When most people think of design, they think of visuals. And honestly, we see how they get there.
Visuals are an important output of design, and sometimes they stop us in our tracks.
But visuals are most powerful when they leverage WHO the design is for, WHY it exists, and HOW it helps customers obtain value. And that means good design—especially good digital product design—is about way more than pretty color palettes and clean icons.
What we cover in this post:
- What is digital product design?
- Why product design matters for your software business
- How to evaluate digital product design
- Examples of good and bad product design
- How to design a digital product
- Discovery: Figuring out who your customer is
- Discovery: Identifying what outcomes customers want
- Creation: Vision, sketches, wireframes, and mockups
- Creation: Critiques
- Where most founders mess up digital product design
What is digital product design?
Digital product design is figuring out how something creates and delivers value in context of users, their goals, and the business.
This means designing how a customer moves through a product, learns to work with it, and uses it to acquire benefits.
And here's something many founders gloss over:
Customers don’t care about your product—they care about value
You can have the coolest features in the world and some sweet screenshots on ProductHunt, but if the product doesn’t deliver value to customers, it’s a colossal waste of your time.
Why? Because customers don’t care how cool your product is. At least not in isolation. As Samuel Hulick illustrated, they care about how cool your product makes them. Which is why building a successful product is all about helping your customers find and acquire superpowers (aka benefits):
As Kathy Sierra summarized, “People aren’t using the app because they like the app or they like you. They’re doing it because they like themselves. What are you doing to enable more of that?”
Great product design will help your users find superpowers and help your business gain traction. It’ll deliver value to customers (e.g. benefits, outcomes) and value to your business (e.g. revenue, customer acquisition). It may do that through features, but the features are secondary to value.
People aren’t using the app because they like the app or they like you. They’re doing it because they like themselves.
But providing value to customers isn't a completely selfless act. Turns out, focusing on customers through design has lot of big benefits for your business.
Why is digital product design important?
Attract and retain customers
It’s no secret customer expectations are rising. They’re getting more expensive to acquire too. ProfitWell found the cost of customer acquisition has increased by 50% in the last five years for both B2B and B2C companies.
Meaning, it’s in your best interest to deliver the kind of value that makes customers come back for more. Especially when competition is increasing as well; there are over 525,000 tech businesses (not to mention products) in the US alone!
If you want repeat customers, make them successful and deliver value. If you want to do that well, invest in good product design.
...the cost of customer acquisition has increased by 50% in the last five years for both B2B and B2C companies.
via ProfitWell research
Bring in more revenue
McKinsey studied 300 companies over 5 years to answer the question, “what is design worth?” The results are impressive.
Companies who were strongest in their design practices experienced higher revenue, growth, and shareholder returns. In some cases, double or triple revenue compared to companies who didn’t emphasize design! And this was true in industries as varied as medical technology, consumer goods, and retail banking.
Not only that, practicing user-centric and analytically informed product design is a powerful differentiator.
The same McKinsey study found, “Over 40 percent of the companies surveyed still aren’t talking to their end users during development. Just over 50 percent admitted that they have no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams.” And Forrester discovered that while most companies know the value they get from customers, they don’t know what value they deliver to customers.
Companies who were strongest in their design practices experienced higher revenue, growth, and shareholder returns.
via McKinsey & Company research
Practicing strong digital product design helps your startup stand out and stay standing in the increasingly crowded software space.
In fact, that’s exactly what Krit founders Andrew and Austin experienced early on.
Establish your brand
In the early days of starting Krit, our founders had little experience to showcase. They hadn’t built anything complicated or especially impressive. But they landed clients because of the quality design work in their portfolio. Today, the apps we’ve designed have been used by companies like Amazon, Dropbox, Lyft, NBC, Yale, and Dartmouth.
And when our founders built a product of their own, people took it seriously and even shared it because of the care our founders put into the design and marketing site.
Which goes to show, good product design can build brand credibility in your niche.
How to evaluate digital product design
So far, we’ve talked about good product design as if it’s easy to recognize. But that’s not always the case. While most of us are decent at figuring out whether something is attractive, it takes a lot more context to determine whether a particular product design is any good.
You have to start with the customer
“Are we building Microsoft Paint or Adobe Photoshop?” is a question we ask ourselves at the beginning of every project.
What we’re really asking is: are we building this for experts or beginners?
You can use Microsoft Paint and Adobe Photoshop to do similar tasks; they both help you create computer graphics. But one is so simple your five your old can learn it without any instructions, while the other can take years to master.
The trade-off for Paint’s simplicity is most of the artwork looks like this:
Whereas with Photoshop, you can turn a simple photo of a seal into a masterpiece:
Good design depends on the audience and what they’re trying to do.
Take keyboard shortcuts for example. Keyboard shortcuts are a terrible user experience (UX) for beginner software like Paint. If you don’t remember the shortcuts, you won’t be able to do much of anything. But shortcuts are incredibly useful in tools like Photoshop, where there are hundreds of options. The shortcuts prevent power users from wasting precious time digging around menus. They enable efficiency.
The takeaway? A good design choice in one product may be a terrible choice in another product. It all depends on the customer and what they’re trying to achieve.
Let's check out some examples.
Real life examples of good software product design
Ever tried to pick up another language? It’s hard, intimidating, and you’ve likely failed at it before. Duolingo knows that. They not only figured out how to make learning language more approachable, they even made it fun. (I used it extensively to learn Spanish when I managed a restaurant.)
There are loads of details, like great use of white space and friendly microcopy, that make Duolingo’s design lovely.
But what makes it effective is how they center every step of the onboarding experience and game-like learning experience around the user. For example, when you first sign up for Duolingo, you get to choose your own goals and set your own experience level. Not only does this ensure lessons are at the perfect level for you, it helps ensure you come back. No one likes bailing on something they said they’d do.
This, plus many other facets of the experience, makes Duolingo all about delivering the multilingual superpower to customers, not peppering you with how awesome Duolingo is.
Or here’s another example from our own archives. We made the Case Status app for busy attorneys who are overwhelmed and need a simple way to manage all their cases. They also need a way to keep their clients happy. Lack of communication is the #1 customer complaint the American Bar Association (ABA) receives, and many legal clients feel in the dark about their case and its progression.
Case Status delivers value on both fronts. A lot of white space and calming colors create a soothing, un-intimidating experience for busy attorneys. And more importantly, a simple workflow enables client management superpowers. With one click, attorneys can update clients on their case status or schedule automatic notifications.
And through access to a mobile app, the attorneys' clients receive real-time updates. It’s like having a Domino’s pizza tracker for their case.
Clients feel informed and confident with their case’s progression. And that means higher satisfaction ratings and more referrals for the attorneys. Multi-tiered value!
Real-life examples of bad product design
On the flip side, some bad designs are obvious.
Most of the time, though, it’s not that straightforward. This is because the criteria for good product design isn’t, “Is it beautiful?” The criteria is, “Does it create value for the customer in context of their goals and your business?”
An app can be pretty and function without glitches, but exhibit bad product design because it’s optimized for something other than delivering value to the user.
For example, check out this screen from the United Airlines app.
This is where I land after I tell United I don’t want to sign in. The screen is pretty enough, but the most prominent button prompts me to sign in, which I just said I don’t want to do. In fact, 90% of the time I simply want to check flight status. But I’m so peppered with options, ads, and upgrades that this “just for me” experience is more about United Airlines than my adventure. I usually Google the flight number instead.
Okay, you get it. Great product design is about the user.
But how do you actually apply all this and reap the benefits? You could write a whole book on that (people have) but the key elements are below. It has a lot to do with great discovery, good process, and making both continuous.
How to design a digital product, Part 1: discovery
Before you build something, you should figure out who you’re building it for and why they’ll care enough to pay you.
Who is your customer?
This is the most important step. Some founders think their app is for everyone, but that’s lazy (and ineffective) positioning. “Everyone” is not a target audience.
An app's target audience is always a specific group of people with a particular set of problems, needs, and desired outcomes. Good product design will hone in on one or more of these problems and outcomes.
So if you’re not sure:
- what problem your app is solving
- whether or not that problem is painful
- who it’s solving that problem for
- in what context that problem appears
- what outcome would be desirable
...then you definitely have some work to do. To see the benefits we mentioned above, you have to know who you’re targeting and what they want.
The topic of customer research is way too huge for us to do it justice here, but these resources will get you started:
- Corey Haine’s guide to customer research via Baremetrics
- How and when Buffer does customer research
- How to validate your idea before you build anything
- How to interview customers via CustomerDevLabs
- Amy Hoy's Sales Safari
⭐️ Whatever you do, don’t skip this. No market need is the #1 reason most startups fail; don’t be a part of that statistic.
👉 This goes hand-in-hand with positioning.
What outcome do your customers want?
Once you know who your customer is, you should explore what they want to do with your product.
An increasingly popular way to think about this is the Jobs to be Done (JTBD) theory. JTBD revolves around answering: “what job is the customer hiring my product to do?” Where a job is something the customer wants to achieve.
In Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen describes how Intuit co-founder Scott Cook used JTBD to create Quickbooks. When it launched, Quickbooks contained half the functionality of other accounting software products, but cost twice as much. As an outsider, that looks like a surefire recipe for failure. Yet Quickbooks is wildly popular and a cornerstone of Intuit’s success.
How does that work? Turns out, it has everything to do with what the customer wanted to achieve.
Christensen explains, “...accounting software was the last thing these people wanted. They just wanted to have the confidence that financial mechanics were operating efficiently.”
By focusing on what outcome customers wanted, as opposed to what features go into accounting software, Cook created a software tool most small businesses (including us) continue to rely on today.
⭐️ Keep in mind you ultimately want to find an outcome that’s valuable to customers and that you can build a sustainable business around. Quickbooks customers undoubtedly want free, done-for-them accounting, but that’s an extremely difficult outcome to build a business around.
👉 For a more extensive intro to JTBD, check out Intercom.
What’s the best way to enable the outcome?
Okay, so you have an outcome.
Now you need a way to make it happen. This is where a lot of brainstorming and ideation (or my favorite term, cerebration) comes in. Important questions here are:
- What are the different ways to create the outcome?
- What are big questions or risks we need to test first?
- How have competitors done it?
This is where features come up. But the cool thing is, you’re not guessing at what features might be useful. You’re starting with something that is useful (the outcome) and designing for it. How’s that for efficient?
How to design a digital product, Part 2: creation
Communicating a clear vision
Once you’ve done discovery work, you want to distill the information that’s bouncing around your brain (or across a hundred post-its and notebooks) into something anyone on the team can understand.
There are plenty of ways to do this (meetings and one-pagers are just a few) but the main things you want to get across are: what you’re designing, why it matters, and what value it creates for customers and the business.
This does a few important things:
- It helps you clarify what you’re doing, why, and for whom
- It gives other teams, like development, the opportunity to provide feedback
- It promotes buy-in from the rest of the team
👉 Need a simple starting point? Try Intercom’s “Intermission” template.
Initial sketches and concepts
Once the vision is clear, many designers and product teams start with sketches. Sketches are quick, unpolished drawings that visualize an idea. You’ll usually see them on a whiteboard or in a notebook (our two favorite mediums), and they’re the simplest and fastest form of design.
Americans spend around 11 hours a day in front of screens, so using pen and paper—or markers and a whiteboard—is a nice bluelight break. But there are plenty of other benefits too:
- It engages different types of thinking and creativity
- You can post sketches to walls and whiteboards
- They’re great for quick brainstorming
- They’re a useful discussion and collaboration tool
Keep in mind the point of sketches isn’t beauty—it’s thinking. It’s, “How can we enable this outcome?”
Wireframes to nail down big picture
The next evolution of product design is usually wireframes.
Wireframes are more detailed than sketches, but less detailed than mockups (the next step). We like to think of them as blueprints for a house. If you look at an architectural blueprint, it doesn’t tell you what color the bathroom walls will be, or whether kitchen hardware will be copper or brushed nickel.
But it does show how many rooms there are, how you can move through a house, and where key appliances go.
Likewise, product design wireframes ignore color, fonts, and other granular visual details. Instead, they focus on layout, information placement, and where important pieces should be (this is sometimes referred to as visual hierarchy).
The goal of wireframes is to iron out core functionality and how a user moves through each step. And it’s easiest to accomplish that goal when things like color, icons, and other details aren’t distracting us. That’s why wireframes are intentionally low-fidelity.
Mockups to iron out details
This is the deliverable most folks think of when they hear the word “design.”
Mockups are very detailed displays that show, as closely as possible, what the app will look like once it’s developed. Mockups include the exact colors, fonts, gradients, and other small visual elements you’ll see in the final product.
Creating high-fidelity mockups requires both User Interface Design (UI Design) and User Experience Design (UX Design) skills.
UI design focuses on how your application looks. This means focusing on typography, style, colors, and animations. A designer focused on UI will ask questions like, “Is there enough padding between elements?” or “ Is there a visual balance?”
UX design focuses on how easy a product is to use, and how it makes the user feel. A designer focused on UX will ask questions like, “Is the information laid out in a way that makes sense?”; “Does the product react to a user's input the way we expect?”; and “Is this interface helping users solve their problem or getting in their way?”
To promote consistency, many mockups also include a Style Guide. This outlines the visual “house rules” for your product and/or brand. It usually includes directions on how to use specific colors, fonts, patterns, icons, and other visual elements. The guide helps ensure your app looks and functions consistently.
KRITiques and improving design with feedback
An important part of improving mockups is critique. Critiques are feedback sessions that give designers important information on how to make a good design great. There are numerous ways to run a design critique, and many of them are effective.
At Krit, we do both internal critiques with the team and external critiques with our clients. Designs go through our team first, then we load mockups into Invision and share them with the client, users, or investors for more feedback.
From our own experience, we’ve found the best critiques occur when the reviewer:
- Is both kind and honest
- Focuses on improvements, not opinions
- Is objective and specific
- Provides detailed suggestions
- Points out both good and bad
- Works with—not against—the designer
For example, if you’re critiquing a design, you want to avoid saying, "I don't like that button." This is vague, opinion-based feedback. It gives the designer no specific ways to improve. Should the button have rounded edges? Should it be outlined instead of a solid color? Do you just hate all buttons?
Something like the following is a much better alternative: "I think this button doesn't have enough emphasis on it, especially if it's supposed to be the primary action. What if you changed the color to add more emphasis?" This is objective, specific, and includes a suggestion. By saying what you think is wrong with the button, you give the designer a problem to fix, and that's what designers do.
Of course, critiques involve two parties. So it’s also important the designer:
- Separates themselves from the work and doesn’t take feedback personally
- Doesn’t make excuses for every part of the design
- Listens and takes note of feedback
- Asks detailed follow-up questions, such as “what do you mean by that?”
- Doesn’t take anyone’s opinion as fact
- Can separate the good critique ideas from bad critique ideas
- Applies good critique ideas in design revisions
- Follows up for more information
Keep in mind, delivering good critique—whether for a design or an employee’s performance—is a skill you can improve and hone over time. Don’t be discouraged if your first few critiques feel difficult or awkward; that’s normal.
Handoff to development
Once mockups are improved and approved (by the founder, CEO, or someone else), it’s time for development. This isn’t the first time developers should see designs, though.
To prevent this at Krit, design isn’t totally separate from development. Our design team understands programming, and we ensure designs make sense for development. And developers will typically begin working on the backend at the same time our designer is working on mockups.
👉 Read more about how an idea becomes an app at Krit.
Where do most founders mess up software design?
Step-by-step breakdowns make things look simple. But if you’ve tried to follow instructions for anything from making mac’n’cheese to assembling an IKEA bookcase, you know it’s possible to screw any process up. Here’s where most founders make their biggest digital product design mistakes:
Starting with features or ideas
Most founders start product design with an idea or set of features. That’s a problem, because every idea is based on assumptions in its initial state. At best, your idea a semi-accurate guess—and an overvalued one at that. (In one controlled study, Harvard Business Review found 74% of ideas are overvalued!)
To build and design a profitable product, the better place to start is with customers and desired outcomes: What does your app enable? For whom? Why is that outcome valuable? What job does your customer hire your product to do?
Every idea is based on assumptions.
Reducing product design to aesthetics
First off, this kills your designer’s soul, and no one wants that. Second, it strips away the most powerful aspects of design: HOW, WHY, and WHAT.
Plus when you focus on creating something pretty, instead of creating something that helps users attain superpowers, you ask all the wrong questions. Instead of, “does this add value?” you ask, “is this the prettiest palette?” Or instead of “is the most frictionless and simple experience we can provide?” you wonder “does the logo look better in the left or right?”
It’s not that visual decisions are wrong or unimportant. Excellent digital product design certainly pays close attention to all these details. It’s that visuals are part of a much bigger value delivery system. And you rob design of efficacy when you strip it down to visuals.
Wanting good design for cheap
Creating beautiful, effective product design is neither fast nor easy. It requires a significant amount of skill and effort, and that means great product design isn’t cheap.
When we looked at how much it’d cost to build a messaging app like Slack, design tasks accounted for $21,600 of the total cost (in retrospect, this was WAY low). That’s not to say great design costs this much for every app, but it is an indicator you’ll need to spend more than a few hundred dollars for thoughtful execution.
Assuming design ends at development
Especially with digital products, design isn’t a one-and-done deal. A smart business will continually gather customer feedback on how the product is working, what’s frustrating, and how they can make it better.
A smart business will continually gather customer feedback on how the product is working, what’s frustrating, and how they can make it better.
Meaning the product is going to need a lot of ongoing design updates, too. The best product building teams hire talented designers to oversee continuous design informed by continuous customer research.
Great digital product design isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort
Like most things worth doing, great product design takes time, effort, and resources. But don’t let that scare you away. Great product design is tied to higher revenues, customer retention, and brand recognition.
And, most importantly, great product design is about delivering value to your customers. And since your business can’t operate without those, what could be more important than investing in their experience?