How to Design without a Designer

Published May 6, 2021

When I was a junior designer, I thought it was my job to have all the answers. After all, it was the features that I created that the user would interact with. So I made interfaces and websites, alone in a silo, based only on my assumptions and guesswork. I would hide my designs from stakeholders until they were “ready”. Then I would be offended and defensive when they pointed out obvious flaws or omissions in my vision.

Looking back, these websites, products, and interfaces were objectively terrible and, even though I thought they were great while I was creating them, the reality is they never met the needs of anyone who used them.

And all too often, I see start-ups making the same mistakes I made as a junior designer.

It took a long time to realize where I was falling short: If you don’t stop and check your assumptions and ensure your vision aligns with the reality your user is facing, your product is going to fail.

Everything changed for me when I saw how some of my most successful designer friends worked. I noticed they constantly found ways to break their ideas. They got out and talked to people, tested their designs, invited feedback from almost anyone, and never took the feedback personally. They had developed an empathetic, egoless, customer-centric approach to gathering insight and aligning their vision with the user’s needs. This realization changed the way I work and has led me to build some truly valuable products.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a designer to work this way. You just need to think like one. Implemented correctly, this approach will transform the way you, as a start-up or business owner, create products for your customers.

Here’s how to avoid making the mistakes I made and skip right to building products that are valuable to your users.

Your feelings don’t matter to your users

As I mentioned, a common mistake that startups and businesses make when creating digital products is building a product that feels like the right solution instead of creating a product that is driven by insight into the user’s verified needs.

It seems like a no brainer, but time and time again, I see start-ups pushing forward with a product based on their unchecked vision instead of their customer’s reality.

If you haven’t asked your intended user for their input then you’re making the same mistakes I used to make and your product is heading towards failure, which will become very expensive to fix.

How to avoid building something no one wants.

1. Challenge your assumptions early and often

Working in a silo is the best way to ensure your assumptions will go unchecked and no one will use your app. To prevent this, start by asking yourself questions like:

  • “Does my vision for a solution check out with reality?”
  • “What will users think?”
  • “What is their reality?”
  • “Is this a real problem that users are experiencing?”
  • “How do users define success when using a product like this?”
  • “What don’t I know about this problem?”
  • “How are people solving this problem today?”

You don’t need a designer to do this, you just need to establish a process that includes talking to potential users at various milestones.

There are three main milestones that should trigger you to start the process of validating your idea:

  1. At the very start of the project before any designers or developers start creating solutions. What you learn here will be the blueprint for your solution.
  2. After the designers have worked on a solution to improve any rough edges or missed use cases. This is where you want to ensure your proposed solution matches your user’s version of reality.
  3. After your product is released. This is where you can observe how it works in the real world and what can be improved for the next iteration.

2. Have 1 on 1 conversations with your customers

Surveys and interviews are great ways to get started on gathering insight from the people who are going to use your product. Find people to talk to, show them early prototypes, and do usability testing. These may seem like added steps with extra costs, but I assure you this process is way cheaper than spending a year building a product that no one wants.

A famous example of this is AirBnB’s humble beginnings. The founders got out from behind their screens and out into the field so that they could truly understand what the experience was like when using their product. By doing this, they uncovered the real needs of their users and incorporated those insights back into the product. To this day, this process is an integral part of the company’s philosophy, as stated by CEO Brian Chesky in this recent tweet:

If you’re still not convinced, look into the 64 phases of lab testing it took to build Windows 95, which sold 7 million copies in its first five weeks.

Yes, this can be a painful experience where what you uncover may seem like setbacks, But I promise conducting research before jumping to solutions is the key to far better end-results.

3.Build accordingly. You have now challenged your assumptions, talked to users and have gathered some pretty awesome insights. Great! Now it’s time to bring together an internal team to look at the findings, create a sense of shared understanding and come up with a solution based on everything you learned. This part doesn’t have to be complicated, either. I really like using the design sprint framework to clearly outline our next steps and solutioning.

3.Build accordingly. Repeat this process over and over. In fact, make it a part of your culture. When you do, you will see that spending time with your users will yield a deeper understanding of their needs, which will allow you to make a product that resonates with them even more.

The takeaway

If start-ups and business owners start developing a habit of checking their assumptions long before they jump into design and development, they will uncover the insights they need to find success early and save a ton of money by building the right thing first. Moreover, they can be sure they are creating a tool that is invaluable for their users, every single time.

Nick Foster is the founder of Sixzero, an agency that helps companies design apps and software with impact.

Illustration by: Muti, Folio Art