It’s important to launch early.
It’s important to make a good first impression.
These are two conflicting opinions, so which is right?
First, both viewpoints can’t be applied to every situation. The level of design you apply to your product could be much different from what’s needed compared to another due to factors like the stage of your product and its competitive advantage.
Why you might want to focus on launching early
Sometimes launching early is more important than spending time polishing up your design. Professional social networking site LinkedIn is a great example of this. Here’s one of the first versions of their site:
Not pretty, is it? (even for 2002)
Yet this didn’t stop the founders from putting out their product. How LinkedIn, they didn’t want to wait to launch to determine if what they made was useful. Because social networks were in their infancy in the early 2000s there were too many unknowns and the team needed to test their assumptions against reality as soon as possible.
Reid Hoffman, one of the co-founders of LinkedIn knew that moving fast was more important than designing something exceptional for the first version of their social network. He even went so far as to say:
If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.
Everything in your plan might look good on paper, but the real question is how will your customers react when it’s a real thing?
This is the benefit of getting your product out early — to find the holes you didn’t even know existed but that matter to your customers the most.
But first impressions last, right?
While getting out the door first has its competitive advantages, it’s true what they say about first impressions: you only get one. And few things influence that impression like good design.
A study by Google found that people judge a website’s beauty within 1/50th – 1/20th of a second. Your design has an immediate and powerful impact on whether people stay or leave — one that often feels like it’s on an emotional level.
MIT psychologist Kevin Larson spent his career researching the effect of fonts and design layouts on our emotions.
In a landmark study, Larson separated a group of 20 volunteers (50/50 split between men and women) and showed each group a different version of The New Yorker — one where the image placement, font, and layout were designed well, and one where the layout was designed poorly.
Larson’s study concluded that readers felt bad while reading the poorly designed layout, while the ones who read content from the well-designed layout felt it took less time to read and felt better doing so.
A well-designed environment makes your audience feel good, causing them to feel inspired and more likely to take action.
When a product, website, or app ‘just works’ it leaves a lasting impression on the people using it. Design is one way to keep people coming back and inspire them to share with people they know.
Emotion drives action and this is how quality product design can play a pivotal role in the success of your product.
Design as a competitive advantage
Beyond creating a positive emotional first impression, good design can also be a competitive advantage.
Twitter co-founder Ev Williams wrote about how design is more important now in the technology industry that it ever has been.
As technology evolves, Ev argues that core infrastructure becomes a commodity and how you differentiate your product moves from delivering features that are good enough to get the job done, to delivering an overall positive experience.
To illustrate a similar perspective, here’s how two product experience consultants, Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore, explain the importance of experiences in a Harvard Business Review article:
Both examples bring up the importance of design as a key way of making your product stand out. In today’s world it’s becoming more and more likely that just having the right set of features won’t be good enough. The features, combined with your product’s design, must create an experience.
Think about Apple’s ability to marry design and technology, using product design as their core strategic advantage.
Just look at the inside of an Apple store:
Even the inside of Apple’s products (something almost none of their customers will ever see) is designed with the same high design standards in mind.
This isn’t to say that aesthetics will trump actual functionality. To Apple, quality design is not just about how a product looks on the outside, but how that design complements and enhances the experience.
Would you care that your Macbook was as thin as a pencil if it got a virus every month? Doubt it.
What about an iPhone? Would it matter that it had beautifully shaped volume control buttons if it couldn’t complete a call? Definitely not.
As the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said,
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
How to balance design and launching early
So, if launching early and design are both important to the success of your product, how can you find a balance between the two?
Ryan Singer, product designer at Basecamp, shared how he balances features and execution in an early product:
The set of features you choose to build is one thing. The level you choose to execute at is another. You can decide whether or not to include a feature like ‘reset password’. But if you decide to do it, you should live up to a basic standard of execution on the experience side.
To balance product quality and launching early, Singer recommends taking these three steps:
1. Start by laying out the features for the product in a list:
2. Prioritize features based on answers to the following three questions:
- How valuable is this feature from the perspective of the customer’s problem?
- How necessary is this feature from nice-to-have to must-have?
- How dar do I have to take this feature? How good should this particular piece be in oder to call it ‘done’ and move on?
3. Visualize the features using a heat map to identify the pieces that are the most important to the customer:
However many features you decide to build, your goal should be to meet a baseline standard of quality across all features.
“Features can be different sizes with more or less complexity, but the quality of experience should be constant across all features. That constant quality of experience is what gives your customers trust,” notes Ryan.
Whether you build a few basic features or many complex ones, the result of the features should meet the same level of quality.
And (here’s where it gets important) as you build more features, seek to reach the same level of quality of the features before them. The evolution of your product should feel natural — each step building up from the last. Here’s another way to think about it:
This is a balance needed between the level of design and feature set. Find the features most important to customers first and whatever you decide to build after, keep the level of design consistent throughout.
How Simple built a new bank while balancing design and launching early
In 2009, Joshua Reich sent an email that was the start of a re-imagination of how banks should work.
The bank would be called Simple, and the concept would be focused around building a better banking experience end-to-end—fixing all the pain points of a traditional bank.
Because of the challenges in banking — institutional red tape, credit cards, financial certifications, etc…— Joshua likely knew there would be some serious upfront costs to move forward with setting up the groundwork for a bank and then designing a better experience on top of it all.
So instead Simple started with a well-designed website that was a preview of how the company planned to create a superior banking experience. The design was superb, yet there were no features on the site apart from an email sign-up.
As Reich explains:
While we had locked down our core philosophy, we wanted to calibrate the feature set to the market. Early feedback helped us shape the ideas that were most important to launch with.
The company signed up 125,000 members to its waiting list without building a single core feature, validating their idea that there was a big enough need from people wanting a better banking experience.
Simple got out their early while balancing with a level of design that was appropriate to the stage they were at, while also creating the impression of an easy and enjoyable experience. Through starting small, Joshua and his team successfully balanced an expectation for a level of design while launching an early product.
When it comes to building a product you need to assess tradeoffs — to decide when something is good enough to launch or needs to be kept behind doors and chiseled some more.
Don’t wait too long to launch, but also don’t wait until your product is too perfect either.
If you feel you’re compromising the level of design by building more, it’s likely better to focus on less and only do more when you can hit the level of design you’re after.
No two scenarios are the same so there’s no cookie cutter answer for what stage of design you should launch at, but hopefully these examples will help you strike the right balance.