THE BLOG
09/09/2016 10:00 am ET

The 4 Key Principles of Modern Product Design

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By Trevor Sumner

Great products today are defined by great design, especially in the age of social media, where what consumers say about you matters as much as your direct marketing plan.

Having led multiple product teams, advised numerous startups and most recently served as the CTO of an online marketing solution for small- and medium-sized businesses, I've seen firsthand how design has evolved. In the age of mobile, social and data, here are four key principles to keep in mind as you approach the design process.

Think About Convenience Differently 

I use WashClub to schedule my dry cleaning. Is it really that hard to call the local cleaners? No, but it saves a bit of the hassle each week and I can more easily agree on a time with my wife. I use Uber and Via for the same reason: they give me the convenience of knowing where the car is so I don't spend just a couple extra minutes waiting, and I don't have to think about payment. I also use x.ai to schedule meetings, which alleviates the the back and forth pain point of finding a time that works for both parties.

In the attention economy, every moment counts. Billion-dollar companies are being built by saving small moments. You could lose customers in a matter of seconds, and convenience reigns supreme.

Customer convenience is disrupting many industries including restaurants (Seamless, Delivery.com, Maple, etc.), health and beauty (Zeel, Glamsquad, Priv), dry cleaning (Flycleaners, WashClub, Wash.io) and fashion (StitchFix, GwynnieBee, TrunkClub). The key is to get to the frontlines and ask yourself, "If we put customer convenience first, what would we do fundamentally differently?"

Prioritize Your "Time to Cool"

Great products surprise and delight you by exceeding your expectations at key moments. When the magnetic power cord of my first Macbook jumped out of my hand and connected, I knew I would never go back to a PC. I didn't even have to turn it on. It was the first time I truly understood a key product metric, "time to cool," which is measured in how long it takes a customer to say to themselves, "This is cool!"

In the attention economy, you have three to five seconds to hook me and a little bit longer to hook me for good. Great products find a way to get a fast "time to cool" before the user's attention is directed elsewhere. Part of what drove Snapchat's early customer usage is its fun video and image filters. Similarly, an encrypted enterprise messaging platform targeted at the financial industry recently told me that .GIF libraries were the feature they needed to succeed.

Prototyping and getting feedback early in the design process is critical to incorporate "time to cool" moments and test their reaction. Sometimes it's serendipity, but more often it is a thoughtful prioritization of a feature that doesn't appear to be a necessity, but hooks the customer nonetheless. Can your product designers prioritize cool versus minimally functional features?

Focus on Lifecycle Messaging 

The first seven days are the most critical for most apps. Seventy-five percent of people don't even use the app after they install it. So after your "time to cool" has ended and your customer has left, how can you bring them back in?

Analyze new data and send insightful messages after they go. When LinkedIn's Connections feature first told me what I had in common with new colleagues 15 minutes before a key meeting, I adopted LinkedIn research more heavily in preparation for every meeting. It was the right message at the right time.

It's also about finding the right channel: TripAdvisor, for example, sends me a mobile notification when I am near a place they think I should visit. It's mildly intrusive, but immediately actionable. My company sends local businesses on our marketing platform a text message when they get a new Yelp review to make sure their customer see it quickly enough to act. Many apps use email notifications for transaction confirmations that are not urgent or actionable. Instead, you should choose the right channel by understanding the urgency, what information to send, and how to frame your call to action.

Product design does not end at wireframes: Aligning customer lifecycle messaging with your in-product messaging is critical to your success.

Make Sure No One Feels Stupid Twice

In my user testing research, I have discovered a key rule that I credit mostly to watching my mother. When she encounters something she doesn't understand, she will power through. The second time she gets confused, however, she's gone and won't come back. This is my "Mom Rule:" You can have at most one point of friction or confusion, bu preferably none at all.

New customers have the smallest exposure to your product, what it does, what they need to do, your terminology, etc. Make it simple at every point. Talk in terms your customer understands, and avoid acronyms. Prioritize the most common critical paths through your product and optimize those. And wherever possible, provide setup wizards or guided experiences that help the customer get started.

Most importantly, observe new customers "in the wild" using your product, because first impressions make or break you. You might be surprised at what confuses customers.

Hopefully, with these four key principles of design in mind, you are on a path to building better products in the modern age.

Trevor Sumner is a successful NYC-based technologist, entrepreneur, avid scuba diver, fisherman, amateur cook and adventure traveler.  

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