Inside Google Ventures' open-source product design process

A behind-the-scenes look at how Google Ventures helps its partners design engaging, interactive products.

Google Ventures is blazing a new trail for venture investors, delivering advice and services to its portfolio companies with in-house teams of experts in the fields of design, marketing, recruiting and engineering. I had a fascinating discussion with Google Ventures design partner Jake Knapp about how he and his four design partners help Google Ventures portfolio companies design better products and better businesses.

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When portfolio company Pocket needed to redesign the app store discovery to installation user experience (UX), it worked with the Google Ventures design team. So many mobile companies obsess about getting more downloads. Pocket was disturbed by the thought of quickly losing customers due to a bad first impression after they discovered, downloaded and tried the app. Pocket’s team chose to build its business with a focus on customer retention, rather than download numbers. They obsessed about the first 20 seconds of UX, an obsession that the Google Ventures design team shared.

Using the design sprint methods created by Knapp, Google Ventures designers and the Pocket team held three separate week-long design sprint sessions to focus exactly on this 20-second UX. It paid off with a 60% increase in conversions from first download to first use.

Before joining Google Ventures a year and a half ago, Knapp spent five years at Google and then became an internal Google design guru, working with core Google product teams, such as Search, Chrome, Ads, and Gmail, for one or two weeks at a time helping to focus ideation into hard decisions, designs and finally products.

"Brainstorming" has become a dirty word to Knapp. It’s too collegial and democratic, lacking purposeful decision making that produces the highest-quality alternative solutions. He has combined many experiences with hackathons, agile and waterfall development techniques, methods from the famed design studio Ideo and art criticism techniques into a method he calls a "design sprint."

A typical design sprint engagement takes four or five days. Alongside design and research partners, Knapp has worked with more than 50 portfolio companies ranging in size from two-person seed-round founding teams to "D-round" portfolio companies with 400 employees. Regardless of company size by the end of the week, Knapp wants to deliver a prototype and test results from real qualified users interacting with the prototype.

The quality of the portfolio company teams are a given, since they were vetted by Google Ventures prior to its investment. But the members of the start-up teams don’t all share prior design experience. So, early in the week, Knapp creates a level playing field getting the founders, engineers and marketers to take illustrated notes he calls mind-mapping to describe customers, product features and the business. The goal is to jump-start and capture creativity and domain experience uncontaminated by collaboration or personal branding so each alternative can be objectively weighed and hard decisions made. Moving forward, the content becomes more descriptive as thumbnails and then full story boards, capturing creativity and maintaining as much objectivity as possible.

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"Democracy" has also become a dirty word for Knapp, in a sense, referring not to political democracy but the democracy in decision making when designing a business and a product. 

"It’s unrealistic to run a design sprint and have the startup teams democratically make decisions, one vote per person, when that’s not how it happens in the day-to-day reality of a startup," Knapp says. "If in reality the CEO gets six votes, the CTO gets three and everyone else gets one, then that’s the way decisions should be made. And if the company is too new to have developed a cultural approach to decision making, it needs to be discussed during the design sprint."

The decisions that narrow the options are made based on self-explanatory storyboards created by the startup and design teams, unaccompanied by the creators’ pitch so votes are not influenced by personality, sales skills or executive ranking.

With one or two storyboard options decided, startup teams and the design team create mockups and prototypes that are realistic user experiences. Knapp maintains a fast tempo throughout the week to get to user testing, with real people matching the customer profile included in the design.

The final day is spent testing the prototypes with 6 to 8 paid customer surrogates. The testing is performed one-on-one between tester and test subject. The test subject reaction and prototype screens are projected onto a large screen in another room, where the design and start-up teams observe interaction with the prototype and take detailed notes.

"Moving this fast, we know we'll make mistakes, sometimes a lot of mistakes. But that's a good thing," Knapp says. "We're helping our companies use design as a means of compressing time, not getting too precise with each design decision, trusting that in iterative design sprints the accuracy of the decisions will improve. What we're finding is that this is something they can learn to do on their own, even after we've gone on to the next project. And each time they do it, their products get measurably better."

Google Ventures gives the designs sprint methodology to its portfolio companies. It has also “open sourced” the methodology. The five-day experience has been chronicled day-by-day in a blog, available at, for the community of product designers and developers. Not every startup can get money from Google Ventures, but all startups can get benefit from its design sprint methodology

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.