“Design first, then build”: let’s bury this myth forevermore

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Since, seemingly, the beginning of the time, pretty much every startup founder has adhered to an enduring cliche of product development: waiting to build their new mobile or web app after all the mockups are ready. Bottom line: this is wrong. My team has a much more productive method we’ve successfully used for years, helping clients spend less and get to market faster. And you can use it, too.

But first, why has the prevalent myth that we need to “finish the design first”, stuck around? I’ll wager a guess: back when we first started moving online, we naturally brought development methodologies from the offline world. For instance, manufacturing electronics and consumer items, historically speaking, is quite expensive, and thus, every possible detail must be considered during the design phase. A mistake hidden in the blueprints could cost a fortune if components have already been purchased and assembly lines already halfway formed.

So, I suggest that perhaps there has been some delay in shifting our development mentality to our present reality. After all, the grip of tradition is quite strong. Today’s digital design is something completely different—processes are distributed, online-first, hybrid, remote, and frankly, can be carried out any way you’d like. Further, these new pipelines offer increased speed and much lower production costs.

So, enough background, how could you bring our method to your team? I’ll tell you.

Mantra 1: design only what you need at the moment

Together with your product team, determine the critical parts of your MVP and shape only those designs. This will shorten time to market, and more quickly get user feedback, and thus, understand your audience’s needs and pains.

If you’re dreaming of launching the perfect product complete with absolutely every feature you have in mind, you’re wasting your team’s time.

In reality, an MVP with a few key designs is the real gateway to success: early adopter feedback will guide you on how to elevate your product and more quickly secure investment. And, in most cases, this invaluable feedback forces you to totally reconsider your product and potentially uncover demand for completely different (and perhaps unexpected) features.

Let’s talk about why this mantra is so important in terms of real results. We’ve had numerous experiences with clients who initially came to our product team with monstrous scopes (many different focal points, dozens of heavy tasks) which might’ve taken years to launch from zero. By collaborating with our clients, in most cases, we were able to reshape these, helping hone in on the most valuable items and produce a working MVP within a few months.

Some dramatic stats from recent years: 9 out of 10 startups fail, according to a study by EPFL university, over 70 percent of startups eventually pivot to another market. I suggest the following interpretation: “There’s a 70 percent chance you won’t need the mockups you made in advance; an early design concept is the only way to get your project into that 10% success category.”

Designing just what you need gives you the power of the pivot.

I worked on a project that pivoted 3 times in 6 years. Our team created four totally different products for one client while looking for the best product-market fit (and they would eventually find success).

Mantra 2: implement the design immediately

Don’t delay—send mockups to development. This speeds up product launch because it’s much faster (and easier) to fix something when the task’s context and related nuances are fresh on the team’s mind.

A more complex product means a more complex context for the whole team to keep track of—this is what we want to avoid.

Some insider knowledge: even if a designer regularly communicates with your engineering team and keeps tabs on the ins and outs of the design implementation (we’ll talk about communication later), you’ll inevitably end up with a multitude of technical problems. That’s because these “hidden hiccups” are challenges that are just inherent to any development process. These will entail a revamp of some degree (in the best case scenario) or a complete redesign (in the worst case.) As previously emphasized, digital products are just code, text, and everything can be corrected, polished, or reworked at any moment, simultaneously, and in parallel. We want to avoid wasteful “self-indulgent” analysis, and in any case, by implementing ideas ASAP, you actually decrease uncertainty in a sense, because you can begin tackling those “hidden hiccups” sooner, rather than later.

At this stage, it’s also critical not to design too far in advance. Stick to the current features. Don’t waste time designing the “far off” features on your roadmap. It’s better if the design is a couple of weeks ahead of development. This will give you room to maneuver.

Do your best to disengage from perfectionism. I know it’s difficult not getting the design approved by every stakeholder, but meticulous, mockup approval focused on a long-term view can create serious bottlenecks.

The best strategy right now is to deliver your product faster.

You’ll have multiple chances to polish your UI and UX and find the product-market fit later on.

Mantra #3: break big features into smaller chunks—during the design stage

An experienced product designer (see the next section) should focus on honing a critical skill: arriving with a big piece of functionality via several successive iterations of the design-development-delivery cycle.

Smaller pieces of functionality are easier to design, implement, and test. This also means fewer bugs and faster development.

Ideally, iterations should be as short as possible: design, develop, deliver to users, get feedback, and proceed to the next round. A release every 2 weeks (at least) signifies a healthy engineering rhythm. A shorter process provides more control with more accurate and impactful feedback from users on particular features.

Mantra #4: organize communication between design and development

Seamless, regular two-way team communication is more than critical. At every product stage, designers should be constantly showing mockup previews to developers. Likewise, engineers should provide feedback on impending challenges every time they’re shown those mockups.

Prior to completing mockups, a top-of-the-line designer is positioned to validate ideas and goals by communicating them to stakeholders and the engineering team. But ideally, that designer should be in charge of the product development/communication process for clear and consistent communication.

Bonus: cultivate or find these qualities in your product designers

An outstanding product design will always share their design solutions with developers to check if they’ll cause any implementation problems. For instance, if implementing a design could extend development, it could be more reasonable for the project owners to make modifications so that the design will be less time-consuming.

The best product designers are always eager to learn about all the processes under the hood of the product interface. This is critical to providing a better user experience. A real-world example: if a product contains heavy data tables in the background, data updates can lag. Updates sometimes require data to be queued for processing and, therefore, the final process termination time is not predictable.

There is still a lot of work to be done

Adopting this new approach directly impacts flexibility and, eventually, profitability.

It is possible to free yourself from the kind of “factory manufacturing” product design methods that stifle creativity during development. A whole new world of product design is out there.

But, despite all the benefits of these new approaches, the traditional development patterns and rhythms in product design won’t be dismantled overnight. So, it’s my hope that we as a community, will begin to collectively shift the paradigm into this brave new design reality.

We’re just getting started: imagine just how efficient and affordable it will be once we optimize the process and utilize dynamic design flows with the newest trends and demands.

By the way, it can take quite a while to set up a new process from scratch for a freshly-hired, in-house design team. That’s where Evil Martians can help! Our specialists have already established familiar communication processes, both within our own team, and with our clients. We pride ourselves on what we do, and we’re ready to jump in, especially for projects undergoing fundamental changes or products at a very early development stage. Reach out to us now!

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