SaaS business

Putting Design First: The Benefits of Design-Driven Development in SaaS


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We are a SaaS design agency and, contrary to a common stereotype, we love working with developers directly. What’s more, we dare to claim that the development process must be design-driven. And it’s not just our preference, it’s the approach that benefits the business and developers themselves.

When people first hear of design-driven development, they may think of it as a way of prioritizing aesthetics over tech, investing in looks rather than quality and performance. This impression is wrong, though, and we’re here to explain to you why.

In reality, design-driven development is not about looks. It is about a wise and efficient approach to investing development resources. It doesn’t mean you dedicate less effort to building features, no, it means that you save time by not building the features that people won’t use. Let me explain in detail what it means. So, what is design-driven development?

Design-driven development (DDD) definition

Design-driven development (DDD) is an approach to software development that places design at the forefront of the process. It means that a low-fidelity prototype has to be created and tested before any decision on feature development is taken.

With DDD, products become human-centered and intuitive. It also involves integrating design principles, methodologies, and practices throughout the entire development lifecycle, from conceptualization to implementation.

Circular process: Customer needs - Manage customers (sales) - strategic design (product) - detailed design - development - manage delivery
DDD process. Image credit: tech.blog by SMS group

With design-driven product development, engineers start developing the product when the design is defined. So, the development plan is based on this design.

It might sound as if designers are smarter than developers and make better product decisions. No, they are not. The secret superpower of designers is that they bring customers to the decision-making process. But here, I don’t mean that customers are invited to the meeting and vote.

In the essence of design thinking there is a process of finding out how users interact with the product, whether they enjoy using it, and, finally, if they need it at all. 

Traditionally, developers are used to giving the product out for testing only when it is ready. The design-driven approach, on the other hand, allows testing product very early when a low-fidelity prototype is ready. That way, it allows to save lots of developers’ time and reduces the risk of the product being unsuccessful when it gets launched and faces real people for the first time.

The specifics of SaaS products nowadays are that it becomes easier and easier for users to switch from one solution to another. Advanced integrations, automatic data transfer, subscription models, and free trials all together reduce the cost of changing software. 

Of course, we still don’t like jumping from a familiar interface to a new one, but when we get annoyed by it, we can easily do so. And again. And again. It’s not like it used to be in old times: once you buy Adobe Suite you won’t be willing to pay more to try another software.

Due to this factor, the value of good UX has risen significantly. Customers can switch to another SaaS if your product doesn’t provide them with a good experience. And even top technology advances can’t always save the situation as competitors can repeat it or come up with something new.

Benefits of design-driven development for SaaS

Except for making the designers happy, there are some tangible benefits of DDD that will be noticed by other departments as well. Here are some of them.

1. Optimized development process 

Instead of investing lots of resources in development to later find out that users don’t need those features, you invest very little resources in designing a small prototype. Only the features that proved to be useful to the customers get to be developed. Also, a significant number of issues are detected and fixed at the early stages of development. It saves lots of time and budget for both the development team and the designers.

2. Predictable project budgets 

As a result of the previous point, the amount of development work needed is clear after the initial design is tested. There is less risk of unexpected iterations in the development process, because more iterations are done during the design process, where the cost of each iteration is lower. For instance, software development company ein-des-ein noticed that the project costs became more predictable and on average got reduced by 30% after they started applying the DDD approach.

3. Reduced customer support costs 

When the product is created with customers in mind from the very start, it is much easier for users to get on board. Intuitive UX reduces the number of errors and, consequently, customer support tickets. In some cases, good UX design can reduce the cost of sales, too. When people love using your product, their excited stories will do a good job in earning new customers.

4. And last but not least, improved user experience that results in decreased churn rate 

It means that your app will have a higher ranking on the App Store, better reviews, and people will be less likely to switch to other products. When choosing between competing products, people might be willing to pay a bit more for a product with better design.

Successful design-driven companies

When we call a company design-driven, we mean not only design-driven development but also design-driven innovation and design-driven organizational culture. However, DDD is a good start on your way to becoming one of the design-driven leaders.

Having a strong design vision helps companies to succeed. According to Design Management Institute’s studies, design-driven companies are outperforming the S&P 500 by over 200%.

One of the most famous design-driven companies is Stripe. And it’s not about their trendy look that many startups want to copy. It’s about the company design culture. You can read more about the story of Stripe in our article about the best in-house design teams.

However, smaller companies see the benefits of DDD, too. Darren Shaw, founder of Whitespark, says that the design-driven development approach has helped him to move away from the "Okay, I want you guys to build this thing” process that led a lot of back and forth with trying to fix up the user interface.

How to introduce design-driven development approach in your product

Very few companies can decide to change their approach at once, and it is challenging especially if you are not the CEO. DDD benefits come along with DDD challenges, but there are small steps that will get you closer to design-driven development process without making a lot of changes right away.

  1. Encourage designers/developers collaboration. In practice, they often work separately and only meet to hand out the results of their work. So, instead of telling developers that now they should put design first, just let them communicate more with designers. Involve designers in meetings where new features are discussed, and let everybody have their voice.
  2. Focus the team’s attention on the problem rather than the solution. When everybody is excited about a new product or feature, it’s easy to forget why it appeared in the first place.
  3. Suggest doing some testing in the early stages. Explain that this is a good opportunity to verify the product before you invest a ton of time in it. Start small, no need to insist on full-scale user testing from the start.
  4. Don’t impose your vision of a perfect design-driven development model on your team. If developers or designers are not used to working that way, it won’t be successful. Introduce it little by little, adjusting the way so that it fits your product.
  5. Reserve additional time on your project timeline if you are trying to implement design-driven development approach for the first time. It’s about efficiency, not speed. Often the extra time spent initially will be compensated by a faster development process.
  6. Make sure your team is willing to try new approach. If you are hiring new people, mention this during the interviews. If you are hiring an agency to outsource design or development, communicate that beforehand to find a team that understands and shares design-driven development principles.
  7. Don’t worry if it doesn’t go as perfectly as you imagined. DDD is not about following a crystal clear process, it’s about applying a smart approach that helps save time and make better products.

So, where to start on your design-driven development journey?

First of all, you need good partners in crime. To do a good job at DDD, a designer has to be able to look outside of the user interface and be curious about the product as a whole.

At Eleken, our designers have various tools that we use in cases when the product needs a new perspective to understand where to move or pivot. For example, once we were invited to create design to a new product working with workplace safety, Haven diagnostics. 

Haven diagnostics dashboard design

It was in the turbulent times of the pandemic, and the situation was changing daily. The product had to find its way in total uncertainty. Together with the founders, our designer suggested to apply some classical research techniques to define the direction of the development process. During brainstorming sessions, they managed to find user goals and pains, formulated value proposition, and conducted two-factor analysis to prioritize the features.

Value proposition and Customer profile canvas

While brainstorming, we also came up with ideas on how to make the calculations more precise and better adjust the results to individual clients’ needs. This process did not have a visible impact on design, but it did influence the back-end and improved the quality of the product. Curious to see the the final result of all of this work? Take a look at the full case study.

After reading all of this, are you ready to take your SaaS product to the next level with design-driven development? Look no further. Our design agency is the perfect partner for your journey. With our direct developer-designer communication, we ensure seamless collaboration, allowing design and technology to work hand in hand. Let us help you create a customer-centric, intuitive, and successful SaaS product. Contact us today to get started on your design-driven development adventure and unlock the true potential of your product.

Masha Panchenko


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