With the number of products launched daily on the Web you might think that there would be more discussion about the usefulness of design as it applies to the startup. How do you choose the right level of design to test an idea or the viability of a product? Sadly, most discussion about the usefulness of design is made by people who believe that design has near-infinite value, very little value at all, or is just a mystery altogether.

Parts of the design community haven’t been very helpful on this point either, because frankly, our livelihood depends on people believing that design is extremely valuable (or so we believe). And let’s face it, designers want to be able to put that extra level of pizzaz into their designs. But that pizzaz comes with a price tag and it’s not always worth paying for.

So how do you make good decisions about the level of design that is needed for a product before launch and beyond? I would suggest that the answer lies in three key questions.

Is It Useable?

Apart from making your application function, usability is perhaps the most important aspect, especially when you consider the competitive nature of the Web. As soon as a product experiences some success a competitor springs up, and when products are functionally equivalent, usability becomes a key reason that customers might choose your product over others.

Usability may also be the reason you experience ANY success at all. It is not enough to merely have a functional product. If someone can’t figure out how to use it, the functionality won’t make any difference.

I would suggest that you prioritize the parts of your application that need to be extremely usable and spend your design dollars there. Just as every feature is not equally important, usability across every feature in an application is not equally important. Prioritize.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is the heart of the application easy to use?
  • Are the entry points (landing pages, signup, etc) into your application straight-forward?
  • Will the average customer understand how to get started?
  • Is the copy used in your application helpful, instructive, intuitive?
  • What are the common pitfalls? How can you design the application so that those are never experienced?

A lot has been written on usability and it’s value to product design. Pick up a book on the topic and familiarize yourself with it. If you know nothing else about design, this is by far the most important thing to learn.

Is It Credible?

Beyond usability, establishing credibility and rapport with your customers is the most important aspect of product design.

When I say “credibility” I’m not just talking about VeriSign certificates and PCI compliance or even recommendations and testimonies by people your customers trust. No, I’m talking more about the kind of credibility that makes someone want to use your application because of the way it looks and feels. Think polish.

Depending on your audience the level of polish that your application requires will vary.

Consider the average bank’s online portal. Most banking portals are notorious for their use of outdated HTML, poor color choices, and excessive drop shadows. How can they get away with this?

Banks establish credibility with their buildings. Huge pillars, fancy brick-work, marbled floors… they spare no expense to create the illusion of wealth and power. By the time the customer actually signs on to the banking portal, the way the website looks makes little difference as to whether they continue using the institution.

Of course, it’s quite different for you. Your website is your marbled building. But depending on the services you offer, you may or may not need all of that pizzaz. A healthy level of skepticism here is appropriate.

Credibility is about dressing to impress. If the custom fitted suit and gold watch don’t impress your clients and help you become a real, viable business then you’ll have spent valuable time and money creating something with no value.

Is It Easy to Change?

If you are jumping into a space where there are a lot of unknowns, then the versatility of the design is perhaps the most important quality. And this is true, by the way, for almost all startups on the Web.

Inevitably you are going to learn things about your customers and their needs which will impact the design of your application. If you’ve chosen a pixel-perfect, photo-realistic look and feel (with backgrounds and borders that look like real objects and mesh together in clever ways) you are going to have a ton of trouble making changes to the application as you learn about exactly what needs to be built.

Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Cramming too many functions into one screen.
  • Using technology in key places that is not well supported by the majority of browsers.
  • Trying to achieve desktop-caliber controls (This is the Web!).
  • Making features Javascript-heavy that could be pure HTML.
  • Using an excessive number of images (pure HTML is much easier to maintain).

In general, be sure that your design is done in a way that is easy to implement. Avoid complicated and clever approaches, especially at first.

Remember that after you have proved the viability of your business you can always return to the design to add a higher level of polish. And when you do, you’ll have a better idea of where it should be applied.

Posted by John Long on Mar 22nd, 2011

You can still contact Nathaniel at nathaniel@terralien.com