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Product Design, a Roadmap to MVP

Originally posted on Medium

Good product design — based on user research — ensures you build the right product

TL;DR: Use product design to inform what you are building or risk a slow horrible startup death. Specifically, get the user research right at the outset (frameworks included).

  • Founders/builders/future-self: this is a starting point for building a product.
  • Product designers: if working with a founder who doesn’t understand the value of product design and/or good user research, share this with them.

Building your Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

If there is one thing that building products has taught me, it is the value of product design.

Design is not something to at the end, it should be part of the process. Source: Creativity at work.

Much of the startup community focuses on the lean startup process and building an MVP. The focus is on speed and accepting imperfection as a condition of shipping. So, if you’re not familiar with product design, it can sound like it has no business in this process.

This can be a costly mistake, and one I’ve made.

SeeAround.me is a side-project I worked on over several years and a good example. It’s an app to see and share hyperlocal news. I started without a good understanding of user needs, often moving forward based on instinct and personal preference. My iterations were also much too long, since I was unfamiliar with both product design processes and tools.

As a result, I was slow and inefficient.

Many first-time founders in particular undervalue product design — often until its too late.


Product design ensures you are building the right product

The Design Thinking process. Source: Nielsen Normal Group

Product design is, basically, the practice of design thinking. And fortunately design thinking has become a relatively codified process.

Only a small part of product design is making things look good — you’ll notice there’s no actual step for that. It is foremost about understanding and addressing real user needs.

  • If you address actual user needs, an MVP is attainable.
  • If not, you are building a P that will probably never be MV.

But while this process is simple, the steps themselves aren’t always straightforward.

It’s easy to tell you that step 1 is to “empathize,” but how do you actually go about developing an understanding of your users?


Building anything complex requires planning

People have diverse needs and thoughts. Source: Pinterest

You’re building for people who act differently and are driven by varying desires — not static mannequins.

Understanding user needs requires methodical research (a lot of it qualitative) to inform how you build your product.

You can’t mess around with half-baked assumptions. If you do, you’ll fail.

I’ve been doing research professionally for the past seven years, but there are some specific research methods that are particularly valuable here.


User research: where do you start?

Of all the resources available, these are the ones I wish I’d known about and applied at the outset of building any product. It’s tempting to make a bunch of assumptions to accelerate the process, but it’s critical to lay this foundation.

  1. Create good hypotheses at the outset. The Real Startup Book is a great resource to flesh out what you’re trying to learn and how to ask the right questions.
  2. Validate your idea(s) as much as possible. This post explains the process for identifying and eliminating your Riskiest Assumptions.
  3. Understand the Jobs to be Done that the user would “hire” your product for. Not potential product features, but underlying motivations.
  4. Avoid biases. We all have them, so keep them in check. You’re Irrational: How to Avoid Cognitive Blind Spots in Qualitative Analysis You have assumptions.

Many successful entrepreneurs first work in an industry for years. Why is their success rate higher than others? Because they’ve done extensive user research, intentional or not, about user pains. And, even if they don’t validate their potential solutions (which they really should), they’re off to a better start than most.

Skipping this step is the worst mistake you can make as a founder.

You don’t want to find out your foundation sucks after investing a ton of time and resources:

Remember when this building in China just fell over? Credit: Gizmodo

Woohoo! Done with step 1… what’s next?

Congrats, this research will inform everything about your product; you’re headed in the right direction as you develop possible solutions.

Next, we can flesh out the process of developing those solutions and talk about Lean UX, where product design meets Agile development. Where this first step was about building the right thing, the next is more about building efficiently.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one other quick note about the benefits of product design: it turns out you can get pretty far in developing an idea before you ever go digital. And even when you do move to digital, product designers can push an idea further than ever before ever requiring developers, thanks to some pretty incredible interactive prototyping tools like Principle, Framer, and many others.

In short, product design will make sure you’re building the right thing, as well as offer greater speed for validation and less investment of time and money.

So get on the right path — because dysentery is a terrible way to die! 💩


Want to read more?

This longer guide explains more about product design, differentiates it from other types of design, explains more about why it matters, and why it’s important for startups to incorporate it from the beginning.

And, if you’re like me, you might come to find product design so compelling that you decide to immerse yourself in it for a few months.

Good luck! Let me know if you have feedback or I can be of help!

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