The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (2023)

Digital products, services and marketplaces – aka platforms – provide new design challenges for designers. Learn what they are and how to manage them — in a responsible, ethical manner.

The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (1)

Assist building sustainable marketplaces, where all participants can thrive and power –respectively ownership– gets distributed equally.

Why it matters

Online businesses, digital products and software services do not exist in a vacuum; they form a dynamic relationship with markets and are closely bound to diverse communities – aka people – who participate with good intentions in the exchange of values and goods. We as designers can heavily influence these relationships via the features and functionalities we add to our software products and therefore share an enormous responsibility towards these communities. Putting our communities first, and the business second, is not always an easy task and requires long-term, strategic product- and business design thinking.

How you master this discipline

Short-sighted business and finance people oftentimes convince you that market growth is what matters most and it apparently always comes at a high cost or great risk. Therefore, they examine exploitative tactics that can be built into the operational system of the business and it’s products and services. For instance:

  • UBER exploits regulatory bodies and drivers’ vulnerability to sneak into existing markets and offer their services to riders at low cost. Not to mention all the other tactics they employ to serve stakeholders’ interests, such as an automatically triggered price surge: just before your battery is about to die or when the app assumes you are using the service more frequently – prices go up.
  • Facebook exploits the blind willingness to share our personal data to be able to operate on a freemium model, which helped them grow into profitable markets that can later be monetized (advertisers, political parties and special interest groups etc.).
  • PayPal in it’s early stages built bots, that exploited eBay by buying up goods and later insisted on paying for it solely via PayPal to artificially drive up demand for the new upcoming service.
  • exploits the reputation of their hosts and hoteliers to drive up competition, initiate price-wars and at the same time raise the quality of the accommodations overall.
  • AirBnB exploits the laziness of their hosts who often miss to fully understand their ‘Host Guarantee Insurance’ policy papers. They might otherwise feel less confident to rent out personal space to total strangers.

“It’s not enough to just build tools, we need to make sure they’re used for good.” M. Zuckerberg during his testimony to the US Congress, April 10th 2018. I hope he will!

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The list goes on an on, but the few examples above show, first of all, that most digital products and services rely on multi-sided markets with users on both ends of the value chain and second, that at least one side gets exploited in order to attract the other side with the goal to initiate hyper growth. Now compare this to the concept of imperialism: a developed country uses force against an undeveloped one in order to extract raw materials, exploit cheap labor and create new markets/capital (tax free). You certainly don’t want to go down that route if you claim to care for people and be user-centric.

Does it always have to be like this? Does rapid growth require exploiting one side over the other? I say, no. When accepting new requirements for the work you do as a designer, look beyond immediate (business)needs, basic corporate responsibilities towards the public and typical growth tactics. Start thinking about the long-term implications of your design solutions. Avoid playing with users’ temporary demands, desires and vulnerabilities; it almost always creates a toxic environment and elicits other unfair moves. Consider that many people depend on the features you build. Experiencing delightfulness when using an app does not always translate into a satisfied need and provides the wage someone else needs at the other end of the service value chain. exemplifies this negative ripple effect well; It’s awesome that you can simply reserve a table via the app, but the costs charges restaurants for their booking services get passed on to the staff that works and sweats in the kitchens in form of reduced wages. Everything’s connected in the digital world – so they say.

The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (2)

Assist helping individual customers better achieve their goals and guarantee stability.

Why it matters

In Steve Blanks terms – Customer Development is, in short, a way of validating problem statements, early business ideas and experimental design assumptions (early solutions) with potential customers. For me, it’s a tool to help customers become more awesome and accomplish what they need to do better. Either way – Customer Development is a discipline crucial for the success of any digital business, characterized by rapidly changing consumer behaviours and fast shifting market trends. There is no time to rest or stop listening to what user value most (and need) at any given time of their product-usage-life-cycle.

How you master this discipline

Focus on two things; listening and responding. You are in a good place when you just finished a UX research initiative or analyzed the results of an online costumer survey. Don’t let this be your only ‘listening’ initiative for the current financial quarter. Ramp up your research cadence; do it a little more often. Start planning long-term and think what you need to do next to be able to continually observe your customer base and develop a deeper understanding of their existing needs, their shifting values and hidden attitudes. Simplify and reduce costs by focusing on your most active and dedicated user segments. Satisfy their needs first, before spreading your resources into other segments that won’t yield the same (business) results. Otherwise you might end up like SHYP – a company with immense traction, but a short runway. Eventually, they drowned in their own exorbitant operational costs.

(Video) How to become a Product Designer (Product Design Pathways)

The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (3)

Assist connecting your app with anything that adds value.

Why it matters

Application Program Interfaces (APIs) today, are no longer just pure code that’s running in the backend of our applications. Modern APIs are powerful products designed for consumption for specific audiences. An API strategy is a critical component of digital transformation and part of the overall business strategy. Now, you probably ask yourself; why should I – as a product designer – care about APIs? Isn’t this an engineers or the job of a technical- or platform development director? No it isn’t and here is why: APIs once seen as a tool for programmers, now give the business the ability to harness the forces of disruption both inside and outside the company and provides real business benefit. You must treat APIs as a connectivity strategy that is integral part of the software products and services you design and build. Think about the Internet Of Things – everything you conceptualize and craft connects with something else through APIs.

How you master this discipline

Design with data and connections in mind and plug into tools and software features that already exist. Once you nailed roughly the key user journeys of your app, discuss the results with a senior engineer and identify where and how data gets feed into your app to advance the user experience. I often browse the web and search randomly for popular API’s, just so I am aware what already exists and how it’s been used in other apps. There are companies and startups out there who sorely focus on building powerful APIs you might consider using. As a UX designer I found it extremely beneficial to have the background knowledge that enables you to confidently suggest technical solutions that solve tricky design problems.

The awareness and understanding of how existing APIs work, will eventually lead you on a path, were you can start thinking of designing and developing your own APIs in partnerships with experienced in-house API developers. As mentioned earlier — most successful companies have a solid API strategy in place, that acts as an alternative, stable revenue stream. Once you master this discipline, why not ask yourself and imagine how to make APIs more democratic? Democracy-APIs (ok, I will come up with a better name) are a new concept that considers laws to prevent the uneven distribution of power, respect users privacy and considers cultural differences and individual needs in a more holistic way.

The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (4)
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Assist getting the product into people’s hands.

Why it matters

Did you know that 99 out of 100 startups in Silicon Valley fail. Most of them do so because they didn’t develop their market, not because they didn’t develop their product (S. Blank). Understanding your customers and markets is one key discipline, but getting your product into people’s hands is another. According to Gabriel Weinberg, you should split time evenly between building your product or service and bringing in new customers for it. One way to achieve this is by optimizing your product distribution channels. Weinberg points out 19 ‘Traction Channels’ in total which you should rigorously test and experiment with. Now you might ask: isn’t this the task of a growth hacker or some marketing experts? You are right, but the greatest growth tactics I have seen are build into the product from day one.

How you master this discipline

There are several ways to tackle this. As a starter, I suggest to look around and get inspiration from other successful companies and product launches. Weinberg’s book ‘Traction’ provides tons of good examples and great tactical insights. So do individuals from Dropbox, Buffer and PayPal – to name a few. Another way of approaching this task is through user research. Start collecting insights on when and where people use your products and services. The data from these observations will allow you to identify channels and alternative touch points that most likely fit into the same end-user usage schemas. Timing is an important factor when reaching out to new prospects or existing users. Take note when customers in your target markets are most receptive to new offers, features and channel experiments. Understand what usage and behavioural patterns characterize early adopters to kick-off powerful network effects between producers and consumers in two-sided market places.

Assist in enabling core interactions that lead to the creation and consumption of value units.

(Video) Product Design - How to Get Started!

Why it matters

Value units are desired, core elements that get created and consumed by all participants of digital platforms. A platform such as AirBnB connects hosts with holidaymakers to facilitate stays. Uber connects drivers with riders (consumers) to offer rides. YouTube connects producers with viewers to stream new videos. Kickstarter connects creatives with backers to kick-off independent projects and eBay connects merchants with buyers to offer auctions on goods. You see – platforms are basically just infrastructures designed to facilitate three kinds of exchange; the exchange of information, goods/services and currency. For the successful ‘trade’ of one value unit, oftentimes the three types are chained together. The crux behind all this is, that platform businesses do not own the value unit like classic pipeline businesses do, but rather simply facilitate the creation and sharing of it; value creation happens effectively outside the firm. AirBnB for example does not own apartments. Instead, they support the creation of new listings and assist with successful renting. Hence why, a platform business in general can scale much faster and at the same time reduces risks and costs for the business. Although, new challenges arise when it comes to the design of applications, the implementation of new functionalities and the introduction or change of core user interactions in this fast scale environment.

The five product design disciplines that matter most in startups (6)

How you master this discipline

You might have already guessed it; understanding behaviour and monitoring your users 24/7 is crucial to success. Every interaction matters and any bad implementation can cost you many paying customers or result in a critical demand of internal resources.

When working on such complex platforms as a designer, it’s important to focus first on the interaction(s) that support the creation, curation and consumption of the core value unit. Most of the time, these interactions do three things: they pull new participants in from both markets (producers & consumers), they facilitate the sharing of relevant information between the parties and they match effectively offers with desired needs. So in essence, your app architecture exists of effective networks, powerful tools, valuable and easy to compute data.

I am curious to hear what is your top design discipline inside your startup.

Hi! Did you know I am a freelance UX designer and Researcher? You can hire me for your next research session or product design sprint.

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What are the 3 important aspects to keep in mind when designing a new product? ›

3 important things to consider when designing products today
  • Minimal tech. As screens take up more of our time and attention, we need to be aware of how our products impact our users' productivity levels. ...
  • Design + Activism. ...
  • Open design.
Dec 29, 2019

What are the principles of product design? ›

10 Product Design Principles
  • Deliver Outcomes. Start every engagement by understanding what the business needs to be successful. ...
  • Fight for Users. ...
  • Own the Product. ...
  • Designers = Facilitators. ...
  • Spend Time Wisely. ...
  • Be a Collaborator, Not a Hero. ...
  • Balance Usability & Beauty. ...
  • Play the Baby Genius.
Feb 9, 2018

What is the main goal of product design? ›

The objective of product design is to create a good or service with excellent functional utility and sales appeal at an acceptable cost and within a reasonable time. The product should be produced using high-quality, low-cost materials and methods.

What is an example of product design? ›

There are of course infamous product design examples such as the Coca-Cola bottle, the IPod, or the Vespa. Aside from those, one can find many other innovative examples such as the Dyson Pure Cool Link, an air purifier, winner of the 2016 reddote Award.

What are the 5 elements of product design? ›

The Five Elements of Product Design
  • Product must be authentic. Identify a clear purpose and make that purpose apparent in its design.
  • Product must provide unique experiences. ...
  • Effective product design goes unnoticed. ...
  • Do one thing extremely well. ...
  • Solve pain points elegantly.
May 29, 2018

What are the 5 principles of design? ›

Principles of design
  • Balance.
  • Alignment.
  • Proximity.
  • Repetition.
  • Contrast.
Feb 27, 2019


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