8 Design Tips for Startups – Moving Beyond Aesthetics

Smart! Very smart!

by Blogging Innovation

8 Design Tips for Startups – Moving Beyond Aesthetics

by Thomas Petersen

8 Design Tips for Startups - Moving Beyond AestheticsDon’t panic, this is not going to be a lecture on typography or what color palette you should use. It’s not going to require you to have the latest Creative Suite from Adobe either. In fact you don’t need to be a designer or UXD expert to use these principles. This is an attempt to cut through the noise from the art directors, usability experts, designers, developers, Venture Capitalist and family members to help you design better products.

So what does it take to design a successful digital product or service? Is it the brand, the choice of colors, the functionality, the chosen platform, or the social features?

Well all of the above certainly have some importance, but it’s going to be very hard to prove that one particular element is why company X is a success. All too often we become attached to this idea that there is a recipe for success. That if you just get the right idea or if your design is cool or uses a certain technology you will be successful.

Nothing in my experience, supports that belief. In fact what means success for one company might spell failure for another.

For instance WordPress.com is based on PHP, a server side language that many “real” developers loathe. They claim it’s not a real programming language and that it doesn’t scale well. None-the-less, a whole plethora of successful companies uses PHP, including FaceBook.

Google isn’t exactly winning design prizes for their look and feel, yet they are so successful that many companies are copying their style.

Hulu.com was a success long before they started to add more complex social features. Joost was designed primarily around social features and have joined the deathpool.

In other words, there are as many ways to design a successful product, as there are ways to design a failure.

Large companies almost never allow for failure, which partly explains why their solutions most of the time are as bland as they are.

They have the money to continue down a dead-end and will invest millions in doing all the right things from user research, to usability tests to 5 different design proposals to establishing brand guidelines, then launch something two years too late to great fanfare and unfortunately often to great obscurity.

If you are a startup, you are normally not allowed (and shouldn’t be) to spend that much time and money building spaceships no one want to fly.

So what to do.

Take the design process seriously, but don’t get too attached to one particular part of it and don’t rely on any one particular discipline to give you the right answers. Get to the point where you have real users or customers as quickly as possible. It’s these users that will provide you with the information that will get you you in a position to make better design decisions.

The following principles should help you get in a position:

1. Start simple, stay simple.

It cannot be said enough. Less is more – much more, and there is a very good reason that it pays to understand.

“If you do less you can measure more. If you can measure more you can better experiment with what works.”

Most products are simple, based on simple insights.

Make sure that you stay true to those insights, until you know you tried out every different interpretation of them. Don’t add new features just because you think that it will help, it won’t, not yet. If your product becomes a success it’s not because of how many features it has.

2. Don’t confuse change with improvement.

One of the biggest challenges record artist face when producing a new album is fatigue. They get this from listening to the same riffs, passages, drum tracks, choruses etc. over and over and over. It’s actually one of the reasons why many have a problem listening to their own album when it’s finally out. Startups as intense and time consuming as they are, have similar problems. It’s very tempting after a couple of months of looking at the same design to want to change it and think you are improving your product. You aren’t, so don’t succumb to the temptation. It’s not worth it.

Furthermore, if it goes like it does in most cases, you will soon enough have to spend resources on changing things after you launch.

3. Build to integrate.

Think about whether your product could be a good extension to already existing products/services. That way you can tap into already existing digital ecosystems and leverage on their popularity and reach this will give you some standards to adhere to. Remember that the more you are able to interface with other services the more trust you will establish. Guilt by association works both ways.

4. Don’t do everything that is possible only what is necessary.

Constrain yourself. A good product has limitations. It doesn’t just succumb to every temptation that comes along. Focus on what makes your product the product and only add features if you get clear signs that it is needed. Most users will have to learn your product anyway so don’t try to impress them with features before they understand what your product is all about. iTunes may have many flaws, Basecamp from 37Signals leaves a lot to be asked for, but when all is said and done, their products are rock solid and there is no feature like the rock solid feature.

5. Usability studies and focus groups are for refinement not for innovation.

Let me be perfectly clear. Running a successful and informative usability study or focus group wont help you understand whether the market wants your product or whether you have solved your interaction flow satisfactory. I know there is a lot of buzz around User Centered Design (UCD) and that a hoard of usability experts will claim that they can help you design more successful products if you just ask the user (Which I find ironic). Don’t believe the hype, I say this as someone who also makes a living doing usability tests. There are a few situations where usability studies make sense for startups, but most likely it wont be in your situation.

I will write a separate post about UCD but leave you with a few observations.

There is no one-to-one relationship between what people say in a focus group and what they actually do. It’s way to complex and there are way to many psychological elements and social dynamics involved to allow you to extrapolate important data out of it at an early stage.

In most cases you are testing in a pseudo environment with mock-ups, html prototypes or even paper prototypes. Just imagine how Twitter, SMS, Google or LastFM in its early days would have scored. So many products need to be experienced before users will provide you with any valuable insights to build on.

It would be like trying to determine the usage and usability of a hammer by looking at a piece of paper with a drawing of it. You get the picture.

6. A feature is not a product.

Speaking of hammers.

Don’t just think about your product as a bunch of features. Instead focus on what it is your are selling at its core. What is needed for your product to function? How much can you take away from it without sacrificing the core product.

Think about features as something to add after you have launched.

Features are something to add after launch
A hammer has one purpose, which is to help you knock in nails. Everything on top of that are features. Therefore understand when you are working on your core product and when you are working on adding features.

The benefits of thinking like this, is that it will help you establish a very clear an precise picture of what makes your product your product. Which means you will much better be able to understand why you are adding features when you are and won’t get caught in the “me to” behavior that can drive companies out of business very fast.

7. Think how, not what.

What matters is not what functionality your product has, but how it works. A sign-up process is not just a sign-up process, a checkout process is not just a checkout process, a button is not just a button, a rating system is not just a rating system.

Think about how you can stand out by introducing something that everyone else might have but in a unique way. That’s what Steepster did when they re-designed their rating system (see how they did here). Skype was not the first VOIP provider, far from, but Skype managed to make it stand out and look like a product not just a technology. In other words they productified a technology

You will be surprised how much the “how” can help improving your product.

8. It’s not innovation to use the latest technology.

It’s tempting to try and set yourself apart by using the latest build of some framework or technology. But don’t do it just because it’s the latest. Make sure that you understand the implications of what you are introducing. Is it processor intensive, is it increasing load time, does it improve the experience, is it understood by enough developers so that you can optimize it.

If you can’t answer the above, you probably shouldn’t do it.

All too often companies get caught in thinking that new technology in itself is the differentiation factor. But as most successful businesses know. Innovations have an introduction curve and not everyone should take advantage of a given technology just because it’s available.


Designing successful products has more to do with understanding what doesn’t work than with what works. If you can get your company in a position where you can “feel” the state of your product, you are able to make smarter decisions and in effect will have a better chance of success.

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Thomas PetersenThomas Petersen is the co-founder of hello, a digital creative agency that designs and develops products and services. He writes on Black&WhiteTM and on twitter @hello_world.

Startups Entrepreneurship Strategy Management Leadership 37signals Thomas Petersen Design Innovation

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