Designing & Building Your Product

First impressions last a lifetime. It’s the story that everyone talks about at family functions and social networking events. It’s easily the most common question people ask married couples: “What was your first impression of so-and-so?”

It’s the same when you’re a startup looking to launch a new product or service. You want to make a good first impression. After all, customers who come across your company’s offerings will have a story to share when others ask, “How was your interaction with that new company?” Their initial reactions help shape your company’s reputation during this crucial period.

As a founder, you have plenty of opportunities to engage your potential customers and make sure that their initial reactions to your company are positive ones. In the product and service development stage, you want to always be thinking about how your users will react to your offerings. That means being creative with your user interface and understanding user-focused design.


At the basic level, you want to design a product that you yourself would enjoy using. Think about the user interface of the best business websites or mobile apps: the functions aren’t complicated because the whole idea is to make these products intuitive and user-friendly. Take DigitalOcean, an infrastructure provider for developers that emerged in 2012 out of a Boulder Techstars startup accelerator. It’s all about user-focused design and simplicity.

Edward Chiu, director of customer success at DigitalOcean, said when his company launched its product, the team focused on three customer-facing principles of design:

  1. Prototyping: “We make it easy to deploy your application as a prototype or beta test in a staging environment and help prepare it for production. We make it easy for customers to set up their first server. The app or platform you create will be live on the web, so you can do a soft launch and test out the product, share it with your friends and family and get immediate feedback.”
  2. Clear costs: “A lot of companies that provide infrastructure of servers have tiers of services, and it takes an accountant or CFO or analyst to figure out pricing. Most startups want to figure out one year up front what their cost is going to look like so they know how much to raise in funding and what their burn cost is. You want to be able to outline what the costs are and not sit there and spend weeks on what your pricing looks like—that may change even a week later. A lot of companies have 20 to 30 different types of servers and different tiers of pricing, meaning if you use this much of it you pay this much. We only have nine different plans. For us, it’s one simple low-cost pricing plan. Regardless of how much usage, what you see is what you get.”
  3. Customization: “A lot of developers are used to building infrastructure outside of the user interface. They’re used to building it out using code. One feature that we have that’s appealing to developers is our API. Once you take a look it’s that simple in terms of automating infrastructure and making sure you can get up and running quickly. For a company, the last thing you want to do is spend months trying to figure out an infrastructure and how to manage your own servers. Managing servers doesn’t move you to the next stage of app development or of the company’s growth. It’s tedious work nobody wants to do. The easier the API, the easier it is for developers of startups to build the app and build the business. Developers enjoy automation, a customization feel and having full control of the environment using code.”

So what is the value of providing a user-focused design for your customers? For Intuit, a small business, personal finance, and tax software company, it was a matter of survival as it faced ongoing competition in the ever-changing world of technology.[1]

In 1982, Scott Cook had an “aha” moment as he watched his wife struggling to balance the family checkbook using pencil and paper. This was back when personal computers were starting to get more popular, but there was no software to speed up the process. So Cook decided to focus his energy on building a user-focused accounting platform.

The project went through a long design process that involved potential users. As CEO of Intuit, Cook pioneered the innovative “Follow Me Home” program, where his staff (and often Cook himself) would go to the software stores to talk directly with customers. When someone bought a copy of Quicken, the software he pioneered, he would ask if he could go to the customer’s home so he could watch him or her use the application.

By reaching out to customers early on in the product design phase, Cook was able to improve the design right away and troubleshoot issues. He was also able to observe how the design affected the users’ experiences. By the time Intuit went public in 1993, it claimed more than 90 percent of the small business accounting software market.

Over time, Intuit began to acquire companies offering payroll, online payment, tax preparation, and other services, giving the company a more diversified lineup of products. Although they were expanding their product line, there was a noticeable lack of focus on innovation within the company. That’s when Cook realized Intuit’s user-centered design DNA was getting lost in the attempt to grow and scale too quickly.

In 2000, Steve Bennett became CEO of Intuit. His focus was steering Intuit away from its roots as a user-focused software platform provider. One of the major changes was moving to the cloud, meaning customers now paid a subscription fee to access software online instead of buying it for their desktop. Installation was simplified, updates were pushed out faster, and users had access to their data from wherever they were located.

But in this new cloud space, Intuit was moving into a competitive ecosystem, where young and daring startups were encroaching its territory. Even more challenging, many of these newcomers were specializing in specific products. This made customers steer away from Intuit’s broad, diversified offerings and seek those that specialized in core products.

Years later CEO Brad Smith headed Intuit’s move away from being a desktop software company to becoming a cloud-based company. This meant the complete redesign of their flagship product. The centerpiece was called Project Harmony, a new software platform and variation of QuickBooks Online that was revamped to be a open and integrated.

But there were some bumps on the road from desktop to cloud. Intuit’s longstanding customers who were familiar with the desktop application were wary of change, and many of those who did try the new service reported being generally unhappy with it.

In the midst of it all, Project Harmony remained committed to its core design principles, which Intuit ultimately believed would give customers a better experience in the long run. These principles also helped to shape the company’s culture and how employees work and relate to one another based on these core design principles.

The emphasis on user-focused design at Intuit is reflected in a set of rules that are followed by all business units, regardless of the product or service:

  1. Intuit’s core products will work together; any product that acts as a customer’s first point of contact will introduce the customer to the entire ecosystem.
  2. When there are common jobs or tasks across products, Intuit will use common designs and components. It may not be the best for one, but it will be the best for all.
  3. Share data across teams: If a product captures data, that product needs to enable other products to use the data it captured.



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