The Startup Advantage: Leveraging Design Research for a Competitive Edge

By Mark Ogilbee posted 05-25-2023 11:36 AM


An AgeTech Collaborative™ (ATC) business service participant, Sundberg-Ferar is a multidisciplinary team of creative people that helps startups and large enterprises focus on the design and development of uniquely differentiated AgeTech-related products and experiences. Through their collaborative methodology that includes industrial design, research, engineering, innovation strategy and prototyping, Sundberg-Ferar helps companies design with purpose, innovate with emotional and functional intent, and deliver real, manufacturable solutions. 

This week on the ATC blog, Lynnaea Haggard, marketing manager at Sundberg-Ferar, begins a three-part series that explores how startups can leverage the power of human-centered design thinking to maximize go-to-market success.  Let's jump in!

Studies have shown that three out of four venture-backed startups eventually fail. This seems surprisingly high and might lead to the conclusion that these negative outcomes are caused by market forces or other factors that are outside the control of those involved and invested in the venture. But this is not the case. The reasons for this low rate of success are well documented, and corporate investors and the startups they back often do have the ability to proactively address many of these factors. 

According to Small Business Trends, after “running out of cash, the leading cause of startup failure is no market need at 35%. And, according to Forbes, “nine of the top 20 reasons for startup failures — and five out of the top 10 — were related to customers — not meeting customers’ needs, not listening to them or even ignoring them.” These common missteps relate to the startup’s relationship with and understanding of their customers, something that is entirely within the startup’s control. In other words, startups have the ability to listen to their customers and meet their needs, and to design an excellent product and market it effectively.  

Considering these findings, the importance of human-centered design and design research which will be the topics of our next two blogs, respectively cannot be emphasized enough for growing AgeTech startups. Dismissing or underestimating the importance of customers and other stakeholders in the design process increases the likelihood of failure. By contrast, with its emphasis on quality design research, the human-centered design process helps startups obtain crucial insights and feedback regarding their users that will inform product development, mitigate risk and wasted resources, and increase the likelihood of market success. We’ll get deeper into how this happens in our next blog posts. 

At Sundberg-Ferar, we regularly collaborate with passionate startups and the corporations and venture firms that invest in them. These startups often recognize the importance of design, prototyping, and engineering services in preparing their products for the market. They possess a promising idea backed by preliminary research confirming its potential. However, having a good idea alone isn’t sufficient. A product is not just an idea it is an experience, and designing an ideal experience requires a thoughtful and strategic approach to understanding stakeholders’ needs and desires, whether those stakeholders are customers, users or investors.  

In order to help startups realize that ideal experience, at Sundberg-Ferar we encourage entrepreneurs to use the following five best practices for design research. Incorporating these practices into your own design process will help you gain a competitive advantage and keep you on the road to success. 


1. Conduct research beyond family and friends 

Startups need to know their target audience and immerse themselves in the right kind of research with that audience. When it comes to AgeTech, this may mean going beyond just older adults, even though they are likely to be the ones benefiting most directly from a given technology. In many cases, good research must expand to include caregivers who assist those older adults, healthcare professionals who coordinate care and have a deep understanding of medical needs, and even policymakers who understand the regulatory landscape and policy implications. 

All these individuals become stakeholders, and meeting their diverse needs by optimizing your design for all the people it will impact will help remove barriers to entry and increase the likelihood of success. 


2. Go beyond “likes” and “dislikes” to understand the complete user experience 

While it’s important to get target users’ bottom-line reactions to a design concept (like/dislike, high interest/low interest), understanding the full spectrum of potential interactions the user will have with that product is where the magic happens! 

This means diving into aspects such as: Where will a product or service be used? Under what conditions, for what purposes, how often and in what settings? Who else might be involved in that use? What updates or maintenance might be required throughout its life? Although getting the basic operational elements right is essential, it’s important to recognize that exceptional usability also includes things like product handling, storage, upkeep, and even end-of-life recyclability. 

For example, one of our clients is developing a remote patient monitoring device that will be delivered to and installed in the user’s home, and is expected to collect and report data over a long period of time. This is a perfect example of a product’s success being highly dependent on usability factors such as: product handling (as it is shipped and delivered); ease and accuracy of installation (so the product can function properly); service and maintenance (to ensure a maximum lifecycle); and safe disposal at the end of its life. By helping our client investigate and map these aspects of the product experience, and by conducting design research with stakeholders at key moments in the product development process, we empowered our client to make efficient, informed decisions on the right product feature set to deliver a delightful experience and not just a product. This saved them time and money on multiple false starts and positioned them for market success. (For some great reading about using the power of design research to avoid false starts, see this article from Harvard Business Review.) 


3. Get hands-on early 

Another critical practice in design research is giving target users a prototype to interact with as early as possible in the process. This helps move from a hypothetical “vision” to a real and tangible “thing” users can interact with. This might be something they can touch and feel to represent a product  such as a foam wristband with a “screen” and “buttons,” meant to represent a health monitoring wearable with interaction points that aging consumers need to be able to operate without feeling encumbered by it. This could also take the form of a storyboard or wireframe that visually depicts the experience or service. For example, illustrations could be used to showcase the functionality of an app designed to connect aging customers with others in their community, such as drawings of the app homepage with links to find local meetups or join interest groups. 

It’s important to note that this prototype can be low-fidelity. The goal is to get feedback into the process early and iterate based on that feedback. Although a rough prototype may lack intricate details, it’s still often sufficient to give users a more complete understanding of and engagement with the design intent, which leads to richer and more insightful feedback. 


4. Call in the MVP (minimum viable product) 

As development of a concept progresses, the team should continue to embrace getting iterative feedback to validate the design direction. Creating an MVP a functional version of the product with a minimum set of features needed to represent how the concept will work and deliver value will help quickly validate the product's value proposition, market fit and feasibility, while minimizing time and resources. 

That MVP should be tested with a broad range of people with different perspectives, including early adopters who are often on the cusp of trying new products in the industry, lead users who have a passion for or extensive experience in the category, and even subject matter experts who have deep knowledge and experience in the industry. 

Having said this, it’s worth noting that in early stages of development it’s better to get as much user input as possible using low-fidelity prototyping methods, rather than waiting until you have an MVP. Often by simply having a clear idea of exactly what question you’re trying to get an answer to, it’s possible to “hack” together a low-fidelity prototype that can help you extract user feedback and validate a specific aspect of the design such as a certain feature, a mechanism, or an interface logic and flow. It’s important to leverage low-fidelity prototyping methods to validate and refine the product concept before embarking on the resource-heavy task of developing an MVP. 


5. Iterate for continued improvement  

Having multiple touch points with target users during the product development process is critical  from early exploratory investigations, concept ideation, MVP usability testing, and design refinement (including styling), all the way to final product design evaluation. This allows for continuous improvement and refinement based on user feedback and evolving needs. 


Sundberg-Ferar can help guide your team through human-centric product design 

We know from experience that human-centered design, while straightforward, is far from easy, and there are many complicating factors to navigate in the process. The best practices outlined above are just some of the ways to avoid common pitfalls and create a meaningfully differentiated product that meets real needs for real people, all while growing startups’ businesses and realizing important return on investment for investors.  

If you’re curious to learn more about us and our human-centered design approach and capabilities, visit our website or reach out to our team directly at  

You can find the second post in this series here.