Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


Over the last few years, I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of startups. While most entrepreneurs have the drive, courage and leadership required to take on such endeavors, I’ve found they don’t always have the skills needed for developing great products that people love. More often than not, it’s trial by error as they burn through loads of cash and fend off frustrated board members.

The method for building successful products should never, as product guru Marty Cagan likes to explain it, feel like playing darts blindfolded. With companies like IDEO, Cooper, Adaptive Path and 37 Signals sharing their industry secrets, there’s really no excuse anymore for building products haphazardly. It’s my hope the following will help, in some small way, to guide early startups on the right path to creating the next killer app.

Engineers Designer Wanted
10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for engineers to both design and build an application. “Graphic designers” were just starting to get their heads around the digital space and for the most part, products were designed and built from start to finish by engineers. While many products “functioned” correctly, often the result was a user experience that lacked empathy for the user (a design skill) and a frustrating process where everyone from product manager to CEO was at the mercy of the engineer’s discretion.

Flash forward to 2010 and what we find are designers doing a lot of the up-front work in order to ensure the usability and perceived value of a digital product. More than anything, what designers bring to a project at the beginning is insurance that what you’re about to build will be successful. How do they do this? They apply design thinking:

  • Take risks at the early stages when there’s room for error
  • Conduct research to understand the target audience’s goals, behaviors and attitudes
  • Test ideas to gather immediate feedback and make any course changes early
  • Challenge a product or service’s usability, feasibility and perceived value

All this begins before one line of code is ever typed. Rather than hiring a bunch of engineers to start building from the get-go, the focus is on product discovery via a high-fidelity prototype (HTML with light scripting or Flash) that mimics the user experience. Like building a house, the first step isn’t to begin pouring the foundation, but to work with the architects to create a plan and test the design (with a prototype) before the construction team shows up.

Start out with a good product manager and designer and consult the rest. Between your product manager and designer, you should be able to get your vision off and running, keep costs down and hopes up.

Fail quickly and early (and cheaply)

One of the design thinker’s mantras is “fail quickly and early.” That’s right, go ahead and fail—just do it while it’s cheap and easy to do so.

Prototypes, both low-fidelity and high-fidelity, are a great way to safely test out ideas early in the process. Have a whacky idea that might just be the next Twitter? Test it. Had a heated argument about the validity of a certain feature? Test it.

With interactive prototyping tools like Axure and the soon-to-be-launched Adobe Flash Catalyst, you can put together a wireframe prototype in no time in order to test your vision. And if your idea turns out to be a complete flop? Well…better now than later when it could cost you weeks of code or sending an apology letter to your user base.

Feasible, usable, valuable
So, you have a prototype that matches your vision perfectly and (in your mind) appears to be a Facebook killer. Now’s the time to be asking yourself the following:

Is the product feasible? Somebody grab the technologist because we need find out if what we’re proposing is even technologically possible or if we are light years away. Bringing a technologist into the equation early has both its advantages and disadvantages. In this case, it’s important to understand now, whether or not your concept has wings. A good technologist will also provide insight into what else is possible (i.e., “Did you know we could…”).

On the other hand, some technologists may have a narrow view of what’s possible and you can run the risk of killing innovation. The initial iPad feedback coming from the tech community is an example where technologists don’t see the value in what could be a game-changer for the industry. A good strategy in the early stages is to “shoot for the moon”, drafting plans that are creative and uninhibited by barriers (within reason, of course).

Is the product usable? You “get it,” but will your users? Designers like to use fancy words like heuristic evaluation to describe testing the usability of a product. Some quick heuristics to test are: user control and freedom, consistency, error prevention, efficiency and aesthetics. Again, a prototype along with direct observation of test participants are used to grade the usability of a product.

Is the product valuable? What is the perceived value of the product in the eyes of the user/customer? In other words, will anyone care? An invention only becomes an innovation once others recognize the value of it. Does the world need another Facebook or My Space?…probably not.

I (heart) users
Everyone knows the key to success is building a product people love. Steve Jobs likes to reminds us of this. Are Apple products more expensive that their competitors’? Sure, but it doesn’t matter. We still buy them.

According to the book The Design of Sites, there are four types of design styles. The first is company-centered design where the priorities of the company are put before those of the user. In return, little thought is given to what customers want to do. An example of this is making users register before giving them access to an application’s features.

The second style is technology-centered design. Here, technology is an end rather than a means of accomplishing and end. Just because you can build it, doesn’t mean you should or that anyone will want it.

Thirdly, there’s design-centered design. In design-centered design, “the needs of other people are given less importance than the creative and expressive needs of the design team.” An example is the designer who is only concerned with the emotional impact of the user experience and ignores other key elements such as usability.

Lastly, there’s customer-centered design. This is the sweet spot that “emphasizes customers and their tasks above all, and sees technology as a tool that can empower people.” While it’s important to meet business goals, it’s equally as important to show empathy for the user by deeply understanding their needs, behaviors and attitudes. Lose site of the user and you’re lost. In any case, if you build a product people love, many of your business requirements will already have been met.

Test it, test it, test it

Test it at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. A common misconception is testing wastes a lot of time and money. In the hay day when focus groups were lead by over-inflated marketing agencies, it did. Welcome to the 21st century. Usability testing can now be done in a variety of ways that are both relatively cheap and fast. Sites like UserTesting.com allow for quick turn-arounds and for about $50 a user, you can hire live participants to try out your product at your work place and gather insights. A morning of usability testing at about $150 (3 participants) is time and money well-spent assuring your team they’re on the right track. Learn to enjoy testing and do it frequently. Not only will you find it a nice distraction from looking at documentation and mockups all day, but it could save you a lot of money and everyone headaches along the way.

Build a minimal product
“Build half a product, not a half-ass product” – 37 Signals

Start by building a minimum product to ensure you can get something out sooner rather than later. Build a good foundation and add later as your product gains traction with your users. Many times I’ve witnessed what could’ve been a very nice product launch, turn into something that only the business owners thought was a success. The feeling is “We’ve worked very hard on this and we deserve to feel proud about it.” Unfortunately, your users could care less how many hours you’ve put into it. That’s why it’s important to plan well and bite off only as much you can chew.

“Perfection” is a word people don’t like to use in product meetings. It’s time to bring the perfectionists back with the caveat that the team work on less rather than more in order to achieve both a product that is elegant and do-able by the product team. In the long-run, you’re users will thank you with rave reviews and you can return the favor with frequent updates as you check-off one new feature after another.

Feedback comes in many flavors
While usability testing and free beta versions provide invaluable feedback to your product team, so does social media. Companies now have a variety of ways to gather feedback from their customers, whether it be comments to their blog posts, Twitter feed or Facebook page. Jump on the social media bandwagon early to pick up on the vibe from your users and get people’s reactions to your product early. Consider social media your focus group.

Common pitfalls
As mentioned at the beginning of the post, startups are often lead by people that might not have a lot of experience when it comes to product development. An MBA might buy you business credentials but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being a great product designer. Here are some areas entrepreneurs often get stuck:

“We’ll see what sticks”
The mindset is to throw several concepts at the wall like spaghetti and see what sticks with your users/customers. This brings us back to the throwing-darts analogy. The idea is to test all concepts before they reach your audience. Not only will this save you time and a wad of cash, but it will help maintain a fickle user base while you experiment with other ideas. “We’ll see what sticks” isn’t a plan, it’s a last minute desperate measure to find the right solution.

“Build it and they will come”
Just because you can make something doesn’t mean you should. Just like the Facebook example…does the world need another? Test your concept early to see if people care and whether or not it’s worth spending other people’s money on.

“We don’t have time for usability testing”
With all the tools available for usability testing these days, there’s no excuse for not doing it. A little goes a long way with this one.

“We’ll let the users tell us what they want”

While usability testing offers an invaluable means for directly observing your users as they try out your product, it can also turn into a design crutch. Usability testing should only be used to confirm the validity of your concepts and not as a means to arrive to them. The customer doesn’t always know what they want.

U. of Product Design
Lastly, we’re fortunate to live in a time when knowledge is so easy to come by. Many of the top interactive design studios and universities offer courses for those who would like to become better product leaders. Here are a few, all located in the Bay Area:

Cooper Cooper | U
Adaptive Path In-house Training and Virtual Seminars
Silicon Valley Product Group Public Workshops
Stanford D. School Exec Ed

Related Posts:
Why Some Startups Fail
Design Thinking 101
Help! My Designer Wants a “Discovery Phase”



  1. 1 Jason Putorti

    Great article Daniel!

  2. 2 rachna

    very helpful. thank you!

  3. 3 Paul Cheek

    I like the tips, I’ll keep them in mind as I launch this summer.

  1. 1 Design Thinking For Startups | andrewteman.org
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