The Importance of Pre-Design Research Part 1: How answering the whys can make or break an MVP

Speeding to the market with a sustainable idea is tough for any startup, especially when the rush to prototype mentality is such an integrated part of the process. However, with failure rates in the high 70 to 80 percentiles, many startups cannot afford NOT to prioritize a level of understanding of how or why their soon to be users gravitate to a specific experience.

The drawback of course that many will point to is lack of time. Time not only determines how fast we move in the startup community, but also the decisions that come with it and unfortunately research is usually the first to go. Why is research not held at such regard as acutal design or development you might ask. Well, the answer is simple…research determines the longevity of an idea, and the failure to do so usually shows its head well beyond development and design have turned the corner.

You can sometimes hide ineffective design with good development, and at times great design can mask inefficient functionality. You can’t hide understanding, no matter how amazing the app may be.


What is design research?

Design research is the ability to understand the many reasons of design decision making. The study of its purpose in creating an application and the process of arriving to its conclusion…but what does this mean for an application that hasn’t launched to the market? By understanding your users, the market landscape, you are then better equipped to create an experience that focuses around those findings. It’s like preparing to write a thesis. Of course, you can jump in and begin writing on a topic that you may be familiar with, but the true understanding comes from engrossing yourself into the learnings that are available to you. As a result, your ‘paper’ or in our case an application is then better positioned for success.

After all, the ultimate goal of all research is not objectivity, but truth
- Helene Deutsch

Today, we are going to take a very high-level view of understanding your competitors, the platforms and use cases that they are solving for, and a few exercises to try as you wrap your head around creating a better experience.

Competitive Analysis

Figuring out where your app is placed within the market is pivotal, and a competitive analysis tackles these questions head on. This analysis central focus is to look at your direct and indirect competitors with a magnifying glass, finding how they work, why it works, and what isn’t working.

In most cases, there’s usually a brief understanding of this within startups. The idea is usually driven by seeing a void within the market, or seeing a competitor that hasn’t solved for a problem. To create a sustainable design, however, we must dive into this a bit deeper for this to guide our decision making.

To begin laying the foundation of a competitive analysis, here are a few brief questions to begin with:

  • Primary Solution — What services/solutions do your competitors provide, and what would you consider as their primary service or solution?
  • Age and Demographic of their target audience — What is their primary user base? Who do they target from a marketing standpoint? Where are they located and how often would they use this service and why?
  • Brand Voice — What terms would you associate to their brand voice? How does their imagery, color theory, and tone approach these characteristics? (Is it playful and illustrative or sleek and intuitive. Do they use imagery to convey messaging or do they use iconography and illustrations?)

Try this: Do you use Uber? If so, then you should be familiar with other ride sharing applications in the market like Lyft or Curb. If not, pick an app or service that you love to use. Now, list out some of the competitors that you know of and compare them using the above questions as a guide. Uber and Lyft may be very similar services but their brand positioning, and who they target can differ in various ways. How does your list compare between each other?

Platform Analysis

Now that you have a good sense of what your competitors’ solutions are and for whom they are solving these problems for, let’s consider understanding the platforms that are used to solve this issue. Here are a few additional questions to get you started:

  • Primary platform — What percentage of users are on a mobile device vs desktop application or web? If this is a downloadable application, where are they ranked in these app stores (Note their ranking markets that coincide with their user base)? This information is important in determining whether their positioning is in line with who their target market is. It can also provide you with the know-how and knowledge on how you can capitalize within these associated areas.
  • Use Case — How do these users interact with this application within the realms of their day to day lives? Is the primary use case within the comfort of their home or office, or is it something more specific like an airport kiosk or bookstore? As you go through the process of understanding these users, take note at where and why they use these platforms and in what scenarios do they come into play.
  • Product Life Cycle — Understanding where a product started and how it has grown over time can be pivotal in gaining more knowledge in your market. What functionality have you seen take place over time in these applications, and how has the reception been for your ideal user base.

Try this: Do you like coffee? Find your favorite coffee shop or clothing store and jot down what products or applications are being used in the checkout process. If you noticed, apparel stores like Nike allow their staff to handle transactions using a mobile phone for a quick and effortless checkout process. Philz and Starbucks use many forms of mobile integrations from phone to tablet to solve for a similar problem of creating faster buying experiences. Does the application that you are designing fit into a similar paradigm? What applications are being used at these locations and how are they approaching commerce?

Experience Centered Research

This is where we get into the nitty gritty of the applications and based on the first two categories you should have a good understanding of who you are solving for. Here are a few questions that can be asked:

  • Getting in the door — Now that you have downloaded these applications, take note on how the solutions, brand voice, and target market, come into focus in the experience. Is there a video or gif that introduces you to the app and how does that make you feel as a new user (or a returning user)? How quickly are you able to encounter the primary service? Is there a Paywall or signup flow that you should go through before integrating fully into the experience? What friction points are created by experiencing these areas?
  • Integrations anyone? — For many social applications, you can utilize other pre-existing social accounts to speed the process of bypassing a signup/onboarding flow. Do your competitors use something similar, or is this truly necessary for your app? What other integrations have you noticed, and what integrations have you discussed as being a primary use case for the service you are providing? This could be anything from payment processing to social interactions, list out the integrations and compare/contrast how your competitors have approached them.
  • Returning users — What are ways that users are encouraged to return to the experience? Is gamification key in introducing new features and rewards? How are notifications introduced and utilized in the overall experience? What is the timetable from signing up to being introduced to your first notification? How frequently do you receive updates via email or push/grow notifications? Compare across your market.

That’s it for now! In Part 2 we will discuss how this research comes into play in creating a plan of action for an MVP product. What’s important, and what can be prioritized later for shipping a product to the market.