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A Designer’s Diary #1: things to avoid when trying to build a product

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One of the beauties of working with startups is that you get a chance to test and learn new stuff all over again. But after working with a handful of them, you realize that almost all of them end up in the same bowl of mistakes when it comes to building a product-centric company. It’s always interesting to see people saying — “let’s go crazy about this product and change everything so we can bring something innovative to our customers” but then people realize that to innovate you need to kill your darlings, and the excitement diminishes.

I started documenting everything I learn after each client project and see how my own experience and thinking changes. And interestingly, there is always some new small details you did not know before. Hopefully, this article will help you do some things better or maybe refresh some of the knowledge you already have.

1. There is no such thing as overnight success

First and foremost, you can’t expect to create a great product the same day or year. The process of building something great is like you growing up. You don’t become a fully grown-up man or woman in one day or give birth to a baby in one week. Building a great product is a process that takes time, multiple iterations, and patience. So if you are in this game to create something great, then take time with it like with a child. If done right, the returns are incredible. Don’t cut corners, don’t cheat during your creative sessions, don’t say “Let’s get it on the market and figure out the rest later.” Why? Because your product will reflect this in the long run. It will show us who cheated and who stayed the long nights. Nobody can give you a great product in one month. It is a process that requires time.

2. If you are trying to create something great, you must do the making

How much it wouldn’t burn my ass from saying that because I depend on clients coming to me to redesign their products, it is a truth. You can’t outsource the work to someone else. You can’t hire your friends to do it for you. No firm can produce a timeless work of art on your behalf for a flat fee. It is not about finding the right partner or the right investor. Collaboration is essential, and it can be an excellent source of inspiration and support. But if it is your product, all the hard work will fall on you. There is just no way around it. It is the same thing as everyone want’s to be the author of a book, but very few want to write the actual book. We find these types of people in every industry, not just startup world. We should pity them because they will never get what they want.

“Kills your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. “ — Stephen King

3. Don’t add features for the sake of features

Think of new features for your product as a baby which you are adopting. It is a hard job of keeping up with one, but with 5? Oh boy. You have to take your “baby” through a whole chain of events: design, implementation, testing, iteration, etc. So what should you do about it when customers are demanding a feature? Try not to become a yes-man and always start with a no. Let the app grow and speak to you. With web-based software, there is no need to ship perfection. An excellent way to go about it is to ask yourself if you can combine features into one and remove the garbage.

In most of the cases, people add features to their product for one reason: “Our competitors are doing the same thing. We don’t want to lose our customers”. Why copy your competitors? Maybe they don’t have a clue as you do. Yes, I understand, all of us want to stay ahead of the pack. But you don’t become number one if you copy others. Instead of spreading wide, stay narrow.

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple after being fired, he reduced the list of products only to a couple so the company could stay focused and be great at something, rather than average at everything. Watch chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and you will see a pattern. The menus at failing restaurants offer too many dishes. The owners think that by providing a wide variety of food will broaden the appeal of the restaurant. Instead, it makes for crappy food. That’s why Ramsay’s first step is nearly always to trim the menu, usually from thirty plus dishes to around ten. So he cuts down the list and polishes what’s left.

A young man comes to Mozart and says, “With your help I want to compose symphonies.” Mozart looks at him a bit perplexed and says, “You are too young for composing symphonies.” The young man suddenly feels thrown off. Too young? He quickly replies, “You have been 10 when you started and I am 21. How can I be too young?” Mozart grins politely “Yes, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”

4. Don’t ask your customers what they want

Getting feedback for your idea is still a subject that not everybody gets it. You should not ask your customers “What do you want?”, “How do you feel about this feature?” or “What is missing?” because the answer will almost always be something in the area of “we want faster horses”. They don’t know because they are not building a product. They are not the guy behind the idea. They can tell you only what they feel but not what they need. You should know what is missing or what needs to be added. Try to take a step back, see where you are going, what is your vision and stick to it. If during a feedback session customers asked for a certain feature it does not mean you have to give it to them. Stop giving them faster horses, just build a great product.

5. Your UI is like the furniture in your apartment

We all have limited space in our apartment/house, and I don’t see you continually filling it with furniture until there is no space. The same thing refers to your product UI. Because then it becomes hard to get rid of it. Every time you add new elements, you get less and less space. So if you add a feature that is 5% of your product, you may lose 30% of space and that 30% of the area could have been your future feature that makes 20% of your product. I find myself falling into this trap a lot too. It is so easy to add a search bar or another button over there because it is too much white space. Saying no is an essential aspect of this, and it requires courage.

6. A product roadmap is not a blueprint

Product roadmaps are not like a bible that should be followed no matter what. But rather be like a guiding map. When you feel something is not working but you don’t want or can’t change your focus because of your roadmap, then it is a broken system. Let me tell you what could potentially happen:

  1. Your designers will start complaining behind your back that the PM is blind.
  2. Office politics will start increasing because, “hey the PM is in charge, I don’t care anymore”.
  3. Everything slows down.

It’s always embarrassing to talk with the designers on the client side and listen to these stories, meanwhile the CEO can’t see it for himself. A product roadmap should be like a to do list that can be changed at any moment in case a new priority appears. And not be rigid mechanism that doesn’t allow anything new to be implemented for the next 6 months.

7. Make sure your product manager knows her job

It is a hard job to be a Product Manager because you have to juggle a lot of hats along the way. But some mistakes can be easily avoided to be a great PM. For example, if you have an idea that can improve the usability of the product but you say: “It is not what our customers are used to see. Let’s leave it as it was” then it’s a wrong way of viewing things. But if you say: “Hmm, that might work and be a good solution. Let’s test it” then it is a better way of looking at new ideas.

I agree, you can’t fit a proper job description under one shallow example, but hopefully you got the point. Closed minded people are a dead end for your product. They stick too much to the Roadmap, rather than being in the field and watching how customers interact with the product. A PM should be like a balance between the Dev, Designers, CEO, Customers and the company’s vision, rather than imposing her own beliefs into the product.

8. You don’t need a product manager if you are a small company

If you have a team of 1–3 designers and the rest are developers, you don’t need a project manager. For God’s sake why adding new layers of complexity when a senior designer can do the job efficiently too. But somehow this idea was sold to small companies. You expect things to go smoother, but then you realize it adds up mass to your product. This mass leads to slower decision making, office politics, and many other consequences.

Meanwhile, you should remove any complexities to move fast. As a quick general tip, when you hire a designer for a startup, it should be more of a generalist rather than a specialist. So this way any senior designer with a generalist mindset should be able to take the lead as a product manager and decide which features go into production or where is the product heading. We talked about this topic more in-depth with Anthony Armendariz, CEO of Funsize in a recent podcast episode. And the idea is simple, product managers only add layers of complexity in a small company, and a generalist designer can replace him easily.

9. Office politics

If you are a small company and your people are thinking about their ass more than the success of your company, you have to fix the sink before it blows up. How much I would like to believe that most startups don’t have politics it wouldn’t be right. And it all comes from the top, from the founder of the company. The company will always be a reflection of the CEO and not the employees. In order to fix this, you can take a couple of steps. Get rid of these things:

  • Timelines that take months or even years
  • Toxic meetings
  • Roadmaps that predict the perfect future
  • Top-down hierarchy
  • Scalability debates
  • Adding endless “great” features
  • Doing incremental changes that shift the product vision

You don’t need tons of money or the best team in the world to build a great software product. You just need to get real about everything and stop wasting time on dumb stuff. When you are a startup or small company, you should do everything possible in order to avoid gaining mass when it comes to decision making and work environment. This will not only allow to gain competitive advantage but allow to take quick decisions on every level.

 
Eugen Esanu