Beyond Aesthetics –
Design Tips for Startups

Don’t panic, this is not going to be a lecture on typography or what color palette you should use. It’s not going to require you to have the latest Creative Suite from Adobe either. In fact you don’t need to be a designer or UXD expert to use these principles. This is an attempt to cut through the noise from the art directors, usability experts, designers, developers, Venture Capitalist and family members to help you design better products.

Hello Cases


So what does it take to design a successful digital product or service? Is it the brand, the choice of colors, the functionality, the chosen platform, or the social features?

Well all of the above certainly have some importance, but it’s going to be very hard to prove that one particular element is why company X is a success. All too often we become attached to this idea that there is a recipe for success. That if you just get the right idea or if your design is cool or uses a certain technology you will be successful.

Nothing in my experience, supports that belief. In fact what means success for one company might spell failure for another.

For instance is based on PHP, a server side language that many “real” developers loathe. They claim it’s not a real programming language and that it doesn’t scale well. None–the–less a whole plethora of successful companies uses PHP, including FaceBook.

Google isn’t exactly winning design prizes for their look and feel, yet they are so successful that many companies are copying their style. was a success long before they started to add more complex social features. Joost were designed primarily around social features and have joined the deathpool.

In other words, there are as many ways to design a successful product, as there are ways to design a failure.

Large companies almost never allow for failure, which partly explains why their solutions most of the time are as bland as they are.

They have the money to continue down a dead–end and will invest millions in doing all the right things from user research, to usability tests to 5 different design proposals to establishing brand guidelines, then launch something two years too late to great fanfare and unfortunately often to great obscurity.

If you are a startup, you are normally not allowed (and shouldn’t be) to spend that much time and money building spaceships no one want to fly.

So what to do.

Take the design process serious, but don’t get too attached with one particular part of it and don’t rely on any one particular discipline to give you the right answers. Get to the point where you have real users or customers as quickly as possible. It’s these users that will provide you with the information that will get you you in a position to make better design decisions.

The following principles should help you get in a position:

1. Start simple, stay simple.

It cannot be said enough. Less is more – much more, and there is a very good reason that it pays to understand.

If you do less you can measure more. If you can measure more you can better experiment with what works.

Most products are simple, based on simple insights.

Make sure that you stay true to those insights, until you know you tried out every different interpretation of them. Don’t add new features just because you think that it will help, it wont, not yet. If your product becomes a success it’s not because of how many features it has.

2. Don’t confuse change with improvement.

One of the biggest challenges record artist face when producing a new album is fatigue. They get this from listening to the same riffs, passages, drum tracks, choruses etc. over and over and over. It’s actually one of the reasons why many have a problem listening to their own album when it’s finally out. Startups as intense and time consuming as they are, have similar problems. It’s very tempting after a couple of months of looking at the same design to want to change it and think you are improving your product. You aren’t, so don’t succumb to the temptation. It’s not worth it.

Furthermore, if it goes like it does in most cases, you will soon enough have to spend resources on changing things after you launch.

3. Build to integrate.

Think about whether your product could be a good extension to already existing products/services. That way you can tap into already existing digital ecosystems and leverage on their popularity and reach this will give you some standards to adhere to. Remember that the more you are able to interface with other services the more trust you will establish. Guilt by association works both ways.

4. Don’t do everything that is possible only what is necessary.

Constrain yourself. A good product has limitations. It doesn’t just succumb to every temptation that comes along. Focus on what makes your product the product and only add features if you get clear signs that it is needed. Most users will have to learn your product anyway so don’t try to impress them with features before they understand what your product is all about. I-Tunes have many flaws, Basecamp from 37Signals leaves a lot to be asked for, but when all is said and done, their products are rock solid and there is no feature like the rock solid feature.

5. Usability studies and focus groups are for refinement not for innovation.

Let me be perfectly clear. Running a successful and informative usability study or focus group wont help you understand whether the market wants your product or whether you have solved your interaction flow satisfactory. I know there is a lot of buzz around User Centered Design and that a hoard of usability experts will claim that they can help you design more successful products if you just ask the user (Which I find ironic). Don’t believe the hype, I say this as someone who also makes a living doing usability tests. There are a few situations where usability studies make sense for startups, but most likely it wont be in your situation.

I will write a separate post about UCD but leave you with a few observations.

There is no one–to–one relationship between what people say in a focus group and what they actually do. It’s way to complex and there are way to many psychological elements and social dynamics involved to allow you to extrapolate important data out of it at an early stage.

In most cases you are testing in a pseudo environment with mock-ups, html prototypes or even paper prototypes. Just imagine how Twitter, SMS, Google or LastFM in it’s early days would have scored. So many products need to be experienced before users will provide you with any valuable insights to build on.

It would be like trying to determine the usage and usability of a hammer by looking at a piece of paper with a drawing of it. You get the picture.

6. A feature is not a product.

Speaking of hammers.

Don’t just think about your product as a bunch of features. Instead focus on what it is your are selling at it’s core. What is needed for your product to function? How much can you take away from it without sacrificing the core product.

Think about features as something to add after you have launched.

Hammer - Products & Features

A hammer has one purpose, which is to help you knock in nails. Everything on top of that is features. Therefore understand when you are working on your core product and when you are working on adding features.

The benefits of thinking like this, is that it will help you establish a very clear an precise picture of what makes your product your product. Which means you will much better be able to understand why you are adding features when you are and won’t get caught in the “me to” behavior that can drive companies out of business very fast.

7. Think how, not what.

What matters is not what functionality your product has, but how it works. A sign-up process is not just a sign-up process, a checkout process is not just a checkout process, a button is not just a button, a rating system is not just a rating system.

Think about how you can stand out by introducing something that everyone else might have but in a unique way. That’s what Steepster did when they re-designed their rating system (se how they did here). Skype was not the first VOIP provider, far from, but Skype managed to make it stand out and look like a product not just a technology. In other words they productified a technology

You will be surprised how much the “how” can help improving your product.


8. It’s not innovation to use the latest technology.

It’s tempting to try and set yourself apart by using the latest build of some framework or technology. But don’t do it just because it’s the latest. Make sure that you understand the implications of what you are introducing. Is it processor intensive, is it increasing load time, does it improve the experience, is it understood by enough developers so that you can optimize it.

If you can’t answer the above, you probably shouldn’t do it.

All to often companies get caught in thinking that new technology in itself is the differentiation factor. But as most successful businesses know. Innovations have an introduction curve and not everyone should take advantage of a given technology just because it’s available.


To conclude

Designing successful products has more to do with understanding what doesn’t work than with what works. If you can get your company in a position where you can “feel” the state of your product, you are able to make smarter decisions and in effect will have a better chance of success.

41 Comments on “Beyond Aesthetics –
Design Tips for Startups”

  1. 1 Darpan Munjal said at 2:36 am on November 6th, 2009:

    I have to say, this is one of the best articles I have read in a while! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.. very well written!


  2. 2 Thomas Petersen said at 7:59 am on November 6th, 2009:

    Thanks Darpan

  3. 3 Claus Sørensen said at 10:39 am on November 6th, 2009:

    Thank you an interesting and well written article!

  4. 4 Noel WIggins said at 3:08 pm on November 6th, 2009:

    Great article with a great breakdown of many valuable solutions to get a professional looking website with in the reach of any budget!

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for
    a graphic design studio

  5. 5 Philip Haugaard said at 6:36 pm on November 8th, 2009:

    A really good blog not just for webdesigners i could think of a few developers that should read this.

    Best regards
    Philip Haugaard

  6. 6 Amber Wallace said at 12:44 am on November 10th, 2009:

    Thanks — this is a great article. I especially like the discussion on change vs. improvement, as I see that a lot in web design. I think the feature / element / product discussion is also great, and important to many businesses!

  7. 7 Mike said at 3:41 am on November 11th, 2009:

    Wouldn’t the hammer you show have two purposes – to hammer nails and remove nails (the claw)? The features would be the size and style of the head, the type of claw, the handle length, curve, etc.?

    I know this might sound nit-picky, but I just want to make sure I’m understanding this properly.

  8. 8 Check Out These Startup Blogs said at 4:56 am on November 11th, 2009:

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  9. 9 Thomas Petersen said at 7:00 am on November 11th, 2009:

    Hi mike

    The hammer I show have two purposes, but the hammer head is the main reason people buy the hammer, the claw is a nice addition. People will buy hammers without the claw, the opposite is not the case.

  10. 10 Michael Bungartz said at 3:47 pm on November 11th, 2009:

    THE HAMMER: I especially enjoyed the Hammer analogy, very interesting. The comment above by Mike only solidifies your point about the importance of distinguishing between a product and it’s core element, versus added features. No offense Mike, honestly a perfect question for the sake of the conversation.

    …and Thomas actually your response was only partially true and doesn’t tell the whole story. While folks do buy ‘hammers’ without ‘claws’, they also buy ‘claws’ without ‘hammers’.

    The hammer’s primary purpose, or core element is to pound nails, not pull them. The origin of the word “Hammer” even comes from ‘rock’, which meant at some point it was probably a stone tool for pounding. ON THE OTHER HAND, people DO buy claws without hammers, known as the crowbar, flatbar, prybar, etc. In contrast however, the crowbar’s primary purpose is to pull nails, not pound them.

    Thus again, kudos to your Hammer Analogy. The claw on the hammer is a feature and not part of its core element. And the claw is a core element on its own tool, the crowbar.

    The analogy serves as a perfect example of how the core element of our businesses and services can easily elude us. In the digital business, it is very easy to be distracted by all the cool claws (aka.features) we can build. But we must remain clear as to what it is about our hammer that makes it a hammer.

    Insightful post, I will be sure to share it… Bravo.

  11. 11 Minneapolis Web Design Guru said at 5:52 pm on November 11th, 2009:

    This is a very well written article! Very informative!

  12. 12 Black&White™ — A simple model for innovation said at 1:10 pm on November 17th, 2009:

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  15. 15 Black&White™ — Getting to the customer – why everything you think about User Centred Design is wrong said at 1:56 pm on November 24th, 2009:

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  16. 16 James Arthur said at 11:46 pm on November 24th, 2009:

    Very helpful article, thanks.

    The ‘how’ is so often missed but then makes all the difference. Apple: computers done *really well*.

    One thing that chimes with my recent experience — see — is a dynamic between focusing on core product (“what’s the point”) and integrating. In the world of web services, you want to tap the value of existing this, existing that. However, each drilling exercise takes time and focus away from core product.

    I guess the resolution there is to *have* a product before starting to integrate it.

    Needless to say, I just firmly subscribed, so don’t forget to keep posting ;)


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  20. 20 Silas said at 11:01 pm on December 2nd, 2009:

    Execellent and intelligent post, Thomas. Lost of great insights which just as well could be applied to many more disciplines than just design. And I’ll be keepin an eye on your work just to make sure you design as you preach – LOL!
    Stay focused as always:)


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  22. 22 Matt M. said at 5:39 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    Great writeup. Definitely a lot of good principles here to recognize and keep in mind when designing. Also, don’t forget to implement SEO in the early stages of development so that great design can be found. Here’s a good writeup on some best practices: .

  23. 23 Can Berkol said at 6:33 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    Agreed on all statements. Great share, thanks!

  24. 24 Interesting ideas said at 6:43 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    Great reading. Thanks for work!

  25. 25 Patrick Heck said at 6:48 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    A great Article! Thanks!

  26. 26 Pieter said at 6:59 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    Great article! Regarding your words “Think how, not what”, and “a sign-up process is not just a sign-up process”…

    We tried to invert the sign up process in our startup, by first letting the user play with our tool, and once clicking “save”, he or she will be prompted with a sign up screen. If they don’t want to loose what they did save, the will have to sign up :-)

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  29. 29 Joe Cascio said at 10:25 pm on December 7th, 2009:

    Couldn’t agree more, especially about the user experience experts. A friend of mine used to say, “Ship early and ugly” and, “People like a product that does something simple and understandable, and does it quickly and reliably”. Just a different way of saying, don’t succumb to feature, or option or configuration creep.

    In Japan they say that a rock garden is not complete if there is still something in it that could be removed. The same applies to product design. It’s more about saying “no” than “yes”.

  30. 30 em_Y said at 8:19 am on December 8th, 2009:

    I worked for a social network start-up company for more than years. From my experience, this article is so true. We were developing with the new technologies with a lot of features. At the end, it became a swiss-army knife not a hammer. It lost the core. It was a very very expensive lesson.

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  33. 33 Ryan Schmidt said at 1:34 pm on December 29th, 2009:

    I absolutely agree. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  34. 34 webtoolfeed said at 10:11 pm on January 29th, 2010:

    Very interesting thanks for sharing!

  35. 35 webtoolfeed said at 11:11 pm on January 29th, 2010:

    Very interesting thanks for sharing!

  36. 36 Une question de point de vue | Simple Entrepreneur said at 7:24 am on June 20th, 2010:

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  37. 37 Mike said at 8:04 pm on August 7th, 2010:

    Very good article Thanks! The most important this is to just get started. Don't sit back and wait. Get going!

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  41. 41 Mockup Tiger said at 2:46 pm on February 2nd, 2011:

    very true. Just stick with basic functionality. Release it and keep working.