How to Design Best Products?
Products exist to help people. We do things better, faster, or easier because of the products we use. The best products are so good at this that, eventually, they become natural extensions of our actions, ingrained in our everyday lives, and absorbed into the human experience.
In this blog, we explain how to design best and user-centric Products without being a product designer. These products allow us to become better versions of ourselves.
They do so by surfacing the values, virtues, and aspirations that are latent within us. This is why design is so important because it complements the human condition.
Applying an empathetic approach can allow designers to uncover opportunities to gather insights into new and novel designs that benefit people from similar small acts.
More often than not, the challenges people face aren’t things that product designers face personally. The reason for this is simple: we don’t represent everyone in the world.
Our experience, assumptions, and knowledge about the world don’t lend themselves to every scenario people face. This begs the question: How can we design for humans if we don’t know the problems and challenges that humans face?
The answer is that designers should conduct research to understand people. Especially, being empathetic while conducting research can help to reach that goal.
Empathy, in the context of design, is the intentional setting aside of our knowledge, experience, opinions, and, sometimes, worldview, to understand the perspectives, experiences, goals, motivations, aspirations, and expectations of the people for whom we’re designing.
This does not mean the wholesale abandonment of ourselves. It means that we must let go of our egos and biases, in order to absorb and meaningfully understand the situations of other people. It means a heightened sense of awareness of people other than us.
Product design is about solving problems and aspiring for the betterment of humanity. To do so, being empathetic is almost always the first step. To get the best out of the design process, product designers should systematically employ a few methods to empathize with the people they are trying to help.
Egos and Assumptions
Letting go of our egos and assumptions is perhaps the hardest task. This is not because we’re stubborn or difficult but, rather, because we’re often unaware of our own assumptions and ego.
The first step in letting go starts with being honest and open, honest in terms of being aware of the moments when we defend or justify our own biases when faced with new situations, and open in terms that we’re able to absorb new ideas without judging them.
The second step to letting go of your ego is to realize the need to win and to be right. The design is not about proving you’re right or wrong. The design is about serving the needs of people and the world as a whole. It is important to consciously uncouple yourself from those needs.
Listen and Observe
Listening to people talk about their challenges is a cheap and fast way to quickly gather basic facts and information about a design problem. It also allows you to build rapport with the target audience so that they’ll become more natural and unreserved when you observe their actions, behaviors, and reactions.
The best way to understand people is to experience life in their shoes. This can be partially achieved by going to their locations to observe and experience their activities and environments.
By placing ourselves in their physical environment and observing what they do, how they do it, and the challenges they face along the way, we can relate to their experiences much more accurately and innately.
When listening is combined with observing and embodying, designers can understand the motivations, needs, and goals behind people’s actions and behaviors in a much more deep and profound way.
Body Language and What’s Not Said
Designers must study body language, signals, facial expressions, voice intonations, and the positive and negative connotations associated with them. This is a skill that comes with practice. If mastered, it can help to uncover the goals and motivations of the target audience effectively and efficiently. Here are some tips to get started:
Become adept at detecting the subtle nuances in speech, for example, changes of tone, points of pauses.
Listen to what has been redacted or rephrased.
Often, people can only articulate part of the picture, as they might not have the full view themselves. In addition, people’s memories are notoriously faulty. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t trust people’s descriptions of their own experiences. We should listen and take notes but also back up those notes with our own observations.
Accounting for a lack of clarity and visibility and faulty memories, people may still not be able to convey all the required details. They might be burdened by fear, distrust, or embarrassment.
As designers, we must hone our intuition, train our emotional sensitivity, be able to uncover those critical details of people’s reflections of their motivations, needs, and goals, without intruding into their personal lives or making people feel uncomfortable.
Example of Lack of Empathy
In 2012, Google launched an augmented reality wearable computer, called Project Glass, too much fanfare. Google Glass, as it’s known to the public, was introduced by Google co-founder Sergey Brin live on stage in Moscone Center, San Francisco.
The product was delivered to Brin by a team of skydivers and BMX athletes, who live-streamed their descent from a plane in the sky onto the roof of the Moscone Center then all the way onto the stage.
People genuinely felt excited about the product at the time. However, launching a consumer product to the public is very different from launching a research prototype to a handful of beta-testers. Two years later, Google scrapped its consumer program for Glass.
While there were many reasons why Glass didn’t live up to its hype, two main ones stood out. First, people didn’t find many compelling use cases for it. You could take photos, shoot videos, send messages, and get directions on Glass, but the experience wasn’t a whole lot better than on the phone.
While it might be fantastic for streaming first-person point-of-view videos, most people didn’t have a need to share videos from a first-person perspective all the time.
Second, as well as being voice-controlled, Google Glass was designed to be worn on the face. Having a device that can record without other people’s knowledge made those around Google Glass wearers uncomfortable.
Interacting with a voice-controlled device in public was still considered a socially awkward behavior back then. MIT Technology Review put it best, No one could understand why you’d want to have that thing on your face, in the way of normal social interaction.
You might be wondering how a multi-billion company can make a mistake like this? Perhaps hubris over having achieved a technological feat led to a lackluster effort in researching empathy about why the product needed to exist in the first place. Ultimately, the reason didn’t really matter.
What matters is that the Glass team lacked the empathy to address difficulties related to human interaction, privacy concerns, and social expectations. Ultimately, the idea of putting a computer on one’s face was rejected by the consumer.
This example highlights the precise blind spot that product designers must address, along with the help of product managers and researchers. It is the product team’s responsibility to make sure that products exist for a reason and that the team must empathetically understand the goals and motivation of the end users of its product.
Curiosity and an Open Mind
An essential quality for any good designer is having a keen eye for improvements. Where others put up with problems, product designers should look to fix them. They should notice the poor experiences, however subtle, that have long been accepted as the norm.
To do that, one must be willing to exert a lot of energy to learn, discover, and experiment and to question the assumptions and consider the obvious. Elon Musk, the renowned entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, explained this as “reasoning from first principles,” or formulating a complex idea on the basis of fundamental truths.
The example he gave was the basis for founding SpaceX, his private aerospace manufacturing and space transport company.
He asked, “If the raw materials that make up a rocket—the metals, electronics, computers, and fuel—is the only X, why is the cost of a rocket 100 times X?”
When Musk realized that there had to be some (if not many) inefficiencies in the process, he saw a tremendous opportunity. He developed this opportunity further, and, over time, SpaceX became the first aerospace manufacturing and space transportation company to feature reusable rockets.
Tony Fadell, the inventor, and entrepreneur who co-created the iPod at Apple and later founded Nest Labs described the same method as viewing the world from a child’s perspective and then asking the “why can’t” questions.
He cites as an example how his young son, when asked to go outside to check if there was mail in the box, responded by asking the question, “Why can’t the mailbox check for mail itself and tell us?”
Why can’t it? That’s a great question. The answer is that going outside to the box is how checking for mail always has been done, but when we think closely about that question, we realize that the status quo isn’t necessarily the most convenient approach to doing things.
This brings us to the second part of the product design mindset, which is to not accept the status quo for its own sake but to really think hard about whether it makes sense. Through this lens, to design means to know when a reexamination of what we know is required and to reimagine what’s possible.
The design has the power to shape our thoughts and behavior. The objects and environments around people unconsciously shape their feelings and perspectives.
While keeping a curious and open mind allows the impossible to become possible and eventually the reality, the first step of design starts with defining our own personal values and virtues. Does it start with asking the question, What kind of world do we want to live in?
Irene Au, the former head of design at Google and a design partner at Khosla Ventures, summarized this concept very succinctly: “Design is the culmination of intention, values, and principles manifested in tangible form and passed on to another.”
It is important for product designers to clearly identify the virtues, values, and intentions they want to convey in their products. In other words, our personal values and mission should be aligned with those of our team, which, in turn, allows the team to create products that convey those values and virtues.
Never Stop Learning
Being a designer is about nonstop learning. Technology changes and people change. As a result, products have to adapt to the changing times. New features must be added; outdated ones should be removed.
Once in a while, a new wave of innovative technology comes along that reshapes the entire landscape of human activities. Such times create new opportunities for new categories of products. Entire societies adopt completely new ways of life. We live in such a moment.
To design for today’s world means to constantly learn and adapt. Designers not only have to keep up with the pace of innovation, but they must also lead it, along with engineers. Only when technology is built with people in mind can it truly benefit humans and push humanity forward.
Our job as designers is to connect humanity to things—to make things work for us, and not the other way around. To do this, designers must learn about new technologies.
They must seek out new ways of getting humans to make sense of technology. This means paying attention to industry standards and shifts in those standards, testing and evaluating emergent technologies.
When it comes to the craft of designing for this new digital way of life, the dust has not yet settled on the standards of design tools and platforms. This means that designers must also stay flexible and absorb the changing tools and software involved in the creation of digital designs. Learning in design is a huge topic.
How to Solve a Problem
Beyond having empathy and an open, learning-oriented mindset, the core fundamental skill that a designer must possess is problem-solving.
Frame, Then Reframe
A joke I heard early in my design education goes like this: How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb? The point of the joke is that designers are often the ones asking the most obvious questions.
This notion of asking obvious questions ties back to Tony Fadell’s advice about seeing the world through children’s eyes. At its root, this question is about challenging the status quo for the sake of creating something new.
In fact, challenging the status quo is simply reframing the problem—challenging the prior assumptions by looking beyond their face value. What is obvious doesn’t necessarily equate to relevancy or correctness.
As designers, we should lead the team to think this way, in tandem with the product manager. More concretely, each new project should start by answering the following two questions:
What do we stand for?
What are the problems (in this space/industry)?
Answering these two questions before defining the product scope can help to guide product and design direction to a likelier chance of hitting the target of providing value.
An example of this is a project involving Chicago’s troubled buildings that a student from the Institute of Design in that city worked on. When the project started, the initial problem that the city of Chicago gave the student was to make the process of tearing down vacant and abandoned buildings more efficient.
As Professor Jeremy Alexis of the Institute of Design explains, after students collected data and conducted research, it became clear that the premise and assumptions made by the city were misaligned with the problem.
The trend of buildings eventually becoming vacant and abandoned over time was actually not irreversible. It was a condition that could be changed and corrected, a fact that became the focus of the project. This is a prime example of reframing.
After an insight, it became clear to both the students and the city that preventing buildings from becoming vacant and abandoned should be the focus of the project.
This shift opened up the solutions space that targeted the root of the problem and, at the same time, created ideas that were much less expensive and faster to implement.
Ideas such as using transit ads, utility bill inserts, community hearings, and presentations to engage and empower the community were brought forward, then they were reinforced using sticky notes, banners, and doorknob hangers to inform the community of abandoned building demolitions.
Over time, the root cause of vacant and abandoned buildings was identified and ideas to solve it more effectively and efficiently were generated.
Get to the Constraints
In a sense, constraints make design happen. Innovation doesn’t exist in a reality where everything is possible. Here’s why. Let’s say you want to create a machine that enables instantaneous travel—something that gets you from A to B within a snap of the fingers.
This is not feasible, at least not with our current technology. In this case, what you’re proposing is nothing more than science fiction. It is not real. What this shows is that without constraints, there is no product design.
Without constraints, what you’re creating is fantasy. For product design to occur, what you come up with must eventually be made real. So, get to the edge of your constraints. Understand why the constraints are there. Know what’s possible. This is why designers should be familiar with cutting-edge technologies.
In the context of designing and building a product, problem-solving must be guided by specific goals.
Useful, Usable, Desirable
In general, it can be said that people want things that are useful, usable, and desirable—things that are simple to use yet add a lot of value to life. The design is an act of balancing these three criteria. To start out, optimize for usefulness and usability. A good product must first be useful and usable.
Take the example of a pair of scissors, specifically those typically made for arts and crafts. If this pair of scissors isn’t sharp enough, they won’t perform the basic task of cutting paper. They aren’t useful, in this case. However, a sharp pair of scissors might still not be useful, if the handles are not ergonomic.
When you cut with them for a while, your hands might become sore. If this is the case, the product is not usable.
Airbnb is a lot more useful than Craigslist when it comes to listing your home online to attract potential renters. Airbnb is more useful because it is a service dedicated to that goal. It has a significantly more focused user experience and a refined set of flows that are optimized for the purpose of listing and renting vacation homes.
Craigslist, one could argue, might be slightly more usable for the same purpose. Craigslist requires no background checks and no photos of your place when listing. All you need is an e-mail address. The difference in usefulness and usability between the two products is significant, but it is not astronomical.
The difference in growth and revenue between these two companies, however, is astronomical. Why is this so? One word: desirability. This is the other critical third dimension, other than usefulness and usability. It is an often overlooked one that truly separates great products from mediocre ones.
This is why products that are both useful and usable but lack desirability often don’t sell. Steve Jobs explained this in plain language in 1997, when describing the products Apple should be building to turn around the company: “All we have to do is hold this up and say, ‘Do you want this?’”
Ten years later, Jobs demonstrated this litmus test when he presented the first iPhone. The response in the subsequent years to the question Do you want an iPhone? has been a resounding yes. People literally line up around street corners to be among the first to purchase the latest model of the phone year after year.
The original iPhone met all three goals discussed. It was useful, in that it was a phone, an Internet browser, and a music player rolled into one device—something that the market had never seen before.
It was usable, in that even toddlers could pick it up and perform basic functions with it. It was desirable, in that people couldn’t wait to own one, as it looked and felt good, and soon became a status symbol.
Of course, outside of consumer products, the nuances are much more refined, so holding up the product and asking people whether they want it wouldn’t necessarily work, but the gist of designing for desirability remains the goal.
Viable, Feasible, Desirable
A bigger picture beyond the useful, usable, desirable framework is the viability, feasibility, and desirability framework. Quite simply put, this framework goes beyond the usefulness and usability of a product. It lays the three key questions that any team should ask before starting a new project.
Is it good for business?
Is it doable?
Is it something people want?
Just because a design is useful, usable, and desirable doesn’t mean that it can be produced, manufactured, or engineered. Just because it can be engineered, it doesn’t mean that the product is sustainable or makes economic sense.
Product designers must not only act as the stewards of product usability and desirability but also safeguard against the lack of viability and feasibility.
The Ultimate Chart
A hidden cost of our designs is the effect they have on society and the natural environment. While it is often nearly impossible to foresee the future, designers should do their best at anticipating possible detriments to the world beyond their business and customers.
Define the Product
It is especially important for startups to define the product(s) that it wants to create. Product designers should play a crucial role in defining the vision of the product, in accordance with the previously mentioned values, virtues, and mission, both theirs and the companies.
Some have referred to this process as developing a minimum viable personality. Others have called this the creation of a minimum desirable product. I think the core idea of all this minimum XY jargon is the same. Does it revolve around one question: How can we create a satisfying product experience?
Stand for Something
There are three steps to getting this right. First, we have to stand for something. We must have a vision of the future, an answer to the question of why we’re doing what we do—and a vision of the world that we hope our product will help to bring about. In doing so, we’re offering our customers a reason to stay, even if the product is not good yet.
Tesla’s roadster is a perfect example of this. It was a bold statement, a stake in the ground claiming the kind of future that Tesla hoped to stand for. Even though the MVP (minimum viable product) was full of issues, consumers stuck around.
Have a Guiding Principle
Second, the product should have a guiding principle, a gestalt, a core experience or technology that is ten times better than what is out there.8 When Google’s search and the iPhone’s touch screen were first introduced, they were ten times better than what was out there.
There has to be something that stands out so much (in a good way) that customers can easily evangelize or defend your product. Just having a vision is not enough. Your product must have at least one single experience that is ten times better than the competitions.
Get Enough Details Right
Third, the product has to get enough details right. Not all the details, but enough have to be right. Lines, layout, and colors matter. Words, images, and illustrations matter.
Interactions and animations matter. To determine the details that you really have to get right, think about what the core paths and features of the product are and whether those experiences are delightful.
In the case of the original iPhone, there were many things that weren’t good (battery life, camera, price, etc.), but the core experience of listening to music, browsing the Web, scrolling through a tracklist, and the cover flow were absolutely delightful. Steve Jobs even took a few seconds to showcase the “rubber banding” effect of a list bouncing delightfully when it reached the top.
Design requires a deep understanding of human nature: what makes us tick, what we trust, what we’ll do repeatedly, and what is negligible. Of course, in practice, product designers must consider more than that.
They exist in a constant state of negotiation between entrepreneurs and engineers, between lofty visions and realistic capabilities. They must compromise, prioritize, and deliberate between what needs to be built and what can be. But while product designers are situated between external tensions, true product design begins in the mindset of the designer.
It is a mindset that puts humans first, not machines, objects, or systems. It is a mindset that does away with dogma, breaks meritless conventions, and tosses out untrue assumptions.
It’s a mindset that blends the idealism of entrepreneurship, the rigors of engineering, the emotiveness of art, and the understanding of human nature, to create things that truly help and benefit human beings.
Practice, Tasks, and Experiences
An often-overlooked fact about design is that most people already know how to do it. If you have sketched out an idea of something that you want to make, whether it’s a toy, a piece of furniture, or an article of clothing, you have designed.
At its essence, the design is no more than the sketching out of ideas that can be turned into actual objects and systems. From that perspective, anyone who has ever created anything is a designer.
The first part of this blog expands on this idea of everyone being a potential designer. It explains how that concept extends to designing for startups and emphasizes the importance of mastering one’s craft as an essential pre-requisite for doing good design work.
The second part of the blog is about what product design really is. Product design is more than simply creating a physical or digital object. It is about the tasks people accomplish with the help of the products that are designed and built and the experiences they have while doing so.
A Craftsperson’s Mindset
I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.
We can all visualize figures, animals, sceneries in our heads, similar to how Rodin visualized a man in deep thought sitting on a rock. But chipping away pieces of marble to reveal realistic figures, animals, and sceneries is a much more difficult skill—to the extent that only a handful of people could do it as well as Rodin. That is why he is considered a master, one of the greatest sculptors of all time.
A large part of Rodin’s achievement was owing to his mastery of the mallet and the chisel. Not only could he visualize the final artwork inside the marble, but he could also command his toolset in such a way as to make that man a reality. That ability is what separates Rodin from the rest of us.
One needs to know the exact angles and the force to apply, in order to ensure that each strike against the marble is executed with purpose. The strikes must be applied in a sequence, removing layers of rock in a way that doesn’t damage the final piece.
This single practice of carving rock with precision takes years to master, notwithstanding the other skills required to become a master sculptor.
For Rodin, the mallet and the chisel were among the primary tools for creating a marble sculpture. The mastery of tools is what allows a craftsperson to become one with them, to the point where the tools come to feel like hands—a natural, intuitive part of a craftsperson’s physical being.
When that has been achieved, the craftsperson can refocus on solving design problems, without having to worry about the sloppy execution of his/her vision.
This is the core idea behind becoming good designers. Mastery of tools is a must in the field of design. The reason is that, for the most part, product design is about communicating ideas, whether to a team of thousands of people or just to oneself. For someone designing and building a simple wooden stool to be used in his or her backyard, perhaps a simple sketch on paper suffices.
However, in order to build a large seafaring container ship, teams of designers will have to communicate and collaborate with hundreds or thousands of people, using tools such as drawings, write-ups, videos, or 3D models.
In order to design great work, we must master the necessary tools. Our mastery must be that the tools become second nature. The exact tools may change and be updated, but what remains the same is the need for mastery.
Practice Makes Perfect
An often-cited parable in the design industry comes from the blog Art and Fear, in which the authors recount a story of a ceramics class.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on.
Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot— albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Practice does make perfect. Nested inside this cliché is the truth that good work is almost never the result of sheer genius. In fact, the notion of a “flash of genius” is almost always the result of continual practice and dedication. Behind every display of seemingly natural and innate talent is the prerequisite of thousands of iterations of practice and trial.
His school happened to be one of the first to buy a computer for its students. Mozart learned to play the piano from his father at age four. What separated Bill Gates and Mozart from other people is that they never stopped perfecting their crafts.
This idea of deliberate practice applies to every field of work. To become good at designing products, one must design a lot of products. Behind this tautology is a fundamental requirement: one must be willing to do a lot of work.
Especially if you’re new to the industry, the best way to start is to work on all the projects you can find, especially the ones in the fields you want to work in. Beyond that, the next thing is to master the tools, by using them and learning about them as much as possible.
Ultimately, unlike engineering, product design is not responsible for the building, implementing, or manufacturing of the final design. Design and engineering should work closely together, but, ultimately, the design doesn’t go the final mile in the journey of bringing a product to life.
Instead, design communicates the ideas about the product through demonstrations, planning, and modeling. Designers are responsible for communicating what the solution is and how that solution can come about. The common skill found among all designers is the ability to sketch ideas quickly. This is the foundational skill of being a designer of any kind.
The goal of sketching is not to create a beautiful drawing, it is to communicate ideas in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, sketching is a necessary skill. Quite simply put, this is a skill that most of us already have. If you know how to draw circles, rectangles, and lines, you know how to sketch. Capture the basic form of something by using the simplest shapes.
At its core, design can be as simple as sketching ideas on the back of napkins. Throughout the design career progression, sketching is perhaps the single most universal skillset. For seasoned architects such as Frank Gehry, sketching is a significant aspect of his work, as his team is focused on turning those designs into reality.
Don’t edit your sketches. Sketches are most commonly done in the beginning stages of product design. This means that they are supposed to be high-level ideas rather than nitty-gritty details. They are meant to express quick, unfiltered thoughts that can be quickly iterated later.
Tasks and Experiences
Product design is about solving problems through the creation of objects, experiences, systems, and networks. However, it can be said that everyone is a designer, in that we’re all problem solvers. The following section covers some of the common methods and components that complement the problem-solving aspect of product design.
Jobs to Be Done
A good way to frame a design problem is to use the jobs-to-be-done model. Alan Klement, a writer, and business consultant coined the term “Jobs to be Done” from insights gleaned on the product team at Intercom. The core idea of this model can be summarized in the following formula:
When ___, I want to ___, so I can ___.
An example of this could be, When I get up in the morning, I want to know if it will rain today, so I can bring an umbrella if it does. The “when” describes the situation faced.
“I want” describes the motivations, the needs, and the desired goals that relate to the new situation. “I can” describes the expected outcomes or the real goals, which might be just below the surface and not directly revealed.
Using this model brings clarity to the process of determining what the outcome of your design problem should be. From that outcome, the product and its inner workings can be reverse-engineered step by step.
The jobs-to-be-done model also can be viewed from goals and experience perspective, that is, the product should always address the true user goals in a way that provides an ideal experience.
Goals and Experiences
Products aren’t simply the pixels, or materials, of the things we create. They aren’t simply inner workings of a system. Instead, we’re building ways people can accomplish their goals, by helping them (and us) do what we can’t or have a hard time doing.
This concept of helping people accomplish their goals is about making products useful. Beyond that, a seemingly useful product that is utterly unusable ceases to have any value.
A useful and usable product that is totally undesirable also won’t be used very often. Making something useful, usable, and desirable is a core component of product design. The process of doing so is often referred to as experience design.
Experience design, or user experience (UX) design, entails all facets of how a system responds and interacts with a user of that system or systems. Good
UX design makes the user feel at home, in control and engaged. Bad UX design makes people frustrated, confused, and anxious. Following is an example of how experience design, when done right, can help to transform an industry.
In 2001, Apple launched retail stores for the first time in its history, to the ridicule of much of the computer industry. Headlines such as “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work”5 dominated tech media.
People scoffed at the idea because companies such as Dell and HP struggled to create successful retail stores that sold computers. However, as seen in a 2001 promotional video of the Apple Store, founder and CEO Steve Jobs laid out a vision for these brick-and-mortar entities.
People don’t just want to buy personal computers anymore, they want to know what they can do with them. We are going to show people exactly that. —Steve Jobs
What the team at Apple realized back then was that while many of their competitors focused on product and sales, few were focused on the user goal of understanding, learning, and using computers for specific use cases, as well as the experience of actually using the computers.
People may have heard about getting a computer, but they had to discover what that meant. With that insight, Apple was able to go against the industry wisdom and open physical locations where people could try Apple computers for themselves. This opened up the entire market.
Rather than sticking to the tech-savvy crowd that most other companies targeted, Apple was able to open doors for those who were new to the idea of using a computer. As Steve Jobs explains in the store intro video,
Apple created a unique experience, where shopping for a computer became approachable and even joyful.
What Apple did is the essence of experience design, as examined through the lens of a startup. Apple addressed the fundamental needs and challenges that a particular set of users faced, by creating solutions that effectively addressed those needs and communicating those solutions to these users.
As a side note, this focus on strategy is typically not considered to be within the scope of experience design, business viability and technical feasibility are both core to the product design discipline, especially in the fickle world of startup, in which a startup’s life could hinge on proving its business model before the next round of venture capital funding.
This product strategy enabled Apple stores’ experience design to be successful. However, while the product development teams executed on this strategy, the biggest hurdle Apple faced was communicating its newfound insight into its new potential audience.
Putting Apple products alongside other specs-focused products in big-box computer retailers was the wrong thing to do because these retailers don’t have the same agency to tell the story of Apple. Therefore, the need to build retail stores became apparent.
The design of the Apple store empathetically served these new users’ needs, allowing them to see for themselves what computers can do for them, as Steve Jobs explained in the promo video previously mentioned.
The store’s clean, elegant, and yet often daring architecture and interior design further enhanced the experience of those who visited and helped to create a level of user satisfaction unheard of in the computer industry.
However, this wouldn’t be possible without properly informing the target audience of the solutions tailored to their needs. The combined strategy of hosting events, inviting media, and creating straightforward explanatory videos was a big part of this communication.
The biggest and most direct form of communicating the solutions was stores’ locations. Apple outbid other retail companies for these expensive heavy foot-traffic locations in major metropolitan areas. This allowed passersby to see for themselves what the stores were about.
Altogether, the combination of product strategy, positioning, execution on user experience, design, and marketing made the new stores a tremendous success. This new way of conducting business not only reshaped the computing industry, but it also shaped the entire retail industry and beyond.
Fast forward to today: the Apple store has become a cornerstone of Apple’s slew of software and hardware businesses.
To startups designing a new product, the key takeaways from Apple’s lessons are
1 Find an underserved user goal or need.
\2.\ Empathetically develop ways to improve user experience while fulfilling those goals.
3 Clearly and directly communicate those improvements to users.
To ensure the long-term success of the products they build, individual designers must embrace the mindset of the craftsperson. First and foremost, master the tools of the trade, and then continuously practice the craft of designing in a deliberate and focused way.
Meaningful experiences are one of the core outputs of good product design. This is the baseline requirement of a product designer, especially in a startup building digital products.
However, to build a truly great product, as Apple has shown, business strategy and communication methods must be well thought out. Product designers must be co-owners in that process of shaping business strategy and communication methods, especially in a startup setting.
Evaluating and Informing Ideas Before We Start Designing
In this section, I will cover the ways in which product ideas can be formed, explored, and evaluated for startups. These are the essential skills that separate startup product designers from UX designers at large companies or graphic designers whose job scope does not include many of the business and personal considerations.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. It only is through the process of design, testing, feedback, and iteration that a startup can evaluate the business impact of an idea. It is much cheaper and faster to design something and build a prototype to test it out than to build the real thing.
In this section, I will discuss the process that product designers can adapt to help startups test and evaluate ideas. I will showcase the common types of product ideas that startups develop and explain how research and data can be used to guide idea validation.
This meme speaks volumes about the kind of changes society has seen. Ideas that were once laughed upon or simply deemed unfathomable are now the norm, because of changes in new technologies.
However, the process of using technology to create such changes requires near constant evaluation and insights gathered from people’s interaction with those products.
This blog is about how product designers can apply their skills and perspectives within a product team, to help bring about those insights.
Unlike graphic designers, product designers who work in startups are responsible for evaluating the ideas behind products and businesses. Startups, by their definition, are fickle, and ideas are cheap.
What makes a product stand out is the process of constant iteration and improvement. Seemingly far-fetched ideas eventually provide billions of dollars’ worth of utility to people around the world.
Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, all grew exponentially by following a similar approach.
Startup product designers have a special opportunity to make this process a key win for their team. This is because they straddle the space between product definition and the user experience definition. They are the link ensuring that what the team builds both solves the right problem and is created in a way that is usable and feels right.
Product designers can do this by helping to define the problem being solved, specifically what jobs are to be done and then leading the rounds of design iteration and design execution.
Therefore, it is especially important that product designers know how to generate ideas, evaluate them, and then turn their insights into actionable items for themselves and for the team.
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The idea for a technology business or startup can be generalized roughly into three categories. They are
These categories can be overlain, remixed, or even combined, but nearly all startups and product ideas fall into them. For example, the various online tax-filing software virtualizes the task of visiting a tax accountant in person to do one’s taxes.
In 2016, Facebook launched a “me too” product, called Chatbots, by expanding the WeChat public accounts concept across the world. The various ride-sharing apps, such as Uber and Lyft, however, simplified the process of calling a car to two steps: open up an app, then press a button.
However, it is not essential that a startup enter an industry knowing the type of idea it should concentrate on. Success and failure can result from any type of idea, and in every market.
What is important is that the idea must satisfy a need or a want in a way that is a lot better than the competitors’. In other words, the product must do the job users hire it to do better than what’s already on the market.
The renowned Internet entrepreneur Bill Gross drives this point home in an interview with the seasoned angel investor Mark Suster. Gross said that a (new) product needs to be ten times (10x) better than its competitors’ in order to be a success.
While exactly what is ten times better is hard to quantify, aiming for a ten times North Star ensures that your product has a chance of standing out. The team, however, should not fixate on quantifying the improvements. Rather, it should focus on creating a product that is a lot better.
Research and Data
Ideas big or small can be turned into reality, as long as they have merit and a team has been set up for them to be successful. Product designers are responsible for helping to create a welcoming environment, in which ideas can come from anyone, as well as help product managers keep a product’s audience narrow and deep from the start.
As the idea materializes, the product designer should conduct research to understand ongoing user and customer feedback at the MVP, post-MVP, and long-term stages. The product designer must also be involved in the definition and measurement of the one metric that will define the product’s success at each stage.
Empathy is a tool that product designers should deploy, in order to embody the thoughts and emotions of the people for whom they are designing. Empathy should be an imbued trait of a product designer.
However, there are two more skills related to understanding users that a product should master and deploy during the measuring and learning phases of creating a product.
The first is the ability to plan and conduct user research and analyze the results. The second is the ability to work with data scientists or data engineers and the product manager, to understand and interpret data.
User research is the work related to understanding users. It is the work involved in understanding the goals, motivation, behaviors, and modes of thinking of actual and prospective users.
User experience boils down to the touch points that a user has with a product, a company, or a representative entity of a product or company (an e-mail, a product package, etc.). For startups, there are three main ways in which user research can impact the product.
First, user research can be used to validate the merits of an idea. In this case, user research can be conducted to address the question, Is this idea worth pursuing?
Second, research can be used to evaluate a tangible realistic (-looking) product, to see if people gravitate toward certain features. The third type of research focuses on a long-term examination of how people interact with a product, to measure whether it met the identified need and is usable.
What is the impact of this product?
The first step in conducting a user research session is to identify what your target audience considers a unique characteristic. Do they shop online? Do they have certain interests? If your product is meant for everyone, to the point that no unique characteristics can be gathered from prospective users, your product is not broad enough.
Its focus must be narrowed and deepened, as Paul Graham recommends, as cited earlier in this blog. If you do have a narrow and deep target market, use the characteristics defined to screen for target users.
In brief, user testing can be as simple as giving users a task and watching them complete it. If different users find the design difficult to use, we know that it must be fixed.
The key is to get people to talk about why the product was difficult to use and why they made the decisions they did. You can even conduct a usability study on competitor products, to understand what makes them easier or harder to use, so that you can learn from the results.
Product analytics provides insights into how successful your product is over time. Tools such as Google Analytics, Mixpanel, or Intercom are all great at measuring user actions and providing analytics about your product.
With these tools set up, or if your engineering team decides to roll their own analytics, your team will be able to see what people are clicking or tapping and where they are dropping off.
However, what product analytics don’t tell you is the why behind those tracked behaviors. Here’s where usability testing can be conducted to understand the whys. Bringing in users and simulating their experiences gives the researcher an opportunity to dig into the why.
It is also useful to track a large set of data points, to enable the data team to analyze and uncover patterns. Product designers should focus on a single metric that really matters at each stage of the product cycle.
It’s always good to rely on the data scientist’s expertise to validate product metrics. Work with the product manager and the data scientist to define that one reliable metric.
Gaining insight from that metric will help to frame the design process with a measurable actionable goal. This doesn’t mean that usability and user experience can be overlooked. It means that the design can be created from the get-go with the product’s success in mind.
Design Is a Team Sport
If you look at the definition of the word design as a noun, it will likely read something like this:
The design is a drawing which someone produces to show how they would like something to be built or made.
While this definition is perfectly applicable to most types of design work, this blog will expand on this definition, to establish a new definition of design— one that relates to building products in startups in a team setting.
Twenty years ago, product design was a term reserved for the design of physical products, and it was often used interchangeably with industrial design, which is a term that refers to the design of form and usability to mass-produced products.
As the popularity of the Web grew, a new field of design emerged that focused largely on its usability and user experience. In the late 2000s to early 2010s, as the Internet and smartphones became ubiquitous, user experience (UX) designers became highly sought after.
However, as businesses and the field of design evolved together, it became more apparent that design is not just about ensuring good usability or creating web experiences.
It also solves business problems related to the users’ goals and experiences and how they fit into a business context. Hence, the focus on business, in addition to user experience, led to the term product design.
While many bigger businesses still divide design work into UX, user interface (UI), visual design, user research, prototyping, etc., more and more companies are merging the role of the product designer with others. Especially in a startup, a designer must wear several hats. By their nature, startups are inter-disciplinary and fast-moving entities.
As introduced in the previous blogs, the nucleus of a startup consists of the product manager (PM), the designers, the engineers, product-marketing managers (PMM), user researchers, data scientists, and, sometimes, project/program managers, customer relationship experts, and legal and operational experts.
Startup designers must be able to work with these people, by capturing their input, feedback, insights, and knowledge, while using design to facilitate and bring people together.
A good analogy to describe the startup product-building process could be a relay race in which a team competes with none other than themselves to cross the finish line. The baton is passed back and forth among members of the team frequently, so teammates must run closely together.
The success of the working relationship fostered by the product designer closely correlates with the success of the product. Without a great working model and trust within the team, it is very difficult to achieve product success. This blog is an introduction to how product designers can facilitate a working model of an ideal type within a startup.
One typical process of how a startup team builds a new feature, from a product designer’s perspective, follows:
Members within the team identify the market and the customer needs, goals, and jobs.
The PM creates and distributes a problem statement, based on these insights and data.
Feedback is given by the cross-functional team on the problem statement document, and alignment on the problem is achieved.
The PM creates an MVP (minimum viable product) feature narrative doc for designers and engineers to know exactly what should be built.
Designers create flows, wireframes, and mock-ups based on that feature narrative doc, to propose a design solution through an iterative approach.
The stakeholders and the team review the designs and the prototypes and provide feedback.
The designs are iterated upon in a few rounds, usually validated by real users’ feedback in research sessions.
The team agrees on the right solution, and engineers begin working to implement it.
Data scientists begin to set up ways to track the approved product, and marketers and the customer relationship managers prepare a rollout plan or a marketing plan.
The engineering team finishes building the MVP to be tested in the real market
The product is tested with a subset of the overall customer or user base over a period of days, weeks, or months.
If the product proves to reach the goals and the objects, based on the data collected in the test period, the prod-uct is rolled out to all existing or new customers.
By this process, a typical product designer is mostly involved in steps 2 to 7. The level of a designer’s effort rises between steps 2 and 4, peaks at step 5, sustain at steps 6 and 7, and then gradually dissipates at step 8.
This is only one way in which products are built. However, despite how the process may differ, one thing is certain: collaboration is at the heart of how modern digital products are built inside startups. Once a team is formed, product managers, designers, engineers, and all the other functionaries must learn to work well together.
How to Work with PMs
The most important relationship and partnership that a designer has in a product team is the one with the product manager. A hint of this can be seen in the fact that both titles are about the “product.”
The product manager defines what the product stems from, as in discovering and defining which problems should be solved and what jobs customers need to have done. Product designers, on the other hand, translate those discoveries into mock-ups and other representations of the product.
Understand a PM’s Job
Vice president of product design at Facebook Julie Zhuo put it best: a “PM’s job is to be a connector that helps teams ship successful products.” PMs are the ones who are supposed to unite the team in the journey of uncovering addressable problems and jobs to be done. The key here is addressable.
There are endless problems facing the world. However, given the insights and skill-sets available at a startup, that number becomes only a few, sometimes only one. It is the product manager’s job to identify what’s possible; therefore, it is important that PMs
Understand the startup mission, the business needs, and objectives
Identify the target user and the jobs to be done
Understand the constraints (engineering, organizational, etc.)
Communicate points 1, 2, and 3 with the team
When products fail to deliver, PMs usually take the brunt of the blame. This is because the PM’s job is to represent the problems, the goals, as well as the roadmap and the execution of the design and its implementation.
In the early stages of a startup, there usually exists only one product, with one PM, who could also be a founder or an early employee. The role requires a clear ability to prioritize and communicate, both verbally and in writing.
The other trait of a successful PM is the ability to work with different people. Depending on the product, industry, and context, a product manager may have to put him- or herself in many unfamiliar situations, interfacing with various functions, within or outside the team and the company.
Product managers typically have a lot of convincing to do. They usually must earn the team’s trust to get things done, because they usually don’t have the power or the logistical bandwidth to hire their own team.
Understand Your Job
Beyond simply creating flows, diagrams, UIs, and visuals, a large portion of a product designer’s job is to collaborate with product managers and engineers, so that they also get to understand the user’s goals and perspectives.
Product designers have the unique responsibility to help both the problem definition and implementation stages of the product development process, to ensure that the product being built meets the jobs users are looking to get done, in a usable and viable way.
Designers should always realize that they have the special power to make ideas come alive by prototyping. The result generates excitement about new ideas and shifts the conversation from abstract imaginations to evaluating tangible solutions.
A key to establishing a good working relationship with a PM is to really understand your own job as a product designer. While it’s the PM’s job to articulate the goals of a product, the product designer is tasked to figure out how to achieve that goal.
Inexperienced PMs and product designers often confuse the two. Sure, design, UX, and UI feedback can come from anywhere, but it is just that—feedback. Product designers should not treat them as directives.
Just as the PM should be expert at gathering constraints and contexts and then refining requirements and goals, the designer should be expert at absorbing those requirements, as well as suggestions, and evaluate, iterate, and create interfaces, experiences, and systems.
Also, product designers should realize that it is not their role or within their expertise to discover problem areas, jobs to be done, market segments, industry contexts, etc.
While product designers should participate in those processes and should feel free to share insights, suggestions, and observations on those subjects, the responsibility of defining the scope of a problem lies on the shoulders of the product manager.
Setting expectations and aligning them with the product managers’ early in the working relationship can help to avoid later friction and difficulties.
In addition to the preceding, there are a few other ways in which designers can help PMs do their job. First, product designers should always embody the user’s point of view.
This is not to say that users are always right or are reluctant to try new things, but, rather, that product designers can be more intuitively disposed to be empathetic to users.
That disposition can be harnessed to steer the design focus to the user’s goals and experiences if a PM veers toward solutions that reward the business, or the engineering process, at the expense of user experience.
Second, a product designer must learn to expand the focus beyond the user and shift the conversation from how something is achieved to why there is a desire to achieve something.
Ask for the product’s desired impact, in terms of business goals and objects. Ask the question, Assuming our end product/ feature does the job that users hire it to do, what business objectives should it achieve, in both the short and long-term?
The third way to help the PM is for the product designer to understand the trade-off between prioritization and design perfection. In a perfect world, there would be infinite time to ensure that each problem is solved perfectly.
However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Therefore, on starting a project, try to figure out the constraints and design baselines as soon as possible, such as what the baseline user experiences should be.
This will help to shape the design process in a way that makes feature prioritization a smooth exercise, rather than a painful one when the need to cut certain features arises. One of the keys to prioritizing design features with your PM is an impact and ease of implementation table.
Ease of Implementation
It’s up to PMs and engineers to determine how a product’s features fit into each quadrant and what the necessary trade-offs must be. While the imperatives cited in quadrant number 1 (high impact and easy to build features) should be prioritized first, those in quadrant 2 and 4 should be prioritized in the context of each project.
Handling Disagreements with Your PM
As mentioned earlier, while the MVP is what the team strives for, don’t allow that be an excuse to let the core usability and utility of your product suffer. Know what is really important and what the team is trying to prove or disprove about the feature you’re about to ship.
The best way to do this is to treat your PM like a partner from the get-go. Building a channel for open communication is key to getting a faster resolution to an issue.
When it comes to decisions related to user experience, your PM should defer to you. What the PM should do is articulate the importance of the product’s goals and the desired timeline from a business and customer-focused perspective.
The PM should present convincing evidence, rather than giving orders on what the product should be or should look like. From this perspective, PMs are the first and foremost problem managers.
If you can’t agree on how to work together, you should seriously consider switching to a PM who respects your model. Aside from this, there is one additional factor to which designers should pay extra attention.
This involves when a product is deemed ready to be shipped. The key here is to balance what the best experience to be delivered to the user is, to ensure that business goals are met—whether those goals are to move a metric or prove a hypothesis. Understanding the goal is crucial for the designer, and that is something design should relentlessly define and refine with the PM.
With that goal set, the designer should develop a framework of how the design performs against attributes that are important to achieving the goal. Initially, the measurements can take the form of a vote among project stakeholders who have context and, later, the form of user testing with actual users and customers.
How to Work with Engineers
Without engineers, products don’t get built. Also, unlike PMs, designers must support engineers by (a) explaining the design, to ensure that engineers understand what it is they are building, and (b) creating digital assets that engineers will require to implement the designs.
Understand Their Job
In technology startups, engineers are the ones truly translating a vision or sketch into something real. This should not be overlooked.
It doesn’t matter how good your design is, if you don’t have buy-in from the engineers who are building it, that is, making it real, reliable, fast and slick, presentable in all devices and viewports, localized in different languages and cultures, and scalable to millions and even billions of users.
Just as your PM shouldn’t treat you like a “resource,” you shouldn’t treat your engineers like one either. Instead, treat them as partners, and help them to understand the most critical things you observe.
Know Some Programming
Start by knowing the basics of how programming works. The goal is not to be able to code as well as engineers but to speak their language and build empathy for the work they do.
Engineers spend their time figuring out how to not repeat themselves in terms of writing the same logic and how to make their code scalable to the product. Designers should think in systems and patterns and have a wealth of design resources to explain their work so that engineers will eventually realize their designs.
This saves time and effort for both designers and engineers because both parties can operate within the same field of reality, on the same page, to determine what’s mundane, innovative, or too far-fetched.
Get to Know Their Constraints
Aside from knowing the baseline technology constraints, it’s advisable to bring engineers into the design process as quickly as possible, as long as the feedback you’re looking for is framed correctly.
When it comes to specific patterns or interactions that have not been implemented before, it’s always good to check in with engineers, to see how long it might take to realize them, or if they’re even possible.
By involving the team in the design process, feedback can be provided in stages, to reveal technical issues and constraints. Early in the process, having alignment on the flow of the product could help to unblock back-end engineers, as they architect how the product could work behind the scenes.
Getting the conversation rolling allows engineers to work out solutions to technical challenges among themselves and postulate possible workarounds.
Always be proactive and upfront about what is changing and what is locked for the current sprint. Engineering work is a lot harder to redo than design, owing to the various factors being considered—scalability, stability, localization, etc.
No engineer will expect that all of her/his work will be shipped in the final product, but we should keep the amount of throwaway code to a minimum.
Taking the example of construction, it’s worst when you’ve already laid down the foundation and the walls, only to realize that the designs for the walls must be altered to support a change, or that the foundation has to be redone as well.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if the deadline and/or budget could be adjusted to accommodate these changes, but in the real world, they usually can’t.
So, work with the engineering team and always do as many iterations as possible before locking in a design. Once something is locked, commit to it, by holding your PMs accountable.
Again, Guide them to the Users
Everyone who works on products loves to see their work truly benefit end users. Engineers are no exception. When engineers see the work they do in action, they can then relate to the whys and hows of a design. They can see the rationale and value of their work in the world, rather than simply blindly executing it.
While product managers are often wrapped up in navigating feature priority, timeline, and metrics, designers have the unique opportunity to relay the voice of the user or customer.
It’s good to make user-testing feedback bite-sized and easily digestible, especially in the form of video or audio. This way, anyone can quickly grasp the ins and outs of the product and see where it shines and where it falls flat. Sometimes, to get products to really shine, user feedback lights the fire of motivation.
Designs have the unique ability to make something look and feel real in a quick amount of time. In any organization, that ability, when applied correctly, can connect the teams and stakeholders and inspire people to work together with a shared context and insight.
Everyone Will Have an Opinion
Ideas can come from anywhere, and they often do. However, most ideas aren’t developed to their full form, or even beyond the first inklings. Therefore, ideas are fragile.
One of the best things designers can do is work with people on their ideas, from everywhere within an organization. One of the magical powers of designers is the ability to “fake” things—sketch things out, put together something quickly, or build prototypes. This is not unlike how an origami master can create the likeness of a swan, based on a real swan, by folding paper.
Designers should have the ability to turn ideas into prototypes that bring those ideas to life. Doing so will elevate the relevant conversation to a more tangible level and help to uncover differences and gaps in each person’s own interpretation of the supposedly same idea.
Prototyping ideas will help the design team to increase buy-in, encourage interesting perspectives, and allow for an artifact to promote real discussions with realistic expectations about where progress and improvements can be made. That is one example of a designer’s superpower to make real contributions and create positive change in any organization.
Design Is About Priorities Especially for Startups
One of the core differences between a product designer in a startup and a product designer in an established company is the spectrum of responsibilities. Startups are the very definition of chaos.
This is the case even in the most organized and well-run startups. By their nature, startups are the manifestation of a group of people not knowing whether something will succeed but trying it anyway. Some of those people provide the money (investors); others provide the skills (founders and employees).
There Is No “Right Time”
For most startups, product roadmaps and strategies are constantly being worked out. No one has a recipe for success, and as a result, no one can be sure of the “right time” to do most anything.
But that’s okay.
As product designers, we should realize that we’re all in this together, trying to figure this thing called product out. So, be ready to remind people to step back to think, not only of the business, but also of the users, their contexts, and the society as a whole.
Work with the founders and key decision makers to embrace empathy for the users, as they define the value proposition of the product.
The truth is that the right time is often now. Action begets action. Once an idea is agreed upon, go ahead and mock it up. Present your mock-up to five people and observe how they react. This is the beauty of working in a startup: you can always find ways to help shape and define the product and the strategy.
Oftentimes, you don’t even need a plan. Simply start acting, and your actions will illuminate the logical steps to follow. The key objective of taking action in a startup is to validate ideas as soon as possible. This is something that must be understood and internalized by product designers.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said that building a startup is like jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down. This is not a far-fetched statement. Startups are given a limited amount of money to prove an idea and to use that idea to make the business work.
Each month, a (sometimes large) portion of that money is spent to keep the startup going forward— paying its employees, its suppliers, and for overhead. It’s often the case that months will go by without profits coming in, as the company and team have yet to crack the predicted market.
This is why time is of the essence. In startups, the designer is often the researcher, and the research work has to be done throughout the design process.
They key is that designers should realize that fast and good don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, as long as they realize that good doesn’t have to be perfect. It simply means good enough is fine building a skateboard first, then a scooter, and then a bike, etc.
So, be ready to make trade-offs. Getting to good enough is all about making the right trade-offs to achieve the maximum. If the product is still in the MVP stage of its life cycle, meaning that the main feature hasn’t been borne out by customers, priority should be placed on the main feature. That is, the nice-to-have feature(s) should be tabled until later.
More concretely, this means that every design decision should be subjected to validation, which could be quick user-testing sessions with users who match the target audience or more formalized user research sessions with candidates from the product’s actual user base.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and simply ask your first users to give your product a try or ask them what they think about it. It is often less time-consuming than we presume, and the results are almost always very insightful.
One key difference between startups and big, established companies is the pace of change. Being able to change, adapt, and evolve quickly is the hallmark of all great startups—and product designers.
This ability to change quickly is about being comfortable with uncertainty about a product’s roadmap and the outcome of your designs. Pivoting is a real thing. Rather than fighting it, embrace the change, be agile, and keep learning beyond what is required.
The Only Metric That Matters
When it comes to each new feature, each new flow that needs to be built, the seasoned PM-turned-VC Josh Elman argues that there is only one key question that product people should ask, which is, “How many people are really using your product?”
Elman points out that most of the fluffy numbers, such as page views and monthly active users, don’t reveal much. Instead, the only question that matters is, Who is really using the product?
The answer to this question should be defined in the form of “x amount of users did these things within this time frame.” An example of this for a hypothetical search engine product can be “100 users performed three or more searches within the last 15 days.”
Elman is speaking from a social product perspective, with a focus on growth. However, the core of his assertion is true for all products: a product should have a clearly measurable and contextual objective that contributes to its long-term goal. Twitter’s mission is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
Through examining how people used Twitter over a period of time, Elman found that in order to give people that power, as mandated in the company mission, a new user has to have visited Twitter at least seven times in a month, then it becomes considerably more likely that user will stick to Twitter.
The product team working with this problem extrapolated a new goal of aiming for this metric of seven times a month and devised ways to provide enough value to new users so that they would come back to the app at least seven times monthly.
Frankly speaking, there are many metrics that can indicate the health and context of a feature in acute yet precise ways. For a larger company, the number of metrics may vary greatly, and each may carry significant importance.
In a startup, however, it’s a different story. The startup product team has to deliberately choose to not focus on all of the other metrics, because the opportunity cost of not focusing on the key metric, the one that really matters, is simply too high. A startup doesn’t have the time and resources that established companies have to address a problem from a multitude of angles.
The metric doesn’t always have to be as detailed as shown in Elman’s examples, but the key is to give context to a number. Are people really using your product? That’s the question we need to address. The reason is that the product team can use it to figure out how to really help, add value, and benefit the people buying and using the product.
Defining it with the product manager can inform the short-term and long-term design goals. Knowing it will also help to clarify lesser goals and frame design decisions. At the very least, having this conversation with the PM can help to uncover and evaluate preexisting assumptions.
Apply the 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule is that often, in a large system, 80% of the output is caused by 20% of the input. You see this pattern repeatedly, whether in economics, transportation, human habits, etc. Here are some examples:
80% of traffic is on 20% of the roads
80% of a company’s revenue is generated from 20% of customers
80% of the product experience comes from 20% of the UI
This pattern is also known as the “Pareto principle,” which is a rule of thumb for denoting power law distribution. The takeaway is that having this rule in mind allows us to define the order of importance of the problem at hand.
It allows us to focus on finding and pulling the right levers that move us toward the goal, one at a time, deploying our limited time and resources to uncover and address the most important areas at each stage.
The lesson here in regard to the 80/20 rule is to (a) get to know the situation, the problem, resources, and constraints; (b) identify the 20% area you should be spending energy on and deploy your resources to it; and (c) repeat the process of gathering intelligence, strategizing for the next stage.
This process of solving one critical issue at a time can extend from business strategy all the way down to individual UI decisions.
Given the nature of startups, product designers must be decisive and have a bias toward taking action. In addition, designers should work with product managers, engineers, and data scientists to uncover the one metric that truly matters when growing a product. Tactically, designers should understand and use the 80/20 rule, to prioritize and make decisions.
Designing for Scale From Four Perspectives
The word scale has been used in the tech world to mean many different things. In engineering, it refers to the process and methods that can lead the product or service to handle often-sudden increases in system complexity, user requests, and actions. It enables the product to continue to perform smoothly, without defects and failures as the company “scales” bigger.
The scale has become a verb that founders and investors throw around in discussing the growth of a startup. In general, it means the conscious effort to grow something. Whether that something is the number of users, the revenue numbers, the profit margin, or the regions covered by a product is entirely dependent on the context of the company.
In this sense, to scale a product means to adapt sudden growth—in usage, a number of markets and languages localized and supported, the complexity of the product’s internal workings, and depth and width of features, new and old.
While this take of the word scale is something that startup designers should understand and work with, there are three more layers of the word that product designers should embrace.
The design is about trade-offs, but that doesn’t mean it should be limiting or elitist. Good design should be egalitarian; it should benefit as many people as possible.
To scale a product is to not confuse product aesthetics or product user interface with the product itself.
Always design with the future in mind. Rather than creating feature after feature, create systems and processes that can help everyone adapt to changes. Use design to empower within.
Systems for Designers and Engineers
As a startup designer, engineers will frequently check in with you to understand how exactly a design is supposed to be executed or when they encounter implementation challenges to your designs.
There might be other designers who are working on parts of the product that complete the parts you’re working on. This is when it is appropriate to gather the team and come up with a design system.
Some people in the design community will discuss at length the differences between a design system, a pattern library, and a style guide. However, semantics aside, what the team requires is a shared reference in which different stakeholders can speak the same language when it comes to designing and implementing new and existing features.
A design system typically contains the templates, patterns, components, and, most important, guidelines on how to use them. It is a living document that is subject to change. However, changes must be agreed upon and then publicly communicated to ensure the appropriate updates to existing products if needed.
It is a system that acts as a single source of truth for teams within a startup that design, develop, and realize a product. A good design system helps bring clarity, efficiency, and autonomy to design and engineering teams. A good design system also brings standardization and consistency to the product.
How Do We Create a Design System?
Start by sitting down with engineers and ask what can design do to make your and your team more successful. Then dig deeper, based on the answers you get.
If an engineer says it would be great if she could get more meeting time with designers, ask why. Is it because designs shown to the engineers are incomplete? Or is it because there are not enough guidelines and documentation to explain how to implement those designs? Get to the bottom of the matter.
Then ask yourself if are their things that you’re doing that can be templatized, modularized, or automated. Are there things that the team is creating and re-creating for each project? Dig deeper and come up with a list of tasks that could benefit from the simple act for using a template.
If the product contains a mostly visual user interface, it’s worthwhile to consider whether rules should exist for the following aspects:
Copywriting, voice, and tone
Spacing and grids
Motion and animation
Don’t design systems for the sake of designing systems, because chances are they’ll end up not being applicable. Remember: These templates are meant to be used in real situations and contexts, to help and guide users. Let the user’s goals, needs, and context guide your designs and let your designs guide your systems.
Over time, as the same designs are turned into code repeatedly, it is advisable that engineers also modularize the code they’ve written in the same format as the design system specifies. In so doing, the design system truly becomes a living, breathing entity that can drastically increase engineering efficiency.
When to Use and Not Use Design Systems
Design systems allow designers not to waste time doing things that in the end don’t help users. If buttons in your product are tried and true, there is no need to reinvent them (unless you’re in the business of inventing buttons, and your customers could benefit from newer and more innovative ones).
For features that are commonplace and have proven to be useful and usable, apply design patterns, to speed up the design and engineer process, as mentioned previously.
However, don’t let design systems be a crutch. They should not be an excuse to make designers lazy and lead to cookie-cutter solutions that are arbitrarily limited by what is in the design system toolbox.
This is a risk and trap that designers must avoid. Use critical thinking to analyze what the user needs are at each stage of their journey. Forget about design systems at the initial stage of the design process. Instead, think of the ideal solutions first, then let the need for new systems and processes emerge over time.
Scaling a product is probably the most demanding aspect of being a startup product designer because there are so many traps and pitfalls along the way.
By falling in love with solving the user’s problem, never deviating from that core mission, and avoiding the common pitfall of confusing aesthetics with the design itself, designers can inspire their team to stay level-headed, even in the midst of fast growth.
Also, by designing for accessibility and inclusion through-out the process of scaling a product, the designer can help to ensure that the product lives up to its potential and benefits as many people as possible.
Most important, to truly innovate a product beyond the existing cookie-cutter molds, the designer must consider the (new) systems and processes on which the product can be realized.