The Place For Design And UX In Startup Products

Creators. Makers. Designers. Engineers. Regardless of title, we all have a sense of pride in creating something of quality. We slave over our respective platforms, paper/code/software/web, and we strive to create something that represents us as creatives. Our craft is incredibly important to us, just as it was to craftsmen in the past who spent hours or days sculpting their materials into final products.

But there is a rift in our profession and it is threatening the very craft we respect. That rift is the minimum viable product (MVP) that is currently thriving in startup cultures.


Let me first say that I believe that the MVP is a critical part of the 'new product life-cycle' and I am, by no means, saying that the MVP itself is the problem.

The MVP is a critical starting point for most startups and new product ideas. Essentially, you build the most simplified version of your idea in order to gather feedback from your target users. It saves you time and energy if, for example, your product is solving a problem that doesn't exist. The MVP allows you to find out early that your product might be, in the worst case, a failure, or simply be slightly off-track. The MVP can also even give hints that the product is going to be a rousing success if you pay attention to your path.

The problem surfaces with the co-founders / teams that are pushing for MVPs that lack any sense of experience research or quality design. There are multiple issues with this. First, users will have a difficult time when they try your product. The first impression is as critical for apps as it is for new relationships - if a user has a terrible first experience because of a lack of UX research or design, the likelihood that they will remain a user or even return after an overhaul is remarkably low. Second, the data and feedback you gather about your product won't be dependable. With an approach like this, you have introduced too many variables into the equation. It would be impossible to tell whether a user's inability to use your product is because the product is not solving a real problem or of it was because the user literally could not figure out how to use the product. These two cases have drastically different solutions - one could mean a pivot or even abandoning the project, while another requires an overhaul of the product's UX.

A misconception about design

I think that the issue behind these mvp's is that some teams still have a terrible misconception about design and it's place in the product development lifecycle.

These teams still consider design, including the user experience, to be a layer of makeup — something that isn't necessary and won't be missed.

This approach is catastrophically wrong.

Companies that are reaching success today — Apple in the product world, Clear and Readmill in the iOS ecosystem, and Tweetbot or Kaleidoscope in the desktop space — are all reaching this stage because of a successful combination of good ideas, good design and good execution. It isn't a coincidence that companies that favored great design overtook their competitors, often with tremendous backing.

These companies/products/teams have done well because they value design and understand what that value means for them. They understand that treating the product with a sense of quality and love will flow through to users and create a sense of trust. That initial trust will be what keeps the user coming back before the product is feature-complete.

The delight of using a product is a powerful feeling. I have personally taken a shot with new applications and the sheer delight of using those applications has made me replace the fully functional option that I had been using for years prior. (See: Clear vs Reminders app.) Using an app that is completely functional is fine - it accomplishes the tasks at hand and does so with a respectable amount of speed and polish. But using an app that does all of the above and is a true pleasure to use? That is the app that people will talk about. That is the product that people will recommend to their friends and family. That is the team that will climb the ladders of success.

Take Action

This is a call to all 'makers' in startups. Treat your product with more respect, especially in the early stages. It is easy to write off a minimum viable product as something that doesn't need polish or care but that simply isn't true. You are selling yourself short and you are doing it at the expense of your users.

It can be handled very simply - just plan smarter: Cut one edge feature so you can spend time on making a product that has a well thought out experience and a pleasing & usable interface.

Your users will thank you.