Lesson Five

How to balance design and launching early

It’s important to launch early. It’s important to make a good first impression. These are two conflicting opinions, so which is right?

First, both viewpoints can’t be applied to every situation. The level of design you apply to your product could be much different than what’s needed compared to another product due to factors like the stage of your product and it’s competitive advantage.

The importance of launching early

Take a look at the first version of the popular social networking website LinkedIn:

LinkedIn member page
LinkedIn member page 2002 (source)
LinkedIn homepage in 2003
LinkedIn homepage in 2003

Judging from this early version of the site, it looked like LinkedIn could have probably used more work before launching. However, the founders decided that what they did was enough and getting input from launching earlier was more important than keeping the doors shut and building more of their product.

In the case of LinkedIn, they didn’t want to wait to launch to determine if what they made was useful. Because social networks were in their infancy at the time, there were many unknowns and the team needed to test their assumptions against reality as soon as possible.

Reid Hoffman, one of the co-founders of LinkedIn knew that moving fast was more important than designing something exceptional for the first version of the social network. Hoffman was even quoted as saying,

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Reid Hoffman, co-founder LinkedIn

Everything in your plan might look good on paper, but how do your customers react when it’s a real thing? This is the benefit of getting your product out early – to find the holes you didn’t think of that matter most to your customers.

The importance of a first impression

While launching early is important, so is a first impression. In a study run by Google, it was found that people judged a website’s beauty within 1/50th to 1/20th of a second – faster than you can snap your fingers. Your product’s design has an immediate impact on people staying or leaving.

MIT psychologist Kevin Larson spent his career researching the effect of fonts and design layouts on our emotions.

Larson conducted a landmark study with 20 volunteers- half men and half women. He separated the volunteers into two groups. Each group was shown a separate version of The New Yorker- one where the image placement, font, and layout were designed well and one where the layout was designed poorly:

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Larson found that readers felt bad while reading the poorly designed layout. Meanwhile, the participants who read content from the well-designed reading layout, felt like it took less time to read and felt better.

Larson concluded that well-designed environments make you feel good, causing you to feel inspired and more likely to take action.

When a product, website, or app “just works” this leaves a lasting impact on the people using it. It’s one way to keep people coming back and inspires people to share your product with people they know.

Emotion drives action. This is where quality product design plays a pivotal role in the success of a product.

Case Study:

Design as a competitive advantage

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams recently wrote about how design is more important now in the technology industry than it used to be.

Ev argues that as technology evolves, core infrastructure becomes a commodity and how you differentiate your product moves from delivering features that are good enough to get the job done to delivering an experience while getting the job done.

To illustrate a similar perspective, here’s a graphic from a Harvard Business Review article written by two product experience consultants, Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore:

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Ev’s point and this illustration bring up the importance of design as a key way for your product to stand out. According to this theory, in today’s world, it’s likely that just having the right set of features won’t be good enough. The features, mixed with your product’s design must create an experience. That’s what will differentiate you.

A prime example of a company that knows how to balance technological features and quality product design is Apple.

Apple’s focus on marrying design with technology showed that product design could be a core strategic advantage.

Here’s a photo of an Apple Store:

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It’s easy to tell that Apple cares about meeting a level of design across everything they do. This attention to delivering an experience creates trust from customers.

Even an Apple product’s internal circuitry is known for achieving the same standard of design. Here’s an example of one of Apple’s computers well-designed insides:

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With design-led thinking, Apple catapulted to one of the most valuable companies in the world, building everything from iPods to computers to phones.

To Apple, quality design is not just about how a product looks on the outside. Apple had to make sure they solved complex engineering problems too. They couldn’t just make a more aesthetically-pleasing computer or phone.

Let’s say you owned an Apple laptop. Would you care that your computer was as thin as a pencil if you got a virus every month? Doubt it.

Imagine if you owned an iPhone and couldn’t complete a call. Would you care that your phone had beautifully shaped volume control buttons? Probably not.

Apple made sure to meet the same standard of quality for technical engineering in addition to making better-looking products. Building these core engineering functions right is just as much apart of design as any aesthetic design choice.

As late Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said,

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

How to balance design and launching early

So if launching early and design are both important, how do you know how far to take the level of design in a product?

Ryan Singer, product designer at Basecamp, a project management software company with over 285,000 customers, shared how he balances features and execution in an early product,

“The set of features you choose to build is one thing. The level you choose to execute at is another. You can decide whether or not to include a feature like ‘reset password’. But if you decide to do it, you should live up to a basic standard of execution on the experience side.”

To balance product quality and launching early, Singer recommends taking these 3 steps:

  • Start by laying out the features for the product in a list:
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  • Prioritize features based on answers to the following 3 questions:
    1. How valuable is this feature from the perspective of the customer’s problem?
    2. How necessary is this feature from nice-to-have to must-have?
    3. How far do I have to take this feature? How good should this particular piece be in order to call it ”done” and move on?
  • Visualize the features using a heatmap to identify the pieces that are the most important to the customer:
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However many features you decide to build, your goal should be to meet a baseline standard of quality across all features.

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“Features can be different sizes with more or less complexity, but the quality of experience should be constant across all features. That constant quality of experience is what gives your customers trust,” notes Ryan.

In other words, whether you build a few basic features or many complex ones, the result of the features should meet the same level of quality.

And as you build more features, seek to reach the same level of quality of the features before them. Here’s an illustration that shows another way to think about designing a product as it evolves over time:

Smarty — How to build a minimum viable product
Source: Smarty

Video of Basecamp’s design process


There is a balance needed between the level of design and feature set. Find the features most important to customers first and whatever you decide to build, keep the level of design consistent throughout.

Case Study:

How Simple launched a design-focused early product

In 2010, Joshua Reich sent an email that was the start of a re-imagination of banking.

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The bank would be called Simple, and the concept would be focused around building a better banking experience end-to-end – fixing all the pain points of a traditional bank.

Because of the challenges in banking – institutional red tape, credit cards, financial certifications, etc. – Joshua likely knew there would be many upfront costs to move forward with setting up the groundwork for a bank and then designing a better experience on top of it all.

So instead, Simple started with a well-designed website that was a preview of how the company planned to create a superior banking experience. The design was superb yet, there were no features behind the site apart from an email signup.

An early Simple landing page
Early landing page of Simple

In an interview, Reich explains he chose to go this route to gauge interest for the potential size of the market and to refine the features that were highest priority for customers,

“While we had locked down our core philosophy, we wanted to calibrate the feature set to the market. Early feedback helped us shape the ideas that were most important to launch with.”
Josh Reich, founder of Simple

The company signed up 125,000 members to it’s waiting list without building a single core feature and validated there was a big enough need from people wanting a better banking experience.

How Simple started is an example of getting something out publicly early while balancing it with a level of design. Simple needed real world input but it also needed to hit a level of quality because designing an experience was going to be their key difference.

By starting small, Joshua and his team successfully balanced an expectation for a level of design while launching an early product.

When it comes to building a product, you need to assess tradeoffs – to decide when something is good enough to launch or needs to be chiselled some more.

Don’t wait too long to launch but don’t wait until your product is too perfect either.

If you feel you’re compromising the level of design by building more, it’s likely better to focus on less and only do more when you can hit the level of design you’re after.

There isn’t one best option for every product because no two scenarios are the same but hopefully these examples and steps to evaluate your design will help you strike the right balance between design and launching early.