Design the Beginning

Julie Zhuo
Sep 1, 2015 · 5 min read

Pretty much any time we design something new, we start at the middle.

See, the middle is when someone has a problem — she’s bored, she has a question, she needs to get somewhere, she wants to buy something— and voila! She whips out this New Thing we’ve designed, goes through this amazing experience we’ve crafted, and merrily solves her problem. Happy customer++! She sings our praises and awards us a big, fat 5-star rating. Our New Thing blows up and makes us famous while simultaneously making the world a better place. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

The middle is how everything should work, when everything else is working.

In the middle, the main character already knows what New Thing is and why it’s useful. In fact, everyone — including all her friends — are already on New Thing. There’s tons of great content in the system. Everyone is doing exactly what you were hoping they’d do.

When we design the middle, we tell an aspirational story, a North Star, to paint a picture of a future we want to see.

This is all fine and good. Starting at the middle is not the problem.

The problem is that we often neglect to design the beginning until the very end.

We do this every time design new user experience shows up as an item on a checklist of “launch blockers”. Or when we hurriedly cobble together a blank state screen when an engineer asks Hey, what should I implement when we don’t have any content to show here? Or when we finalize a launch date before we start thinking about the marketing strategy.

We assume it’s easy to get past the beginning. We assume that everybody else, like us, will see straight through to the middle, to the potential of the new thing we’re designing. For makers, this is the most powerful, most damaging self-delusion there is. This is the reason so many new products and features fail.

Nobody cares about the thing you’ve designed, unless you can get them past the beginning.

The “beginning” is how you introduce something new to a person, and how you will get them to understand its value such that they incorporate it into their lives. When you set about designing the beginning, you are forced to consider the following hard questions:

  1. Where and how will people first hear about your product or feature?
  2. What should people understand about your product at a glance, and is that compelling enough to convince them to go through the trouble of trying it out?
  3. What should people’s first-time experience through your product be, and how do you plan to demonstrate to them its value within the first minute?
  4. How will you build out the social graph, content inventory, marketplace, etc. if the success of your product is dependent on those things?
  5. What would compel somebody to come back and use your product a second or third time?

Design the marketing page: this could be the app store submission, or it could be a website. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and there’s no need to get all nit-picky with the visuals or the words. Seriously, you’re not designing something to ship right away, so don’t waste your time on refinements. The point of doing this is that by the end of it, you should have a very clear articulation for your product around what problem it solves, and why someone might be interested in trying it out.

Design the new user experience (NUX): imagine the first person who is going to use this shiny New Thing you’ve built. What is their step-by-step flow through the first-time experience? If you’re launching a new feature within an existing app, this forces you to think about who should get access first, and how you might introduce the feature to them (loudly with a big megaphone banner, or softly with a subtle link?) If you’re launching a new app, this forces you to consider the tone of the first impression you want to make. In either case, I find that forcing yourself to design the NUX brings you into a mindset where you’re thinking about how you’re going to get people to take the actions you want them to take in order for them to start seeing value (whether it’s creating an account, inviting their friends, answering a few personal questions, importing media, allowing permissions, etc.) Again, the specific design details don’t matter much at this point (and the NUX you ultimately ship will go through many iterations and probably look quite a bit different), but this exercise forces you to start planning early for any challenges related to bootstrapping and clarity.

An incredible benefit of designing your marketing page and your NUX early is that right away, you can start getting feedback from people.

You can put the designs in front of people and start getting early signal on whether what you’re proposing is compelling and understandable. For our Moments product, we user-tested multiple versions of an early marketing page (really, it was just a headline and a few paragraphs of text describing all the things we thought Moments could help people do), and it was immensely helpful in getting us to focus on a few key use cases, cut out a bunch of other features, and dial in how we talked about the app.

Getting someone through the beginning is hard. That’s why most New Things fail.

Look at my phone as an example. There are dozens of apps installed that I’ve used once or twice, and then never again. There are hundreds of apps I’ve heard about, and couldn’t be bothered to download and try. There are millions of apps beyond that, apps I’m not even aware of and won’t be actively looking for. All of those failed to get me past the beginning.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll be able to get people to the middle. Design your beginning early, and make sure your value prop sings, your messaging is spring-water clear, and you have a well-charted path that beckons your main character to embark, to take a leap of faith that the journey will be worth it, and that at the end they’ll end up somewhere better than they were before.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.