to be a value of the company.

In addition, here are some other insights that I’ve come across in this first year:

1. Your customer's experience has nothing to do with your org chart.

Companies will often make decisions based on their internal team structures. For instance, in an e-commerce company, marketing will deal with top of funnel user acquisition and social, product will think about the on-boarding and check-out, fulfillment will be the ones that actual deal with the ‘un-boxing’ experience, customer service will do their own thing, and then marketing will come in again to think about the newsletter after a customer’s first purchase on it’s own, and so on. This often leads to a disjointed customer experience end-to-end. Everyone is executing, but often without keeping the whole journey in mind.

What teams sometimes forget is that the customer doesn’t care how you are organized. They think of your product/service as one holistic entity and just want a cohesive and delightful experience. In order to combat this tendency, having design and product work cross functionally across your org can help support connective tissue across different parts of the journey.

2. Your first design hire is critical, but it's very different than your fifth and sixth.

Teams will often want to hire an initial designer that can do ‘everything’. From UX and UI, to user research, to marketing collateral, to email templates, to even the brand. This is possible, but dangerous. It’s hard enough to find a solid ‘product designer’ (someone who can own a set of wireframes, do the UI polish, and maybe even a little front-end coding), but finding one that also likes to do physical banners for an event and qualitative user research can be a challenge. I understand this can be cost efficient, especially at the outset, but as you grow you will need to consider if you want to continue to seeking out ‘product designers’ that are full-stack. The first quick alternative is to parse out all the brand and marketing needs to a separate designer (often less expensive). And if you plan on building out a larger team, whether or not you want to hire in someone a bit more senior to manage the hiring, vet talent, and inspire folks to come on-board. Over time, you may also want to consider splitting the functions between UX, UI, and user research—this will enable you to get folks that really specialize in those lanes.

3. There's a healthier design ecosystem around startups than ever before.

This was not the case even five years ago. It turns out you don't need to do everything in-house anymore. We’ve seen ‘outside’ shops do amazing things. From Red Antler for Casper or MetaLab for Slack, you can get critical help from branding to product design and everything in-between.. The design industry has shifted gears to evolve to support start-ups.

The questions that continues to arise though, are: who do I choose, why, and for how much? My prediction is that the incentive structures will continue to be refined between start-ups and design service providers, and we will continue to see a proliferation of design studios supporting the ecosystem at different parts of a start-up’s growth journey in better defined ways.

4. Design debt is real.

There is technical debt, but there is also design debt. If technical debt is the idea that there is more work potentially created down the road, by implementing something in the short run instead of applying the best overall solution early on, the same holds true for design. If you create pieces of an experience that are sub-optimal, without considering the entire experience or journey, you will have significantly more work to do as a result.

For instance, let’s say you ship with branding that doesn’t adequately position you properly in the marketplace, because you just want to get out to market. That can work, but then the work that’s required to overhaul everything while in market is tremendous. You want a brand that you can grow into, and at the very least the underpinnings of that brand need be roughly thought through, in the same way you might think about how you are going to build the engineering stack for scale. Design debt is real.

5. Design within enterprise is just getting going.

Design is often perceived to be the most beneficial within consumer companies. We’ve certainly seen the benefit of how clarity, simplicity, and delight can create break-away products and companies. But what I’ve also witnessed in our portfolio is how design is creating real impact within enterprise businesses. From data management, to insurance products and beyond, users at work are wanting experiences on-par with their experiences at home. The set of problems of being design-centric for an enterprise company are slightly different however… How do you do user research in B2B, how do you deal with complex data visualization, how do deal with highly complicated feature sets? My belief is that more robust systems and patterns will emerge in this space over time and we’ll see a generation of new design thought leaders emerge in enterprise.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ve seen over the past year. Stay tuned as we continue to share additional learnings on the above and beyond.