Quick-start guide to building a design-first company

In an age where user experience (UX) is key to a business’s success and differentiation, innovative teams know they have to prioritize UX from day one.

Regardless of your company or industry, better design creates an improved user experience and drives customer excitement for your product. Zealous customers become early adopters, and in optimal scenarios, can help a product go viral through grassroots evangelism. McKinsey’s The Business Value of Design report tracks the McKinsey Design Index (MDI), which rates companies by strength of design and how design plays into their financial performance. The report found top-quartile MDI companies had 32% higher revenue growth than their industry counterparts over the course of a five-year period. Design is essential to success.

The following tactical tips can help your company prioritize design from day one.

1. Talk to your users

Building well-designed products comes down to a simple principle: making your users happy. To make your users happy, you need to talk to them, understand what they really need and want, and dig into key pain points. The top priority is to understand how your product addresses pain points, and more specifically, how your product’s design meaningfully adds to or detracts from user experience.

Talk to dozens of customers and understand why they enjoy using your product. What are their favorite parts? Least favorite parts? What are their key pain points (both related to your product and related to their job at large)? How does your product fit into or disrupt their existing workflow? Customer conversations are not just one and done. It is crucial to be in constant communication with customers and use their insights to continuously iterate on the product.

Make sure you also have a good idea of who your target customers are. You might expect your target customers to be one demographic, but in reality, your product could end up being readily used by a totally different one! (This can be a good thing, especially if you are willing to be creative.)

A few resources to get you started:

2. Communicate with your audience

There are several ways to start building trust with your audience even before your product has launched. Working in public, or sharing work with the world as it is being developed, is an important way to build community and gather feedback. Some great ways to put this idea into practice are:

  • Community update emails, including key product milestones achieved, roadmap, and asks — for example, help with hiring and introductions to specific types of investors.
  • Blog posts are a traditional way to provide updates to the community.
  • If the company has an open-source element, GitHub is a great place to build and engage with an active community of passionate and technical individuals.
  • Platforms like Slack or Discord often offer a forum separate from GitHub that allow a community to grow and connect organically. They afford more spontaneity through external plug-ins like Donut, which pair people up to get to know one another better
  • Focus groups (also great for user research) allow companies to get to know their users’ pain points, and thoughts on the product, if developed. Small, targeted focus groups can lead to rich feedback and power users. See this First Round Review for more information on qualitative research

These initiatives help generate support for a technology from the bottom up, but more importantly, they help foster a human connection, which makes any purchasing decision simpler.

3. Create clear documentation

Documentation is created to share technical and visual design elements and to serve as a persistent style guide within an organization. Internal documentation helps employees understand the company’s mission, vision, roadmap, and north star. It can also cover standard operating procedures and resources. External documentation is designed for current and future users of the product. An external knowledge base is a public-facing toolset answering basic questions about the company and includes demos, integration information, how-to guides, etc.

Documentation should ultimately minimize the amount of time key employees spend answering questions. Clear documentation can also reduce friction in the sales process by allowing a user to get up and running faster.

Tools:

  • Read the Docs is a free and open-source effort that simplifies software documentation by building, versioning, and hosting of docs automatically. According to its website, “Read the Docs Community hosts documentation for over 100,000 large and small open-source projects, in almost every human and computer language.”
  • GitBook started in 2014 as an open-source tool for developers to build documentation. Today it allows teams to create internal and external documentation.
  • Confluence by Atlassian.
  • Optic helps companies keep their API docs updated.
  • Almanac, a platform for creating and collaborating on open-source work documents, templates, and checklists, offers a guide on documentation: How to Write Technical Documentation for Your Software Project by Damien Filiatrault

4. Think about the user interface (UI)

Beyond just talking to your users, it’s important to understand how your users interact and live with your product. What parts do they spend the most time on? How often do they engage with your product? What pages do they get stuck on? It is as important to understand what parts of the product your users are working on most as it is to understand where they are not.

As you begin tracking user behavior, make sure you have a feedback loop in place to measure and respond to events. User behavior tracking will enable you to identify unique drop-off rates and adapt your product in real time.

Ultimately, you can’t design a better UI until you understand the baseline for said user experience!

Tools:

  • Use FullStory, Cohere, or other user tracking apps to watch, interact with, and analyze user behavior and patterns over time.
  • Develop a robust set of product analytics tools like Amplitude, MixPanel, or others.
  • Check out Mixpanel’s Behavioral Analytics Guide.
  • Listen to the Airbnb How I Built This podcast; Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia talks about his realization that making two small product tweaks — professional home photos and frictionless payment — changed the trajectory of his company.

5. Minimize Friction

Focus on making your product as easy to use and try as possible. Identify any friction points to user adoption and work to reduce them. With short user attention spans, rapid time to value is a necessity. Try to identify lightweight ways to show value on a small scale (e.g. trial, online beta version) to pique the interest of prospective customers. Try to think of ways for your product to seamlessly fit into workflow and more importantly find value in as low-friction a way as possible.

Asana’s design principles state, “design for fast, effortless, and intentional interactions. Simple and common tasks should be frictionless and obvious; complex tasks should feel efficient and delightful. But speed should not lead to inaccuracies.”

Tools:

6. Spice up your website

Does your website reflect your product and design principles? Your product value? Your website is often your users’ first impression and interaction with your product; the user experience should be meaningful.

While it depends on your product, a good website usually has three main attributes:

  1. A clear description of the product (in a concise way that product users will understand). Krisp, the noise cancelling app, is a good example.
  2. An easy way to sign up or try the product. A quick response time to leads improves conversion rates. Aglet points you directly to its app, through which you experience its core product, which turns physical steps into virtual currency.
  3. Case studies can build credibility. Why is your product worth learning more about, and how does it work in practice? Amplitude has a great page on case studies filterable by industry to illustrate its product value and reaffirm credibility.

Blogs or written content, i.e.thought leadership in your category can drive traffic to your website as an added bonus!

A few website tips:

  • Canva – lightweight logo creation and design.
  • Squarespace or Webflow have beautiful, easily adaptable website templates, which can be a good starting point
  • If you’re looking for outsourced help, the Webflow Experts Community, JulyCamp, or FuzzCo can help with website design or creative brand definition.

7. Community & personalization

It’s the little things that count. You can roll your eyes, but this cliche rings true in the context of user experience. Software and consumer goods companies both have opportunities when it comes to making the user feel valued. The pandemic-driven paradigm shift for how humans interact with digital goods gives companies an excuse to be creative. Depending on a company’s end goal, how it makes consumers feel can positively impact its bottom line.

Take the example of Peloton. Peloton works hard to build its community of riders and instructors. The instructors are personable and friendly, riders follow them on social media, comment on posts, and engage in the community. When riders complete 100 rides, Peloton sends them a “century club” T-shirt. Riders get a dopamine rush from achieving this goal, and seeing fellow riders in the “century club” T-shirt out in public makes them feel as if they’ve gained admittance into an exclusive club.

Give the people what they want! Stripe also offers a community-first approach. Though it is a payments company, it acquired Indie Hackers (a startup-focused community), offers Stripe Atlas (resources to help with company formation), and runs Stripe Press (a publishing arm focused on “books about economic and technological advancement”). Stripe understands by offering tools to innovators and entrepreneurs before they even begin their businesses, it improves its own visibility and bottom line.

Know the key user personas in your community and determine how you can make the experience incredible for these groups. User personas are characters that embody the needs, traits, and goals of a company’s current or ideal customer based on user research. As a thought exercise, you can think through what Peloton, Stripe, or your favorite company’s user personas might look like and cater your product accordingly. There are numerous effective templates and services available to help with user research and in developing user personas. Examples: UserTesting, Lookback, and Personify.

Design as a first principle is paramount to creating a magical user experience.

Morgan Mahlock is an investor at In-Q-Tel, the non-profit strategic investor supporting the U.S. intelligence and national security community, on the West Coast Investment team. She previously spent time at the NFL and at Lockheed Martin and works with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including BLCK VC and EVCA. 

Grace Isford is an investor at Canvas Ventures, an early-stage boutique venture firm focusing on leading Series A&B rounds in enterprise & consumer investments. She previously worked in growth equity at Stripes Group, as a product manager at Handshake, a digital recruitment platform for college students, and at the Stanford Management Company, helping manage over $24 billion in assets.

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