The Design Dilema for Lean Startups

This is a post by Emiliano Villarreal who is our “designer” at Spark59.  

One of the top questions I get when helping entrepreneurs, especially those who have not achieved product/market fit, is “How much should I invest into the design of my… landing page,  MVP,  smoke-test, pitch deck,… etc.”  The commonly cited answer is that “it depends.” But it depends on WHAT?

The dilemma
Calculating the right level of form in relation to function is one of the longest running debates across all the disciplines of design.  In simple terms, it’s deciding the balance between the utility a product provides (function) and the beauty of it (form).  As the classic example below taken from the Universal Principles of Design book shows, focusing heavily on one area greatly impacts the end result.

Function vs Form

For a Startup
When discussing this dilemma for Lean startups I like to make the terms more contextual – function becomes features and form becomes design.

Feature vs Design

Feature is what solves the problem(s) your product is targeting.  As an example, if file sharing is the problem the feature could be software that automatically syncs files (Dropbox) or software that uses the power of multiple seeds for fast distribution (p2p).

Design then for a product is its visceral form and how the interaction between the features and user occurs. Sticking with the file sharing example, the design components could be a simple email-like interface (Yousendit) or traditional OS integration (Dropbox).

Why this gets risky
Most startups in the beginning face a limited runway for becoming sustainable.  Given a finite amount of time & money, most prioritize features at the expense of design.

Which seems logical as a product that fails to build strong features essentially provides little value to the customer.  If the features aren’t compelling, it is likely that customer retention will be low, referrals will be non-existent, and there isn’t much prospect for growth.

On the flip-side, a product that fails to invest enough in its design might suffer from perceptions about quality, frustrations from usability, or simply fail to get a customer’s attention.  This renders any value derived from features moot.

The catch is under investing in either one can kill the startup. So the question is not omitting one at the cost of the other, it’s finding the minimum needed for both.

A different approach
Just like there is a minimum feature set that must be defined to build your MVP, there is a minimum design level that must be reached for every product to be effective regardless if it is a landing page, smoke test, or paid app.

Where most people are afraid that a MVP means constructing a half-baked product, I find many people fear minimum design level means a slick design with fancy controls.  Far from it.

Minimum design level  is the basic design components needed to make your features or content effective in delivering their purpose.

The important point is this minimum level of design should not be decided by how much the startup can afford to build but rather by how much is needed by the customer.

It’s a critical distinction that requires a shift in thinking but provides the path for answering the “How much” question. The good news is it’s simple; it starts with understanding your customer segment.

In the next post, we’ll dive into how a startup baselines their minimum design level while using Lean principles.

 

 

  • Raja

    I suspect you are going to get some very negative responses from designers if you define design as the activity that makes a product “pretty and interesting.”  Do you mean visual design?  If so, you might want to specify this…the digital design community has been fighting for a long time to get beyond being defined as the “people who make things pretty”…

  • Emiliano

    Hi Raja, That’s not the definition I’m going for as I agree that wording in the figure is too specific about the visual look.

    In the post itself I give a broader definition of design as the “visceral form and how the interaction between the features and users occurs” which emphasizes the UI and UX as elements of design. Likewise, I talk about finding the minimum level of design in terms of effectiveness in delivering purpose.

    My goal is to start a conversation that helps entrepreneurs, regardless of design abilities, approach design from a customer point of view and understand why investing in design is necessary to their startup success.

  • EmilianoVillarreal

    Hi Raja, That’s not the definition I’m going for as I agree that wording in the figure is too specific about the visual look.  

    In the post itself I give a broader definition of design as the “visceral form and how the interaction between the features and users occurs” which emphasizes the UI and UX as elements of design.  Likewise, I talk about finding the minimum level of design in terms of effectiveness in delivering purpose.

    My goal is to start a conversation that helps entrepreneurs, regardless of design abilities, approach design from a customer point of view and understand why investing in design is necessary to their startup success.

  • tphm

    Good talk, Emiliano. Keep it coming.

  • Voxel Machine

    I don’t think design exists necessarily to make things “pretty and interesting”.  Those two attributes potentially could be assigned to output of a design activity. But they are neither necessary nor sufficient. There are examples of effective design in almost any domain which many people would find neither pretty nor interesting.

    Design has many views. Each view expresses an impression a product or service has on its user or on the environment.

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  • Pingback: Excellent description of the balance needed for any new product, not just for startups…

  • http://twitter.com/MironLulic Miron Lulic

    Maybe it’s just semantics, but design is both form and function. Check out the book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman. 

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