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Aspiring Founder? Here’s How To Design Your First Product

Product Guides
When embarking on creating your first product, it’s paramount to value design. In fact, early 75% of companies have enhanced product quality by improving their design. Design is increasingly becoming an integral part of a company’s strategy and is reshaping industry standards. Given the instrumental impact design can have on a product, it's a point of large importance for founders.

But particularly for technical founders, developing a cohesive, intuitive design when you lack a design background can be quite intimidating given the creative, no-limit nature of design. To help demystify the process, we spoke with technical founders like Plexus founder Davey Morse, as well as seasoned designers and product managers to boil down the most useful design resources to help build and deploy your first product.

Design is inherently creative. This guide is aimed at making the process more methodical and streamlined. The most effective way to approach designing your first product is by establishing a baseline skill level. Getting familiar with tools, and industry terms, and taking inspiration from other design documentation will help you get a start. As you start to get more comfortable, you can start to be more creative in your implementation.

How To Get Started

Design is not just about production. You should be optimizing for function but you have to do user research, actively practice empathy, and consider inclusivity. Talk to your users and keep their feedback directly involved in your decision-making process. Consider how different communities would approach your product and if your product is intuitive enough to solve their pain points.

In the early stages of a product, it’s important to not get too wrapped up with aesthetics. Think about the features that are driving value for your product and relentlessly focus on developing them. Build only what you need and continuously solicit feedback.

One way to force yourself to work on the bare bones is trimming your plans down. If you have an initial plan for design execution, cut that plan in half, and then in half again, and then a third time. Execute on that trimmed plan. As you start validating your product assumptions through user testing and research, you can start to think more critically about exactly how the product will look.

What You Should Be Reading

Design of Everyday Things: A close look at how design serves as a communication channel between products and users and how optimizing communication can improve user experience. Norman starts with obvious objects such as doorknobs and uses introductory psychology concepts to change the way you think about them.

Laws of UX: A collection of best practices designers consider when building user interfaces. A high-quality analysis of what one should take into consideration when developing a feature.

UX Research:  A quick read detailing best practices for conducting UX research. It will walk you through different UX research methods, primary goals during research, and how to set up these methods effectively.

W3C Accessibility: A quick read on why accessibility in design is important.

Cracking the PM Interview: Although this is an interview book aimed at product management, there are a ton of design exercises that serve as great thought experiments for what effective design looks like. I would specifically focus on chapters fourteen and fifteen.

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People: A skimmable read that boils down to what makes people act the way they do. This is especially helpful in understanding what grabs peoples’ attention and what gets them to continue using digital products.

The Best Newsletters

The Product Person: Lots of great content on how to improve as a “product person.” Some interesting posts include knowing when to kill a feature, how to make your customers happy, shortcuts to UI design, and lots more.

Product Hunt: Look through the best of Product Hunt. A great source of inspiration when thinking of how to design your own product.

Sidebar: Focuses on a different topic/subsection within the design on a daily basis. Features content on underrated design tools, getting in touch with your users, website formation, picking fonts, and so much more.

Proof of Concept: A digital publication about creativity and experimentation for designers and entrepreneurs created by David Huang, who heads design at webflow.

Thought Leaders in the Space

Jen YW: Led product at some cool startups including Uber and now does angel investing.
Jaosn Yuan: An interface designer currently tinkering with operating systems.
Maxim Leyzerovich: Used to teach design, now does product design at BookClub.
Azlen Elza: Works with human-computer interaction designing new ways to learn.
Shreyas Doshi: Worked at Stripe, Google, and Twitter, and now advises high-growth startups.
Awesome Design People: Database of cool people working in design at companies globally. This is a good resource to look through to find other thought leaders in the space and build community.

Communities to Join

Design Buddies @ Discord: An inclusive design community for designers of all backgrounds and experience levels. It’s a great way to find community and connect with fellow builders!

Sketch Community:  Hosts Sketch meetups in local areas where you can improve your skills, discover the latest plugins, or get inspired and make new designer friends.

Tools to Use

Figma: An essential tool if you want to collaborate over designs. The product is free and has a ton of functionality that lets you build working prototypes without having to write a line of code. There are a ton of fantastic plugins from icon generators to animation tooling but some of our favorite plugins include…

Marvel: An all-in-one tool especially great for rapid prototyping. Marvel is easy-to-use and can help with wireframing, user-testing, prototyping, and more. Some of our favorite plugins include…
  • Maze: derive actionable insights for how your prototype performed
  • Smartmockups: turn your designs into gorgeous product shots
  • Keynote: transform any keynote presentation into a Marvel project.

Apple Keynote: You’re probably thinking Keynote’s just another presentation tool, but it's also a really great design tool for startups. The platform is intuitive, great for developing wireframes, and is especially helpful in serving as a communication channel between technical and non-technical teams. For visual effect, this is a go-to tool to create cohesive color palettes and experiment with different hues.

100 Days of Design: This isn’t necessarily a “tool” but it is a fantastic experiment. For 100 days, you will be given different design experiments to do such as implementing a design sprint process or investing in something new. If you have some time, it is a good way to familiarize yourself with the space and actively apply good design practices to your work.

Favorite Case Studies

Look through design documentation made public by well-known companies to get a sense of how largely successful startups got their users and approached early product development. These are some of our favorites:
  • Apple: Guidelines on how to build for different interfaces and keeping inclusivity in mind. The book Creative Selection dives into the specifics of Apple’s design process and its core principles.
  • Uber: Publishes their design guidelines and posts on Medium where they explain the rationale for their design decision-making.
  • Stripe: Documentation on Stripe’s APIs including their user flows and how to replicate them. There is also a great podcast episode on how Stripe achieved such a strong marketing design.
  • Airbnb: A blog with both Airbnb’s design decisions and advice for future designers.

Look at publications and small creators on platforms such as Medium and Dribble. Individuals will often post specific redesigns focusing on features that could be improved by talking through their pain points. Look specifically for content focused in the area which you are developing in (real estate, fintech, govtech, etc.)
  • UX Collective @ Medium: A publication featuring product redesigns, product deep dives, tips for designers, and stories regarding the visual, product, and UX design.
  • Figma Community: A comprehensive collection of designs from Figma users. You can see how users are using specific plug-ins, types of design such as web vs mobile, and wireframe examples.
  • Dribbble: A great source of inspiration featuring a vast variety of designs on their platform.
  • Behance: Less specific than Dribbble in that it focuses on creative work of all sorts. Similarly, if you filter for design, you can find some inspiration here for your product.

Design should be a process embedded into your team's strategy driven by data, empathy, and user feedback. Although it's a widely individualized, creative process, these resources can be a helpful launching point.