Product design

Design-Led Startups Are Outperforming Their Competition: Key Principles


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In today's competitive business environment, startups need every advantage they can get. One approach that has proven to be highly effective is adopting a design-led mindset. Design-focused startups generate significantly higher revenue and greater returns to shareholders compared to their competitors. This trend holds true across all industries, with fastest growing SaaS companies incorporating design principles into the fabric of their business.

As a pragmatic design agency, we at Eleken work with SaaS businesses, making sure the design we create helps them drive more value to end-users. So, we've analyzed and laid out the principles that distinguish design-led startups and allow them to beat their competitors – with real-life examples. So let’s begin, shall we? 

Principles of design-led approach that boost your product

When talking about design-led SaaS enterprises, we can name many of them. Dropbox, Spotify, Salesforce, Adobe – these are all companies you have surely heard of that use the power of design-led innovation. But what are the principles they rely on, and what can you, as a startup owner, learn from them?

Maintain user-centric approach

Design-driven companies prioritize the needs and experiences of their users above all else. By conducting in-depth user research and applying empathy-driven methodologies, design-led companies gain valuable insights into their target audience's pain points, desires, and behaviors. This approach results in the creation of highly tailored products that resonate deeply with customers, leading to increased user adoption, loyalty, and ultimately, business success. 

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when going for a user-centric approach in your product design, so let’s look at them. 

Ensure intuitive user experience

One thing all successful design-led startups have in common is they provide seamless user experience. By prioritizing usability, simplicity, and ease of navigation, you can ensure that your product or service is intuitive and enjoyable to use. A well-designed user interface coupled with smooth interactions creates a positive user experience, driving customer satisfaction and reducing churn rates. This, in turn, leads to higher customer retention and an enhanced reputation for your SaaS business. Zoom, for example, outperformed Skype specifically because its interface is more intuitive.

Making the interface easy to navigate is the key to the product's success. Take a look, for example, at how Eleken designers approached making the Ricochet 360 interface more user-friendly.

When they came to us, there were a lot of unstructured fields with no clear hierarchy. Because of this, the user spent a lot of time manually entering the data. Moreover, it lacked the error ques. The user was finding out they entered something wrong only when they tried to proceed – and they had to redo all this work again. The whole process was extremely inefficient for the user, and learning how to use the app took months. So, our first step in improving the user experience was adding the clear-cut distinctions between the fields, the content ques, as well as immediate error indications. This allowed, first of all, to highlight the necessary fields and in which format the data should be entered there. Moreover, the user was now able to see immediately when they've made an error and rectify it without starting from scratch. 

Ricochet360 screenshot before redesign

And in the end we came to this design, which dramatically improved the experience and shortened the learning curve.

Ricochet360 screenshot after redesign

Prioritize accessibility

Accessibility and inclusivity align with a user-centric approach, as they put the needs and experiences of all users at the forefront. First, design with inclusivity in mind by providing clear and intuitive navigation, ensuring proper color contrast, and using readable fonts. Second, make sure the app is compatible with assistive technologies such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, and voice commands. Third, provide alternative text for images, captions for videos, and transcripts for audio content. Additionally, prioritize usability by designing for different device sizes and orientations. Regularly test the app with users with disabilities and gather their feedback to identify and address any accessibility issues. 

Headspace, for example, stands out between other meditation apps specifically thanks to its advanced accessibility options. They have a widget that helps people with disabilities easily perceive the content which is easily launched with one click. The widget offers people to adjust the color, contrast, font, spacing, and more for those who have issues with their eyesight. There's also a possibility to adjust the navigation, for example, using voice commands.

Headspace accessibility menu

Prototype to get early user feedback

Prototyping is another crucial principle in design-led approach because it allows you to gather feedback and validate your decisions early in the product development process. According to the McKinsey report we've already mentioned, 60% of the companies claim that they only do prototyping for internal use, and quite late in the development stage. More successful companies, though, specifically aim to share early prototypes with their focus groups. Instead of making designers spend hours on perfecting early prototypes, they share them, gather feedback, improve, and prototype again.

By testing the prototype with actual users, you can observe their interactions and gather valuable insights. This process helps you identify usability issues, uncover user needs and preferences, and validate your design assumptions. It ensures that your final product meets the requirements and expectations of your target audience. 

Spotify is a notable example of a successful company that actively uses prototyping to design and introduce new features. Instead of diving head-first into creating a product, they started off with simple paper prototypes.

Spotify rough prototypes

Only after working out the initial kinks this way, they created multiple high-fidelity prototypes in Figma to gather user feedback and move towards their final decision.

Spotify prototypes

Iterate and continuously improve

Another thing you should understand about design-led approach is that design is never actually "finished."

Design-led companies embrace an iterative design process that encourages continuous improvement. They prioritize user feedback, conduct usability testing, and iterate on their product based on real-world insights. By constantly refining and enhancing your product's features, you can adapt to evolving user needs and stay ahead of the competition. This iterative approach fosters innovation, enables rapid feature development, and ensures that your SaaS product remains relevant in a dynamic market.

As an example, when doing redesign of one of their key features, Dropbox adhered to design-led product development. They first gathered feedback on lightweight prototypes and card sorts, which helped them to test out their theories early and decide on pros and cons of various approaches. Then, they implemented a strategy of breaking down the features into smaller components and introduced them gradually. Throughout the process, they consistently gathered feedback and made adjustments based on it. Dropbox designers also maintained an assumptions log, which contained open questions and allowed designers to collaborate more efficiently with research and analytics teams.

Dropbox redesign
Source: Dropbox

Maintain consistent branding and visual identity

Design-led businesses understand the power of a strong brand and visual design. They invest in creating a cohesive and visually appealing brand image that aligns with their target market and product offering. By employing consistent branding across all touchpoints, from the website to marketing materials, design-led companies build trust and recognition with their customers. A well-crafted brand identity fosters credibility, differentiation, and customer loyalty, setting your SaaS business apart from the competition. 

Consistent brand identity is especially vital if you offer multiple products. The design of your products should be both distinctive but also recognizable. Of course, in most cases you won't have to create a whole design system like Google did. Still, it's a good idea to start thinking about your brand colors, shapes and typography from the very beginning.

Google design elements

Foster collaboration within the team

Design-led approach encourages a company culture of collaboration and cross-functional integration. Design is not just about how your product looks, but how easy it is for your clients to use it. So, you have to encourage close collaboration between designers, developers, and other key stakeholders. Basically, design thinking and creating a stellar user experience should be everyone's job. Make sure that your startup design principles are embedded throughout the organization. 

Salesforce is one of the companies that puts a strong emphasis on designers-developers cooperation, which allows them to bring their vision to reality smoothly. 

Salesforce screenshot

Have a design advocate on a team

Last but not the least, when building a design-led SaaS startup, you should ensure you work with an experienced designer or design team who will be able to oversee the execution of the principles we were talking about above. This could be a designer as one of your first or early hires, a chief design officer, or an external design partner. Having a design advocate ensures that design principles are prioritized and integrated into every aspect of your business. With their help, you can create solutions that resonate with your target audience. Whether it's crafting intuitive user interfaces, conducting user research, or aligning design with business goals, a professional designer can elevate the overall quality of your product and enhance its market competitiveness.

Eleken often takes this role when our clients come to us for design and even redesign services. For example, Prift came to us with pre-existing user research and a solid understanding of what their users' pains are. They needed to create a design which would be accessible and user-friendly, while satisfying the users' needs with quite robust functionality. We created several screens and conducted A/B testing to find out what will work best for the audience. In the course of MVP design, Eleken designer offered several improvements to the platform, including adjusting the app according to Prift's main selling points. 

Prift A/B testing

Final thoughts

Design is not only about making an aesthetically pleasing product, it's also about achieving your business goals. Design-led approach prompts you to focus on the needs and pains of your audience and deliver the product which will actually bring value to them. Even the greatest product app is doomed to failure if the interface is not user-friendly and the functionality is not intuitive. 

To make your SaaS business truly design-led, follow these practices:

  • conduct extensive user research,
  • focus on the needs of your users,
  • constantly gather feedback from them,
  • improve your product accordingly,
  • ensure your team collaborates closely,
  • have a professional designer to guide the process.

By adhering to these principles, you can position your startup for growth, differentiation, and long-term success in the competitive SaaS market.

If you're looking for SaaS design services to ensure you have a strong professional help, don't hesitate to drop us a line. As a pragmatic design agency, we at Eleken know how much design can help with achieving one's business goals. By partnering with us, you get access to a professional designer which can guide you on your design-led journey.

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