How Customers Sculpt your Product’s Design

In my post the Design Dilemma for Lean Startups I discussed how every startup needs to find the Minimum Design Level of their product and do so while being customer-centered when deciding how much to invest in design rather than basing via the resources available to the startup. In this post, I’ll illustrate how extending our effort into understanding who the target customer is provides valuable guidance for our design.

Start Honing Customer Segments

hone customer segments into an early adopter

Even if your product has broad appeal to many customers or solves a universal problem, the goal is to focus in on a well defined customer segment that represents your prototypical first customer (early adopter).  This is because:

“You can’t effectively build, design, and position a product for everyone.”

Ash Maurya

For example, if we have a startup idea with a problem/solution around file sharing, think of how altering just one characteristic of the customer segment (parents vs. teenagers, lawyers vs. designers, or men vs. women) transforms the entire business model. This same impact holds true for the design.  A landing page for software targeting parents won’t look the same as one targeting teenagers. Parents and teenagers have different characteristics, different values, different goals, and as so the elements of our design needs to be unique to them.

The advantage is when we begin to string together multiple characteristics (profession, age, gender, income, etc) of our early adopters we get an outline of knowledge that gives our design clear directions.  With a strong sense of who we’re targeting we can tailor: images to showcase the right kind of people, color sets that convey the proper tone, or UI controls that match the technical sophistication of our customer.

Add Empathy with Personas

build empathy
In the earlier example, we refined our customer segments via demographic characteristics but we can uncover more reference points by connecting with our customers on an emotional level through the invention of personas.

Personas are fictional characters you create of your customers that help guide decisions by understanding who they are, what goals or aspirations they have, what their fears or frustrations are, and other day in the life type of information. There are many variables to choose from with many mapping to psychographics while blending in demographics.

For me, the persona exercise helps frame my thinking through the customer’s point-of-view. It enhances customer understanding and creates a one-page resource that helps avoid focusing too much on just the bits and bytes of a design.

“Personas makes it easier to be human-centered.”

Don Norman

This is an asset as our design, the element that many times serves as the tipping point for sparking interest, desire, and action, needs emotional triggers from which to spring. Commanding attention or making a lasting, visceral impact is easier to achieve when the design touches on the likes/tastes/goals of the customer.

Creating and Using a Persona
While personas can be data-driven documents created by professionals who conduct extensive analysis, here at Spark59 we go with the more informal “Ad-Hoc Persona” which taps into the background knowledge we already contain from personal experience. For more depth on them visit Tamara Adlin’s website and Jeff Gothelf’s post on his experience creating and using them in an executive setting.

Here’s an example of one of our personas for USERcycle.  We took our early adopter (males who are technical founders building SaaS companies with 10-15 sign-ups a day) and created an ad-hoc persona named “Josh” using our own blend of psychographics and demographics in Apple’s Keynote software.


Spark59 persona sheet

When it came time to make the teaser page for USERcycle we asked “What would Josh love to see?”  The end result was a Matrix inspired teaser page, not because we like the movie (which we do), but rather because Josh liked it.

USERcycle teaser page

Getting Started
When starting out best guesses are fine as the best outcome is to create a living document. One that is updated on a continuous basis as customer learning increases through getting out of the building.

Not every customer will conform to your early adopter definition, and not every piece of information will be accurate in your persona sheet. That’s ok. The value is not derived from getting the details perfect; it’s gained by pushing forward your critical thinking on customers and keeping them in the forefront of your design decisions.

  • Jeremy Blanchard

    One thing I really appreciate about Spark59 and Running Lean is how you folks manage to integrate many of the popular tools in the startup toolbox into your workflows. Before I read Running Lean, I knew of all of the tools. Now I actually see how and when to use them at the appropriate times. With customer development in hand, it’s clear that you shouldn’t make a user persona until after you’re done with your problem interviews and understand your early adopters.

    This is far more helpful than how I was approaching it before: “Oh, I guess I’m going to start doing visual design now, oh wait, should I do a persona first so I know who this designer is for?” It’s all so much clearer when you can set it in a framework.


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