The question of design and usability in a lean startup is a common one. How much effort does one expend in making the user interface look good, particularly in a minimum viable product. It's a question that I briefly addressed in a previous post (The Minimum Viable Product Dissected), but it's one that I feel warrants a more in depth discussion. As Eric Ries has rightfully explained, at the early stages of your startup you really don't know who your user is, so creating a perfect user experience is simply not possible. I believe Dave McClure sums up the Minimum Viable Design concept well: "What is the shittiest you can do but still be awesome?". This is a good way to think about it, but it still begs the question of how shitty can you really go, and what is awesome?
First off, your product doesn't have to be stunning to be effective or become popular. This is a common misconception as most people believe that "sex sells" and that "you don't sell the stake, you sell the sizzle". As with most things in life, the initial infatuation with a sleek design is short lived and eventually it is substance that drives repeat use. In the context of the AARRR model, a pretty design is applicable only partially to the activation metric, while retention, referral, and revenue are driven heavily by the value proposition and function of your product. If you have to work your ass off to dazzle people with a pretty interface, then you're not solving a real problem of theirs and simply haven't found product/market fit. What I therefore recommend is that you spend time perfecting your first impression. Have your designer spend the bulk of their time on the landing, registration, and sign-on pages, then focus on function over form in the rest of your application. A caveat, however, is that design is useless on these pages without impeccable copy. Although good design will make your product look professional, good copy is what drives conversions.
Spend time A/B testing these pages and continue iterating until the degree of marginal improvement gets low. While quantitative metrics from A/B testing are good for measuring the effectiveness of your copy, design should include a mixture of quantitative and qualitative feedback. While A/B testing can tell you whether your design choice improves conversions, it's important to find out why this is the case. Does your specific market value a certain aesthetic or style? Do they associate the design with something intangible? It's important to draw out these pieces of information, as it can help drive the direction of the rest of your application, particularly since this data can be gathered early on. So how shitty can you go? Well if we take Reddit as an example, I think the UI looks pretty shitty and I probably would have pushed for a nicer design. I, however, would have been wrong as the site garners 1B+ page views per month and it seems like most people don't care and they think Reddit is awesome. So to clarify Dave McClures point, your UI can be shitty but your function has to be awesome.
It's All Relative
I posit that your design decisions should largely be driven by the nature of your product, the competitors you're up against, and your unique selling proposition (USP). If you are delivering a sustaining innovation that improves upon the functionality or means of solving an existing problem in a competitive market, then surely your design has to be better, right? In a sense this is true but you first have to determine what elements of the design/function you have to optimize and to do this you have to figure out what "better" is. Are your users expecting your product to help them do something faster, more effectively, or cheaper? Once again these are things that you should be able to find out during your early MVP by playing with copy, doing AdWords experiments, and simply talking to people. If it turns out that your customers want a cheaper way of doing something, then providing a best in class, highly dynamic interface won't help you become a low cost provider. However, if your USP is the ease and speed of doing something, then providing a highly responsive rich Internet application interface will be important.
In the case of a disruptive innovation, the situation changes to a large extent. At this stage your design decisions are more clear cut, as market risk will be your primary challenge. With disruptive innovations your early customers will be innovators and early adopters, so the design should typically be minimalist and geared entirely towards learning and experimentation. If you provide an interface that is easy to navigate - and it should be since you have a minimum level of functionality - and looks semi professional, that's all that is needed. You shouldn't be worried about the use of gradients, shadows, or fuss over the specific shade of blue your button should have, as you've got way bigger problems. Once you've validated your idea and have moved on to company building and crossing the chasm, armed with the learning you've done, you can than begin developing a great interface.
Step By Step
Ultimately, we arrive at the basic premises of the lean startup: build, measure, learn, and iterate. In your early MVP, which is likely a landing page with a signup box, I recommend not skimping on design. Make it look good and perform a whole lot of A/B and qualitative testing. Gather as much information as you can and find out who your customers are and what they value. Use this data to set a design direction for your early functional prototype (as described above) and come up with a set of wire frames that employ a minimum number of consistent and simple components throughout. Your stylesheet should be nice and short, your color palate should be minimal and your graphic designer should be spending most of their time on the first impression pages. Remember, it's almost certain that you'll have to do a full re-design of your application as it evolves, so create a design that you won't mind throwing away. As you go through several iterations you'll have a better understanding of what aspects of design you need to focus on and what is really important to your users.
In the end, the beauty of your UI should never be your biggest worry at the early stages of your business. Your UI should serve as a canvas for delivering your value proposition and an unhealthy focus on aesthetics can detract from this delivery. Focus your time on perfecting copy and allow the design to evolve naturally. Once your copy has gotten users past the sign-up page, use tools such as Crazy Egg and UserTesting.com to ensure that your basic interface allows them to achieve their intended goals. If you're solving an important problem for me, I'll never leave because I disagree with your choice of colors.
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