The outside-in approach to building products

2015-03-11

Start with the user experience and work your way in.

So, you are a product owner or entrepreneur, and you have an idea for product or business. You have identified a target group, a central problem they have, and you think you have the solution — but where do you start?

You could start with the business logic, your distribution strategy, your customer acquisition strategy. If you’re an engineer, you might be thinking about frameworks and architecture at this point.

But there is only one true way: you start with the user experience, and work your way in.

Four reasons why you should start with the user experience

  1. Creation is discovery— you just don’t know enough about either the problem or the solution (i.e. your product) before you start laying it out.
  2. User experience is creative problem solving. You will discover some difficult problems as you start prototyping your product. It’s important that you, as product owner or entrepreneur, own these hard problems — don’t just delegate them to your designers or developers (but do involve them).
  3. First impressions are everything. Your users will evaluate your product, or your landing page, in just a few seconds. That first impression will set the expectations for the entire user journey. A product that looks “like a beta” will attract some early adopter users, but deter the bulk of your potential target group.
  4. It shortens the time until user feedback. Your product will most certainly change after feedback from real users. If you start with the user experience, you can test this early and you won’t waste time and resources on building the wrong product.

Getting started

  1. Find a person who is a likely user of your product, and listen, observe and discuss things with them. If this isn’t possible, get into role-playing mode and assume the role of one of your users.
  2. Pick a tool where you can prototype quickly. This is a personal choice and depends a lot on what you are comfortable with. See also “Selecting the best UX prototyping tool”.
  3. Create a solid foundation that will give you a “good” design with little effort. Example: if you’re using a design or prototyping tool, set the color palette and basic font set. Or if you’re prototyping in HTML, a good CSS boilerplate or front-end framework is a great starting point.
  4. Start with the first impression. In many cases, this is a landing page on the web or an App Store description page. What would the target user be looking for? What keywords are important to hit when scanning the page? What is the first action you want the user to take?
  5. From there, work your way into the application: the signup process, the onboarding tutorial, the main interface.
  6. If you have the time, sprinkle a few details on your product that will surprise and delight your users. Point #3 in this list will make your product nice, but this will make it memorable.
  7. Make sure you test the results with real users.
  8. Most importantly: iterate. Your second attempt will always be infinitely better than your first.

“Your second attempt will always be infinitely better than your first.”

The next steps

When you have enough validation that you’ve nailed the user experience, you can move on to business logic and system architecture. If the user experience has been designed and tested correctly, your requirements won’t change much as you start implementing the rest.

Good luck, and let me know you’re getting on!