3 Big Things Design Can Do to Nail PMF

Posted a few months ago
Twelve-ish min read about Tech

Design as both a practice and industry has always felt a bit ethereal. In university and throughout my career people have often talked about design as if it’s some sort of super magic sauce with secret ingredients that will make any dish you add it to taste way better (the secret to making most dishes taste better usually is just adding a ton of butter btw).

There's always been a real "if you build it they will come" energy towards adding a dose of design to things like marketing and product — a baseline assumption that if you invest in "good design" it will magically make your product better and the world will celebrate like ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Yet, we've created so many notions of what "good design" might be, that it’s really difficult to figure out how to replicate it consistently or even understand how to align on it in the first place. This has lead to a lot of frustration where designers feel misunderstood and undervalued while many others claim simply that designers should just business.

And that definitely can be true. In a changing environment, we as designers need to be thoughtful about what skillsets we're bringing to the table and recognize that maybe there's some people who don't fully understand the value of design by default and we have to remind them of it.

In a world where the floor of what many might call a “good enough” design becomes easier to accomplish by the day with high fidelity builder tools, open design systems, and even generative AI, it's even more important to be clear about what the value of design is and where best to focus that value. Not just to make businesses more profitable, but to be honest with ourselves about how and where we focus our energy in order to do the most good, not just what appeases our ego.

So for both designers and for companies looking to leverage design I'd love to go beyond just "designers should business" and talk about a few ways I've found design to be most beneficial, specifically in the context of looking for the holy grail of product development: the almighty product-market fit (or PMF for short).

Achieving product-market fit can be defined as when a company addresses a sizable market with a uniquely compelling product that can satisfy a specific market segment’s needs. In normal person speak, it's when you've found the right solution to the right problem for the right group of people and those people are into the idea enough to start paying you for it.

This doesn’t happen all at once or overnight. It’s a combination of things that ultimately give you signal that a product direction will be successful long term. It gives confirmation that you're starting to create products that people not only want but also connects with them.

In my adventures, I've seen a lot of ways that work and don't work when it comes to using design as a lever for product success, but I want to focus on three common big areas where I've seen design consistently shine: creating customer value, stickiness, and differentiation.

1. Customer Value

When a potential customer shows interest your product, they obviously need to find some aspect of value in it in order to cross over the threshold of either usage or purchase. But value can be very tricky to define. A big mistake people building products make is being too practical and navel-gazing in defining value then end up only thinking in terms of efficiency — "how will this thing I'm making save someone time or energy?"

While efficiency is helpful, it's likely only one of the many things a potential customer is looking for. Not to mention it often takes a bit of investment before customers see true efficiency gains and many never make it to that point.

At Slack for instance, we found that framing our onboarding as "what project do you want to work on together?" instead of something like "chat quicker with your coworkers" was much more motivating to show what the value of the product could be.

This is a great opportunity for design to dig into. Designers are often terrific at embodying empathy and curiosity — the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes, try to imagine their problems and thoughts, and continue asking questions and trying things out until they find a breakthrough that solves a problem.

There's a bit of science to this, but also a bit of art. Being able to read between the lines in data, make assumptions on problems to be solved based on an understanding of sociological and psychological context, and sketch or design what a solution could look like. That's the basis of any good design process and very effective at identifying potential value.

It's not to say that a product manager or engineer can't do this, but the speed in which designers can transfer ideas to visual representations then validate and iterate means that designers are able to be much more likely to find a solution that resonates with customers at a much faster rate than a full product development cycle. Speed to value is a huge opportunity for design to be a big lever.

What designers can do:

  • Truly understand your customers: Data will only tell you so much. Talk with customers and understand their context as often as you can — sit in on sales calls, talk to pro users, interview potential customers, try to understand the industry and norms they're working in. It's important to understand how people might perceive your product and align yourself to the voice of your customer so that you're able to have a less biased view on the things you're designing.
  • Show more than you tell: A designer's super power is being able to make a visual to what once was just an idea. If a picture is worth 1,000 words then a prototype is worth at least 10 meetings. This is true both in internal collaboration and in showing value to customers. Focus on what the value is and help customers experience it, not just read about it.
  • Align on the core "aha" moments: In talking with customers, try to understand what main things really resonate with them about your product. What things made it click for them? How would they explain it to other people? By identifying those moments, you can choose to focus your effort and experimentation a bit more intentionally on the things that will be most effective.

What companies can do to empower designers:

  • Make time for exploration: While it might seem like wasted time, the act of designing often requires a lot of tinkering and thinking (thinkering?). Sometimes you have to move slow in order to move fast. A designer can find more ways something won't work in an hour than anyone else on your team. When trying to find the right customer value, it's going to take iterations and experimentation. It'll take a minute before you hit the point where every finding after becomes exponential and you can optimize for a logistic growth curve. Stay with it and invest in giving designers time and focus to explore.
  • Don't lose sight of the big picture: When looking at customer value, it's really easy to latch onto the first idea that works, even if it doesn't fully resonate with the product vision. Understand the long-term effects of how you position your product and deliver value, then give designers the opportunity to think about the holistic picture, not only short-term metrics.

2. Product Stickiness

It's one thing to acquire customers, it's another to keep them around. In a world where growth optimization has been over-indexed, the silent killer for a lot of startups is lack of retention. Stickiness is a way to describe retention through the lens that your product not only communicated the customer value clearly, it delivered on it so much that customers would have a pretty hard time giving it up.

Sticky customers are your core customers and often your biggest fans. They're the ones that will become influential ambassadors and have patience with bumps as you scale. While it's important to not over-index on your existing customers and ignore new customer needs, creating a continued investment in your core customers is really what makes your product sticky.

Long term stickiness isn’t achieved by one single thing you do, but a dedication to customers that helps them not only find value in your product, but feel valued while they're using it.

This takes an eye for detail across the board and I often find a lot of inspiration from restaurant hospitality in this aspect. I think this quote from Will Guidara hits it on the head:

Maybe people don’t notice every single individual detail, but in aggregate, they’re powerful. In any great business, most of the details you closely attend to are ones that only a tiny, tiny percentage of people will notice.

Customers are making an investment in your product and want to feel like you’re making an investment in them by making something that feels good to use and continuing to do so.

This is a perfect opportunity for design to shine as a lot of this work is simply continually improving the existing product — improving ergonomics of the user experience as well as improving and expanding the value customers are getting from your product.

Designers often notice and seek out those details that need refining, especially when they’re encouraged and have a clear focus. Having designers put care and love into your product will be noticed by your customers and will make them much stickier as a result.

What designers need to do in order to do this well:

  • Turn customer hacks into features: Pay attention to how customers are hacking your product to do something you didn’t intend. See if you can make those hacks easier for them to do natively in the product (Figma is especially good at this).
  • Think about scalability: You can’t make something feel polished if it can’t scale without breaking. Most of the bugs I see in products are just things that weren’t planned for. Think about how the UI will adapt and what it might need in the future. Think about edge cases, not just the happy path.
  • Care about the right details: I expect a different level of cleanliness from a subway station than I do a hotel room. Not everything needs your full attention and some things can be “good enough” so you can focus your attention on what people actually will notice.

What companies can do to empower to designers to do this well:

  • Staff design appropriately: It’s very easy to have a small amount of designers crank out work for a multiple teams and product areas, but if they’re overworked you’re not going to get the right value from them.
  • Invest in quality from the start: Make craft and quality important from the start. This doesn’t mean things have to be perfect, but it means you’re making quality something that is celebrated and putting in the right systems to enable it. It’s much harder to do this after the fact.

3. Differentiation

When you kinda combine both value and stickiness together you get to the third big things designers can help with: why would someone choose your product over your competitors?

There’s a lot of ways you can differentiate with things like pricing and features, but not all of those will be defensible. There will nearly always be someone who can undercut you on price and it’s very easy for competitors to copy your features.

The things that are much harder to copy are the things that are intrinsic to who you are: your brand and identity. How do people talk about you? What resonates with them about who you are vs another product?

Sometimes these decisions don’t make any sense. Why would someone choose Nike over say Adidas? Pepsi over Coke? BMW over Volvo? Often those decisions are made less on hard facts and more on feelings.

This is another great spot for design to help your company tell their story. To help customers make an easier decision to choose your product because it aligns with their values or aesthetic. It won’t capture all of your audience but it can be very powerful tool for helping people choose you over your competitors and stay that way.

People love authenticity and consistency. If your brand feels too fake or pandering, customers will notice. You can’t show up in a suit one day and a leather vest with a mohawk the next and expect people to treat you the same way.

Dropbox is a company that strives to do this by creating a brand that feels very creative driven. When we were working to help bring the brand into the product more, we found that customers felt like sharing a Dropbox link vs a Google Drive link was an expression of who they were, not just because of the feature set.

If that doesn’t convince you, look at Liquid Death. Their only differentiator is brand. People choose them because it resonates with them and they use that to signal to other people who they are.

Using design to help tell your company’s story and bake a unique aesthetic and approach to your product will give you a big leg up towards differentiating.

What designers need to do in order to do this well:

  • Understand why customers love you: What aspects about your company make it easy for customers to love you? Is it more serious brand that focuses on security and care or more playful one that embodies fun and whimsy? Find what those things are and learn how to express them better.
  • Consider the whole: When you’re designing, think about the entire end to end experience, not just the screen you’re working on. What are people thinking and feeling? How can you guide them to understand your brand?
  • Be purposefully different: Don’t just design something different for the sake of it. Use color, roundedness, white space, etc all intentionally to express the brand’s vibe. Feel free to use common patterns in most places then differ where it’ll be most impactful.

What companies can do to empower to designers to do this well:

  • Bring brand and product together: Brand is obviously a big part of marketing but to make something sticky, it needs to carry through to the product as well. By helping brand and product designers work better together, you can create a much more consistent, powerful and differentiated end-to-end flow.
  • Lean into who you are: Don’t get caught up with what the competition is doing and just try and copy. Be original and unique. Think about who you want to be and how that is different than your competitors. Build your brand both externally and internally. Create people who believe in you and empower your employees to work that way.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but starts to get at the types of things I’ve seen design excel at, especially early on at product companies.

What’s important is reminding yourself as a designer as well as the people working with you how to best leverage your skills that works well for the business, customers, and yourself!

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