App and mobile design has come a long way in the past few years, with many popular services shifting their focus more towards to improving the way their apps look. At 500 Startups’ Warm Gun conference, an event focused on design problems in the tech industry, the theme that design and user experience are being treated as “second class citizens” in the community — if you’re not focusing on usability and response time, then “you suck”.

“Do it for the puppies”

Those words came from 500 Startups co-founder Dave McClure. In his opening remarks, he stated that most app designs suck — take a look at the most popular ones out there, like Twitter and Facebook: their mobile experience “sucks” and McClure questioned why that is. Josh Brewer, Principal Designer at Twitter, agreed on the spot and said that Twitter was “working on it”. McClure’s point was this: designing for apps and services is much more than just design — users are “getting screwed on mobile” and people need to pay attention to that.

Refreshing the design process

To show how a company can succeed in the design front, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, gave his thoughts about how the company got to a point where they managed to ship a product that they were proud of. In doing so, he told companies to think about whether they’re getting the design right or if they have the right design. To help answer this paradox, Krieger shared eight principles that he feels would help build products that users really want.

It appears that the design process isn’t something that has been fully realized by most organizations, according to Krieger. This system focuses on six milestones: understanding, observing, synthesizing, ideating, prototyping, and iterating. The point is to help companies understand just what they’re building and whether there’s a true market need.

  • Understanding: designers need to go out and do some research in order to better understand their audience. And Krieger says that going onto Google doesn’t count — get out into the world and do some primary research. Come with a zen beginner mindset where what should emerge from this are questions about your interviews and research into what you want to solve.
  • Observe: don’t guess what you think your users are doing or what they need, get out there and watch them. Understand your target audience enough so that eventually you’ll get to know people better than they know themselves.
  • Synthesize: come up with something where you can distill insights, which was defined as “something you’re so excited about you tell strangers on the train” and follows the formula of [user] + [need] + [insight] to create a product (e.g. “Smartphone users who take lots of photos need an easy way to share them with their friends while using their smartphones that are on them 24/7″).
  • Ideation: Krieger says to go for quantity here and to use whatever tools you have on hand to jot them down, whether it be a whiteboard, notebook, or other form of parchment.
  • Prototyping: every prototype answers a question that you have and will help become concrete and conversation pieces.
  • Iteration: learn something from the experience and make something either better or completely new.

Design a better product with these eight principles

To help shepherd designers to create better products, Krieger shared his eight principles that also guided Instagram to its success:

  1. Draw on Previous Experience and Understanding: find out what’s out there in the world, but don’t come with pre-conceived notions. Go out and make friends with a mini-expert that can help you get started on your quest — having some knowledge is better than not having any. For Instagram, the founders knew that they were interested in photography so they went and explored their obsessions, but also recognized their limitations — Krieger’s was his lack of mobile design experience.
  2. Have a Hypothesis About How You’re Different: the point is to have a point of view about your company and what you’re trying to create. Krieger said to practice “Product Mad Libs”: ___ is ____; it does ___. Unlike ___, we ___.
  3. Never Code Before Sketching: talk things out with someone or a “rubber ducky” to work out what ideas can succeed and others that should be trashed. Instagram went through and threw away entire features that were built.
  4. Learn in weeklong increments: Converge on things that you eventually want to build and determine what your tolerance is to ship stuff out. For Instagram, each week it focused on answering a specific question (e.g. “will folks want to share photos on the go?”, “can we build filters that look good”, etc.). The goals it set forth were tightly scoped and shipped each Friday.
  5. Validate in Social Situations: can you easily explain your product and service to the man or woman at the bar? No, then simplify it.
  6. Quick Wizard-of-Oz Techniques for Social Prototyping: be selective in what you’re testing and sharing — Krieger says that you control what to reveal. Instagram used an early group invite feature where it sent out email invitations and it used Google Docs to manually track respondents, while using humans to send updates to them. Nothing too complicated and easy to throw away.
  7. Know When It’s Time To Move On: do you have any remaining questions that have been unanswered with the current product? No? Then move on.
  8. Build and Ship: learn from what other people are doing with your product.

Designing the right thing

In the end, Krieger wanted designers to keep in mind this simple question: are they getting their designs right or do they have the right design. What does this mean? It’s meant to focus on answering whether your product addresses a specific need and whether the market is going for it versus whether there is a market need, but people haven’t adopted it because of how it looks.

An interesting question to keep in mind, but hopefully one that will help designers create fascinating new products that will appeal to the world.

Photo credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images