We all want to design products that people love.
No doubt you’ve had buggy app experiences that made your blood pressure rise. You’ve felt the mounting frustration of trying to use a new product that’s not user-friendly.
So of course, when it comes to your own products, you want to deliver the ideal experience to the end user. That’s the dream of being a startup founder. But the challenge is this:
We may be dreamers and visionaries, but we’re not all designers.
We don’t all have the training or skills to craft a quality user experience, or the insight to know which trends are no longer relevant. So what should a startup founder know about design before building or launching their product?
We posed this question to some incredibly talented and successful designers and design strategists to get their advice for startup founders. They came back with some brilliant takeaways that you can apply right now.
So, what should startup founders know about design? Here’s what the experts say:
TL:DR: You can download this ENTIRE blog post as a PDF and circulate it with your team.
Think about design, accessibility and user research as early as possible. Startups with designer co-founders tend to be more successful, accessible design opens your product up to an additional 19% of the population, and user research allows your audience to determine the direction of your design (rather than everything being based on your CMO or junior designer’s opinion). It’s no coincidence that the most successful startup products are also well-designed; it signals quality, thoughtfulness and ease of use.
It’s hard to distill design strategy for startups into a single bit of advice, but at the end of the day designing a great product means solving a real problem and doing it in a way that is 10 times better than how users currently solve it. They must instantly recognize the value of your product over other solutions. Old habits die hard and most people aren’t looking for yet another app to clutter their phone
How well you do this depends on how well you understand your target customer’s goals and problems. As a founder, you’re the first designer. You can hire any talented designer, but if you don’t have a good grasp of your customer’s problem, the product is toast.
Don’t compromise on design, but try to ship as soon as possible—find that balance. Even if it’s an InVision concept, get people to use it early. Iterate on the design often and continue to improve the design even after launch. Design is not done just because you shipped.
Solve a real problem. Your product can look amazing on the surface and your marketing can be on point, but if your app doesn’t deliver value you’ll never get traction. First, validate the demand for the problem you’re trying to solve. If you find there’s lots of competition in your space already, it’s a good sign there’s demand for a solution. Talk to your potential customers to learn how big of a problem it is and how they currently solve it. Really get to know your problem before jumping to solutions, and then constantly validate your solution with your customers through prototyping and testing.
Keep it simple! Simple, clean and effective.
You need to be able to make sure your product can ship, first and foremost, which as a former traditional designer is heartbreaking to admit. If you spend too long perfecting the design, by the time you’re done, you may have missed the market opportunity.
But that said, don’t neglect design either. Do some research to see what competitors or market leaders are doing. That’s the quick-fix style and trend you aim for. (Though don’t rip it off!) Make sure every touchpoint of your product is accessible, easy to find and easy to use. Get your user from A to Conversion as quick as possible. Simple, clean and effective—it’s all you need!
Once your product is working and shippable, you will now have feedback and, importantly, data. Use this to perfect the design! Your design should be relatable and influenced by your target market, and that’s what will keep users coming back.
It’s like baking a cake for your friends. You might want to take just a little longer in the oven, maybe just a little more sugar, a little bit more time cooling. But wait … where have your friends gone? And you’ve over-baked the cake anyway. So now you’re eating burnt cake on your own. Get the cake out of that oven and into your friends’ hands. Maybe they like it, or maybe they offer feedback, but this way you can improve the recipe and your friends are going to come back again and again!
Start by thinking about the problem you want to solve for people. Answer the question “What problem are we trying to solve and for whom?” and let that answer guide everything from the tech stack to the user experience to the business model to marketing. Once you’ve identified what you are trying to solve, and whom you’re solving it for, everything else should flow from that vision.
Do research from the beginning. Research will help you determine whether there is even a market for your product, what things are important to that market, how the market is currently solving their problem, what solving the problem is worth to them, and whether they are willing to pay actual money to solve it.
Approach everything with a design thinking process. Design is not just how things look, and it’s not something that happens after building something. Design is what you are building, why you are building it and how you are building it. How things look is really just an executional detail. Every problem your product is going to solve should go through the design thinking process of identifying the problem, breaking it wide open, exploring solutions and narrowing it down to the best one in implementation based on informed criteria.
Focus your energy on getting to know your customers and assembling a strong team.
Building relationships with your users is crucial. You need to learn what their pain points are and focus on solutions that bring them the most value. Keep your feature list as lean as possible for your first build so you can keep learning about your users and efficiently iterate on future versions of your product. Hire an experienced team, listen to each other and encourage bringing past experiences to the table to help your launch go as smoothly as possible. Building a product is hard, but if you work closely with your customers and have a strong team on your side, the process will be much easier.
Most of my career has been spent building brands and designing products in a startup environment. My advice is to put your ideas in front of real people early and often. Even on a bootstrap budget, you can:
- Run usability tests
- Ask people in your local community to participate in focus groups
- Post a survey on Twitter or Facebook
You may not hit every demographic, but you can get directionally correct, launch and listen to feedback.
Second, founders need to be passionate about designing their products. It’s your vision—be relentless in its execution (pixel perfect, in fact) and inspire your team every day. If you don’t believe in it, the rest of us will feel it.
Design affects people in a subconscious, emotional way. It’s almost never quantifiable or measurable. People can tell you that they love a product, but rarely are they able to identify why.
Making a product feel subtly delightful might seem like it has a hard ROI, but we all know that customers only continue to use products that they genuinely enjoy using. Don’t underestimate the subtle power of design by thinking it’s something that can easily be addressed or added in at a later date, like adding icing on a fully baked cake. Prioritizing design, both visual design (UI) and the design of the experience (UX), from Day One can have massive, but immeasurable, effects.
Don’t be a hippo. You might have great ideas, but you are just one data point. Make sure you evaluate your ideas with lots of data points and check your inherent bias. Steamrolling ideas based in research because you like your own idea more makes the process of design thinking methodologies fail.
Identify the problem you are trying to solve. Get really specific and look for competitors in the shared space and see if they have successful products. Do your research.
Don’t make your product in a vacuum. Learn your market and customer needs and make sure every choice you make has positive effects for them.
Keep things consistant, create a voice for your brand through copy and visual design. Create a team that approves things that touch the public, and allow them to do their job. Make sure that team has buy-in from everyone at the company. This prevents off-brand experiences that may cause confusion to people trying to understand your product.
When it comes to designing a great product, you may think every feature you’ve drafted needs to be included for it to be a success. Well, I’m here to tell you the truth. And the truth is that the average user often gets overwhelmed at a product with too much to offer. Figure out what your core features are, and once you’ve acquired user feedback, iterate on what elements of your product need to be rethought.
It is crucial to try and understand your product from the user’s perspective. What you think people want and what they really need are two different things, and it’s your job to find this out through prototyping and user testing to get a real-world perspective.
The biggest mistake I see a lot of founders make is underestimating the value of design from the beginning. “It doesn’t need to look great, it just needs to work.” “Let’s make it quick and ugly for now until we have users.” I hear these statements all the time.
What they’re misunderstanding is that design isn’t just the font and colour of your app—it’s the experience someone has using the product. As Steve Jobs famously said: “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Successful products like Slack, Medium, Dropbox, Trello and a host of others were able to stand out and gain a huge amount of traction because they focused on design from the beginning. New founders often misplace the value of design. They think of it as a one-time purchase. They hire a freelancer or agency to design the first iteration of the product, and then that’s it. They should be making design a part of their ongoing process of shipping releases.
When faced with the challenge of designing a product, you’re encouraged to seek feedback to gain an outside perspective to help with your design. With review, however, it’s only natural for reviewers too often to say the first thing that comes into mind. And although their feedback is important, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with criticism that isn’t always constructive. Part of your job is to sift through the comments to separate the helpful from the nit-picky. Implementing the positive feedback is what will make your product not only stronger, but the best it can be.
Many times I have witnessed a new product launch with a great idea and strong technology stack. Unfortunately many times as well I have experienced that these products do lack a thought-through user experience and functionality.
Founders often forget how important it is to invest time and effort to understand user needs. That matters especially to startups as every single user is extremely valuable. We need to remember that in the first 15 seconds, new users are lazy and selfish. Users do not want to invest time or energy to understand a product that they don’t know. Users want an immediate return for the job they are trying to do. If that does not happen, users just move on quickly to something that does.
Optimizing for the initial new user impact and spending enough time to user-test the experience will help to keep users engaged and encourage them to stick around.
Make sure you can clearly articulate your product’s unique advantage or value in a sentence or two. If you can’t succinctly make it clear why I should buy your product(s) over others, you’ll struggle to sell it online and will need to rely on other non-product-related advantages to reach scale (marketing and publicity, namely).
Jordan Brannon, Director of Digital Strategy at Coalition Technologies
The most successful businesses in the world are customer-centric. They focus on fulfilling the customer’s goals, not their own. These businesses understand that no matter what they’re selling, what customers really care about isn’t the what—it’s the why. If you take the time to understand your prospect’s needs, motivations and emotional triggers, you can build a successful product that not only converts prospects but retains customers.
The best advice I can give is never skimp on product design. Product is literally the most important thing in your startup. If you don’t get product right, you’ll be able to scale for a while, but it’ll flatline. And you probably won’t know quite why. If you do get product right, it’s magical. Growth is a side effect of a well-designed product.
I think for any startup, one of the most important things is to be flexible. That means that you shouldn’t chase perfectionism of your product (at least regarding design). Instead, you should follow the principle: “Done is better than perfect.”
It’s better to make decisions based on real data with real people interacting with your product, rather than build hypotheses in a vacuum. This gives you the flexibility to make product decisions with lower risk for the company if the initial idea doesn’t work out.
Tightly integrate design and engineering. If you can, hire a designer who codes.
It’s extremely important to think and design at a systems level—considering not just what component to use on a specific view, but how those components fit together into patterns that can be reused across the entire product.
Designing at a systems level improves consistency and predictability for users and makes your product more resilient to code rot. And once
you’ve established the fundamentals of the system, it becomes much quicker to design and implement new features because you don’t have to rethink every little thing from scratch.
If designers aren’t comfortable coding, make sure they collaborate closely with the engineers who are actually implementing the design. Make sure they aren’t just tossing mocks over a wall and hoping for the best.
Because ultimately, a designer’s ability to export pixel-perfect mocks from Sketch is only as good as their ability to take those visuals—and the thinking behind them—and successfully put them into a usable, interactive final product.