Last week, I gave a talk on the importance of great design in a startup. The talk, during Boulder Startup Week, included a panel of four product designers and was prefaced with: How Startups Get To Great Design. I rewrote my talk a number of times while unsuccessfully trying to focus on wireframing, communicating with the product team, or giving a unique user-experience. In the end, I approached the talk with more about what defines great design for any company or product—digital or analogue.
Companies heralded for great design often have strong product teams and creative leaders, but great design should be achieved in even the smallest startups. Successful product design can be conveyed with two simple principles: consistency and empathy. What’s more important is that working with these two principles in mind is not just the role of the designer; everyone in the company is responsible.
A lot of consistency is about the branding, but it also encompasses the entire user experience. Consistent design means that there are no unwarranted surprises in the product, and that the visuals have a repeatable rhythm to them. Think about the iPhone and how the small arrows mean that a new screen will always slide in from the right—if this changes on subsequent screens, it will confuse the user and damage their overall confidence in the product.
Consistency can also be thought of as a form of quality control—broken products show off inconsistent experiences for the customer. It will not matter to the customer if the site has beautiful visual design if it is filled with broken links and slow load times. Developers and content creators become an integral part of the design process because it is their work that ensures the customer is not stranded on a page or waiting for the server to finally respond.
Empathetic design is putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and creating an honest experience just for them. Empathetic design does not confuse or trick the user in the interest of business; empathetic design builds a relationship between the business and the customer. Consider Zappos’ renowned customer service and how it has created a culture of trust—customers feel cared for and know that the company puts their best interest at heart. The visual design of Zappos has evolved dramatically over the last decade, but the empathetic process has been a pillar of their success since the beginning.
In product companies, understanding and building for your customer is the most pure form of empathetic design. Where consistency is a set of rules to follow in design, empathy is a customized experience for each customer. If the product’s ideal customer is 50-65 year old, focus on an experience that has high contrast, nontechnical language, and simple interactions.
Get to Great
Hiring talented designers and illustrators is a guaranteed way to have beautiful visual design in your product—and sometimes that it successful on its own. But, while brand books can help a designer choose the great colors and typography, great design will only come when every employee works towards a consistent and empathetic experience for the user.