Collaborating with a team of like-minded individuals to create something from nothing can feel truly magical, particularly when it comes to designing web products.
On the flip side, it can be pretty scary to break new ground and realize there’s no one waiting on the other side with the “correct” answer for what you should do next. Such is the nature of the beast, and anyone who has worked on a startup appreciates both sides of the coin. Three startups in, I have trouble imagining my life any other way.
At Tapastic, we’re building the world’s best community of comic creators, where publishers can grow their audience and readers can discover great visual stories on the web or their mobile devices. With over 800 creators and more than a thousand series published so far, we’re clearly doing something right… but each day, there’s a lot to think about, and even more to do. That’s the joy and challenge of building products, and what keeps me up at night — and also what keeps me coming back for more.
Over the years, certain patterns and lessons have emerged across the different companies and projects I’ve worked on and I’ve distilled those down to five key creative practices for better product design at your startup:
1. Simplify your focus
Coming up with ideas and features is exciting. Factor in the competing priorities and varied feedback from design, engineering, PR, and sales perspectives (not to mention, ahem, the users), and it’s easy to end up wanting to build everything.
Even if you’re past the point of finding product-market fit and building your MVP, it’s still critical to evaluate the impact and return on your product decision and be brave enough to cut mercilessly. If the core value isn’t solid and you’re not hyper focused on delivering it without fail, none of the other things will last long enough to matter. Likewise, not all feedback is valuable or useful, and so it must be interpreted and acted on with the same degree of focus to avoid building a camel or getting sidetracked down a rabbit hole.
2. Check your ego at the door
No one really wants to use your product, they only want the result or value it produces. They also rarely care about how clever you are, or how difficult some UI trick was to pull off (unless they happen to be a designer or developer too… even then, that respect doesn’t necessarily equate to more usage or dollars). When designing a product, it’s terribly easy to think of yourself as the user and never really explore beyond that, but it’s important to remember that good design really starts with problem solving rooted in empathy.
There’s been some recent debate regarding the Dribbblisation of design, which certainly provides value for critique and feedback, but primarily strikes me as designing to show off for other designers. I think Jony Ive put it best when he said, “it’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.” A lot of ego-based design is about standing out and being different for the sake of identity, rather than striving, first and foremost, to deliver a better solution to your audience.
3. Take a hike
Stand up (too much sitting may be killing you) and go for a walk outside – a quick, 10-minute trip around the block will do. I know you’re indispensable and #fomo is pandemic, but seriously, leave your phone behind. Tucked in your pocket, the temptation to check it will be overwhelming (even without phantom vibrations). The point of the walk is not to make progress toward inbox zero or check Facebook on a smaller screen, but to entirely disconnect from pixels and shift your context to a novel environment.
Besides giving your eyes much needed rest, walking clears your head, improves focus, and boosts creativity. Take a pen and notebook if you must, but I prefer to stroll without an agenda, allowing my subconscious to solve problems and absorb inspiration without added pressure. I try to do this at least every few hours.
Beyond the health benefits, unplugging momentarily helps restore perspective; in overwhelming moments of frustration the break allows me to remember I’m pushing pixels, not saving lives (if your work actually involves saving lives, thank you, but you’re on your own).
4. Have a beer (you’ve probably earned it)
Or a cup of coffee, depending on your goal. Need to focus, achieve flow, and grind? Top off that cup of coffee. Looking to make new connections, find inspiration, or tap fresh ideas? Reach for a beer! While neither is a panacea, I’ve experienced great productivity gains pairing coffee with noise canceling headphones and come up with many novel solutions sipping a beer while sketching at a cafe.
As with all things, moderation is key and more doesn’t equal better. Too much beer leads to not caring enough, and too much coffee results in my writing this post at 4am…
5. Share what works
What works for me might not work for you, but I’d love to hear what does! Sharing your process not only helps others work more effectively with you, but the requisite introspection will help you better understand yourself. Besides, it’s always reassuring to hear others are going through the same challenges, and how they worked through them.
Feel free to share your tips or chat with me about startups, interfaces, and product design.