Translating Big Ambition Into Great Design

We’re excited by entrepreneurs building businesses, brands, and marketplaces that make the world better and our lives more interesting. To help us decide whether a business is right for us, we dig into the product, the brand’s potential, and the team’s design capabilities. We’re not only looking for a big vision, but also elegant and useful product experiences that have the potential to become essential for customers.

What makes an everyday product great? How do you get there as a team? It’s hard, no question. Here are some thoughts that frequently come up in our discussions at the office and with teams we get to work with and learn from.

Don’t let ambition muddy or bloat design.

Think big, exercise restraint. Sometimes a grand vision infiltrates the design of a product causing it to become bloated. Other times — okay, most times — we underestimate the amount of time it takes for people to adopt new structures, systems and habits. That’s certainly true for new behaviors.

There’s a lot of discussion about behavior change, for example. Essentially, people might talk about reinventing or reversing decades of learned behaviors. That sounds like a lot of work — work I’m not sure I want to do.

Strive for simple.

Dead simple, instant utility drives usage and adoption. That focus can lead to better design. I love this interview with Phill Ryu, the designer behind the to-do app Clear:

I get how these things can be useful, sometimes, but most of the time all you really need is a pencil and notepad.

So we started there. We had more complex initial mockups, but we pretty much erased almost everything and started over. Every feature was questioned, and we basically required a unanimous vote for any feature to make it in the app. We knew the way we were designing this, we pretty much had no room for error.

Relentlessly come back to what you’re giving the customer.

Keenan Cummings, one of the cofounders of Days — a Collaborative Fund portfolio company — recently articulated a definition of product design that really rang true for us:

  1. Recognizing patterns of human behavior
  2. Discovering the motivations and impulses that drive those patterns
  3. Creating tools that improve or elevate the output of those behaviors

Great product teams hit this mark. In the process, they might revolutionize my level of access as a customer, allowing me to easily obtain information, products, support, or help that I wouldn’t have been able to access before. Or, they might help me do something today that I couldn’t have imagined or tried to imagine yesterday. Either way, when they deliver on it they make you want to come back.

Make life easier.

If you give me access to something I’ve never had or help me do something I’ve never done and it’s easy — look out. Product teams should ask how they’re making a customer’s life easier. Are we asking our customer to do work? If so, what do they get for that work? Save me time, money, effort, anxiety and there’s a good chance I’ll thank you for it and tell others about it, too.

Here’s an excerpt from Jason Fried at 37 Signals that I find myself sharing a lot called “Competing on Easy”:

Easy could mean faster. Easier could mean more obvious. Easy could mean a lot of things. But the part of easy I like is when you take an existing problem, study it until it becomes clear, toss out everything that makes it blurry, and carefully polish what’s left over.

Always be building your brand.

All of this product talk can take us to a far too utilitarian place. Brand is essential. Understand the implicit and explicit promises your product is making, deliver on them with a point of view and tone of voice. Do it everyday and make sure your ethos shows up in everything you do.