The Ultimate 8-Step Guide to Product Design for Startups

October 4, 2023 Steve

Why 8 and not 6, or 10, I hear you ask? In Pythagorean numerology (a pseudoscience) the number 8 represents victory, prosperity and overcoming. Eight (八, hachi, ya) is also considered a lucky number in Japan as it gives the idea of growing prosperous, because the letter (八) broadens gradually. Research also shows how good product design principles can in fact improve ROI!

Embarking on a new product journey is a calculated endeavour, one that takes you from the initial eureka moment to the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. For startups, particularly in the software / digital realm, product design is the linchpin that offers a comprehensive solution to customer-centric issues.

The Foundational Elements

When you’re setting up your startup’s product design framework, there are several core aspects that demand your attention. These range from understanding the specific needs of your target customers to the limitations imposed by your resources and the ticking clock of your development schedule. The design process should be custom-fitted to the unique goals and constraints of your project i.e. the 8 steps below are far from a simple linear process within a startup, they’re as dynamic as it gets, offering some perspective within the chaos!

The Fluid Nature of Development

Product design is far from a linear journey. It’s a dynamic, iterative cycle where steps often intermingle and loop back on themselves. Fresh insights can pop up at any stage, enriching the project and sometimes even altering its course. The cycle remains open-ended; even after you’ve rolled out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – what I like to call the Minimum Loveable Product (MLP), the door is always open for further refinements and feature additions.

Striking the Balance: User Needs vs Business Goals

Your product should be a harmonious blend of what your target audience desires and what aligns with your business objectives. This calls for a nuanced understanding of your customers’ expectations and a strategic approach to fulfilling them without compromising your business goals.

The 8-Step Deep Dive

Step 1: Identify Problems and Assemble Your Team

The first step is all about problem identification. What issue is your product going to solve in its first year of life and beyond? Once that’s clear, you’ll need to put together a team that’s suited to tackle the challenges ahead and of course, in-line with your start-up’s budget and strategy especially if you’re going down the bootstrapped / lean startup route. This phase is also ripe for brainstorming; every team member should contribute ideas, no matter how out-of-the-box they may seem. Some of them could be tackled at a later date in the product lifecycle when the product and business matures slightly, if there’s the customer-need.

Step 2: Brand is King. Own your execution!

This is where you officially set the wheels in motion. I love to start from the brand, its persona, how it wants to present itself to the world and how the product, marketing and everything else will evolve and revolve around it. Take this time to also bring all the team together to align their expectations and responsibilities. Ensuring everyone owns their execution is a safeguard against costly misunderstandings and a forum for laying down key performance indicators (KPIs). I know this sounds all corporate for a startup, however, it’s critical for everyone in the team to know what they are doing, why, by when and what the intended outcome is post launch.

Step 3: Know Your Market – Competitive Analysis

Operating in a bubble can be as detrimental as operating off assumptions – we all know that assumptions are the mother of all f*ck ups! A thorough analysis of your competitors can offer you a 360-degree view of the market landscape. This step helps you identify what sets your product apart and could reveal potential weaknesses in your competitors’ strategies.

Step 4: Set Requirements & Narrate User Stories

This step involves translating the user requirements and expectations into relatable stories. These narratives help in visualising how the user, or various types of users, interact with the product and what they aim to achieve, thereby offering a clearer picture of user needs and product functionalities.

Step 5: The Blueprint Phase – Sketching and Wireframing

Sketching and wireframing are the initial steps in bringing your product to life. They serve as the architectural plans for your design, laying out the spatial relationships between various elements on a page. Even though they’re in Step 5 here, I generally have sketches during the branding phase of the project, low fidelity sketches at the very least.

Step 6: The Design Prototype – Your Product’s First Physical Form

Prototyping is where your product takes its first tangible form. I like this to be in clickable format whenever possible, however given the time and resource constraints of a startup, a bunch of screens tied into the user stories and requirements could be enough for you and your team, especially if you have a product human in the founding team to push things along. The prototype serves as a practical, hands-on guide for your development team and a testing ground for your concepts.

Step 7: Validation – team, family and friends!

Before you move from staging to production and live to the world, it’s crucial to have an internal review with the original team and if possible, friends and family including some potential customers. Their feedback can help you identify any glaring issues and offer new perspectives that you might have missed. This ties into my “Go slow with effort to go faster effortlessly” concept i.e. don’t rush the launch and your launch marketing without fully testing that the product works, as it could harm your brand from the get-go and in the long run. Once validation is ‘complete’ (validation is an ongoing journey!!), push that big red button

Step 8: The Final Frontier – User Feedback

The ultimate test of your product’s mettle is how it fares with its intended users. Usability testing can provide rapid insights into user experience and interaction. In my previous start-up I started collecting feedback from day one, not just from a product perspective, but also from a marketing and customer support point of view.

A 360-degree view of things, especially in the beginning, will ensure you’re focused on the burning issues and not on the noise of new features while chasing flashy unicorns.

In Summary

Designing a tech startup product is a multifaceted, ever-evolving challenge that requires a diverse skill set and a significant investment of resources. Each project has its own unique set of requirements, and the design cycle doesn’t stop when the product hits the market. Happy Creating!

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Let me know how I can help your business grow. Contact me via email and I’ll get back to you within one hour.

Outside of work I’m a proud dad of two boys and an avid open water swimmer. My biggest open water swimming challenge so far was swimming ~37km non-stop around the beautiful Island of Gozo in Malta at the end of June 2019. Read more about it here

Steven Grech’s CV is also available at visualcv.com

© 2023 STEVEN GRECH
PROFILE SHOTS AND FOOTER IMAGE BY THE AMAZING & TALENTED HUMAN KURT ARRIGO

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