Design Thinking & Minimum Viable Product: Is This the Right Approach?
mins to read
Design thinking has become a highly popular approach during the last 40 years. It is used in IT, business, education, design — literally everywhere. There is even a book about applying design thinking for personal use called “Designing Your Life”.
Eleken is a SaaS design agency. We don’t know if design thinking will help to change your life for the better, but what we know is that design thinking is a great approach when it comes to building an MVP. Let me explain how.
What is design thinking?
As it happens with some of these words that get overly hyped, at some point we are not sure anymore if we know what it really means.
The founders of design thinking, IDEO studio, say that design thinking is a practice for solving problems. This is the main thing you have to remember. To get in more details, here is the official definition of idea thinking by Tim Brown, Executive chair of IDEO:
Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.
This one might seem a bit complicated, but we’ll break it down later. For now, focus on the keywords: human-centered approach and needs of people.
If I had to explain the concept of design thinking to a 6-year old, that would be something like this:
Design thinking is a way of solving problems that starts with finding out what is the problem, what people need, then coming up with an idea, and finally checking if it works.
That sounds like the most obvious way of solving problems, right? However, not every product manager follows this path when building an MVP. Before we explain how to apply design thinking to MVP, let’s recap what minimum viable product actually is (jump to the next part if you know it well).
What is a minimum viable product?
MVP, or minimum viable product, is a test version of a product or service with a minimum set of functions that brings value to the end consumer.
The keyword here is “value”. Vague word “viable” means that the product actually solves the user’s problem. And if after testing we find out that it is not viable enough, we start it all over. That is why “minimal” is important: the less investment we make in the beginning, the easier it is to discard the failed product and build a new one.
So, instead of asking “What is a minimum viable product?” we should be asking “What makes a good minimum viable product?”
Here is a check-list for designing a good MVP (we also have a detailed instruction on how to create a minimum viable product):
- Define the problem and target audience
- Run research on both users and competitors
- Find that minimal set of features that are enough to solve the problem
- Don’t forget about testing
However, even with such a clear concept as an MVP, there are a bunch of misinterpretations that make some product managers create non-viable minimum products and others — to claim MVP an outdated term. To bring justice to this great concept, we wrote a whole article on why MVP design matters.
Ok, enough with definitions, what is an example of a minimum viable product? To get an idea, you can check out our list of MVP examples. But in short, here's a perfect example of an MVP:
Now that we have sorted out what MVP and design thinking are, let’s combine these two concepts.
Design thinking approach in MVP
Values and principles
Design thinking is not just a sequence of steps, it is a different way of seeing a problem. Accepting the principles of design thinking is no less important than following the steps. Here is how each principle can be applied in MVP.
For many teams, the process of developing an MVP might be one of the very first times they really get to know their users. Empathizing with users instead of just learning their consumer patterns is what design thinking teaches us to do. And we are talking not only about user interviews — empathy is needed at every stage of the product design process.
MVPs are often built as a thing for testing, something that is likely to fail and will need to be revamped. That is why optimism is crucial: you have to remember to go on whatever happens.
Or thinking differently, in other words. With an MVP, we aim to build a new solution to a problem. Naturally, we need to come up with original ideas, something that hasn’t been made before. Give a chance to the craziest ideas, and if they don’t come on their own, try implementing some brainstorming strategies.
There are people who think of a minimum viable product as a big experiment, and there are those who would disagree. Whichever side you take, a dash of experimental spirit is essential for designing a good MVP. Remember that we run competitors’ research not to just copy their methods.
Minimum viable products are often built with a very small team. When there are just a couple of developers working on it, they easily get stuck in their own mindsets. Inviting people with different backgrounds to collaborate is important even if there is no budget for that. You can ask your users for help, or even friends.
If all this seems too abstract for you, don’t worry, it will become clearer in practice. If you want to see how Airbnb, Uber, and IBM apply design thinking approach, we have some examples of design thinking.
Step-by-step guide to building an MVP using design thinking approach
Design thinking process has this circular or 8-shape structure. You have to go through all the stages at least once to ensure that the solution to the problem is the best option possible. Often you would have to iterate more than once.
Now, let’s go through each stage and see how each of them works in the case of MVP.
Every guide to design thinking will warn you from doing literally anything before you do at least some research. The same goes for MVP design. When resources and time are limited, as it often happens with minimum viable products, you should focus mainly on competitors, market research, and user interviews. If you can do more, perfect, but this is the minimum.
When we want to minimize the effort, we have to know very precisely what we are doing, for whom, and why. When you aim to help all the world and make life better, design thinking won't do much for you. Even when you think that the problem is crystal clear, take some time to phrase it and make sure that everyone in the team knows about it. Our brain starts working on the problem unconsciously only when the question is stated clearly.
When you need to come up with a new solution for an MVP, you need new ideas. That's clear, right? However, in design thinking ideation is not just about picking a solution. The most important thing is to come up with non-standard, innovative ideas, and you need to have more than one.
You have to go beyond those typical solutions that come to mind first. There is a whole science of "idea fishing". You may use our list of top ideation techniques that will get you going.
Yes, here we come to the “actual design”. Note that this is the fourth step, not the first. When building an MVP, it is important not to forget about user experience.
Designing a sophisticated user interface is typically excessive for an MVP, as well as adding too many features. However, as a UX design agency, we have strong evidence that good user experience adds value to the product at any stage of development.
In the case of MVP, testing takes place both before and after the launch. First of all, you should test usability, and afterward — customer satisfaction, system usability, and all the other UX metrics that fit into your budget.
Once you have a minimum viable product that is functional and, well, works, it is time to… build another one. Well, not exactly. What I mean here is that you shouldn’t fall into temptation to just go on once the product is out there and somebody is using it.
The purpose of MVP is to build a functional and usable version of the product and test it. Once the testing showed results, you can go for the second circle, or rather a spiral: gather user feedback, empathize, define new challenges, ideate, find the solution and design it, build a prototype, test… And so on.
To sum up
This was Eleken's personal take on guiding how to use design thinking in MVP development. Of course, no one's perfect (except the design we make for our clients) and you can adjust the process to your personal needs. But what is crucial to remember is that design thinking indeed brings a ton of value to the MVP development, such as:
- Design thinking helps to create a product that brings real value to users
- Motivates you to test MVP as much as possible
- Advocates research
- Promotes creative ideas and original solutions.
With design thinking, you are likely to make something bigger than a minimum viable product. You may end up with a minimum loveable product. Want to learn more about that? Read our article MLP vs MVP: Which One Brings Customers?
The Complexity Of Simplicity In UI/UX Design
When users say "simple", they mean to describe something incredibly easy to use. But easy to use doesn’t equal easy to create and that’s the main complexity of simplicity.
So, when we as SaaS product designers say "simple," we mean the highest goal of design, which requires a lot of planning, research, and vision to achieve, because there is always a huge amount of data and many complex algorithms behind simplicity.
For instance, look at the Dropbox software.
Or Apple Pay interface.
Both products seem simple, but that’s not completely true. Though they are accessible, easy to comprehend, and have a clean user interface, these products are very hard to implement technically. That’s why creating UI and UX for them is indeed difficult. To make such products look and feel simple, designers had to consider all the intricacies of their architecture, audience, and the market, which is a lot of work to do.
But despite all the difficulties, a lot of businesses choose to make design for simplicity one of their top priorities. Why? Perhaps because they understand the role of psychology in UX design.
Why do people need simplicity?
Human behavior is important in the design process. People need simplicity because they encounter the basic laws of UX every day in their life.
See it yourself. Think of the Olympic logo. How can you describe it?
It’s unlikely that you would talk about it as a combination of connected lines or shapes. Most probably you’d say these are five circles that overlap each other. And that’s because circles in this situation are the most familiar objects your brain can identify with the least cognitive effort.
This is called the law of Prägnanz, the cornerstone of the Gestalt laws of grouping. It tells us that the human eye enjoys finding order and simplicity in complicated forms and turning them into unified shapes. This is because our brain strives to keep us from being overloaded with data.
Your UI can benefit from this law. Users see your interface as a whole, thus if you want to simplify their perception, choose basic forms and arrange them in ways that are clear and predictable. If you, vice versa, want to highlight some part of an interface - break this rule.
And here are some more evidence that the human brain strives for simplicity in complexity.
- Zeigarnik Effect describes people’s tendency to give incomplete tasks more attention than finished ones. We are more likely to remember the information we might need to complete an unfinished task because of the psychological stress produced by this unfinished state.
You can apply this law when you want to push users to complete a certain task or help them cope with a difficult job. Giving users some extra motivation, like adding a progress bar to your product’s onboarding increase the chances that people will proceed until the end and not churn.
- According to Hick's law, the number of options a person has influences how long it takes them to make a certain decision. The more options there are, the longer it takes to perform an action. This way, if you want to simplify your app by applying this principle, limit the number of choices you offer your users (for example, the number of options in a menu bar).
- Peak-end rule claims that people's memory retains only the strongest positive or negative moments and the outcome we got from a certain experience (not the total experience). That’s why, when developing a complex product, try to make the user forget about any activities that require a lot of time and effort to cope with.
- Tesler’s law states that every application/product/software has a certain amount of complexity that cannot be decreased and therefore must be handled by either the developer/designer or the user.
Larry Tesler, the explorer of the law, claimed that complexity does not vanish, but rather shifts from one area to another. Therefore, if you decide to make the app simpler for users, this complexity will unavoidably be transferred to the developers/designers. Consider carefully how much complexity should be transferred from users to developers and the other way around.
These were only five out of dozens of psychological laws, discovered by scientists and proven with experiments that show us how to balance between simplicity and complexity in your design. Learning about such experiments allows us to formulate simplicity design principles that help you eliminate challenges on users’ way to their goal.
Simplicity principles of UI/UX design
Businesses are constantly trying to build simple and usable products. They want more features and advanced technologies together with a lightweight and easy-to-use format. But is it possible to add functionality without compromising simplicity and usability?
From our more than 7-year experience in designing SaaS products, we can say that though it all depends on each individual case, there are simplicity principles in product design you can apply to any kind of application, no matter how complex it is.
Below are ten of them.
Products need to be focused on value
We all know that you can't please everyone. This statement is also true for your software. If you try to design an app to be useful for a great variety of audiences, most probably people won’t understand what problem it intends to help them with and thus they won’t use it.
To make your application simple, identify its core value and people that can really benefit from using your product, and keep this value in mind throughout the whole design process.
For instance, while Yahoo’s home page offers its visitors a lot of different features (many of which may be irrelevant and distract users from their main goal), Google uses its clean UI to focus people’s attention on one core goal only - search.
When in doubt, just remove
The fastest and easiest way to reach simplicity is by getting rid of unnecessary elements in your interface. Be it a rarely used button, a sort of secondary information, or some fancy, but distractive formatting style, if it doesn't make your users closer to achieving their goal, remove it.
Eliminate the need to choose when it is not required
Making any decision takes time and effort. When asking users to make too many choices, you create an additional cognitive load giving them work they’d prefer not to do (recall Hick’s law we’ve discussed earlier in this article). So in order to make the user experience easy, support quick decision-making.
For example, when we were redesigning a cloud phone system, we noticed that on an “Add a new lead” page, a phone number field had no clearly defined format, so users had to decide themselves how to fill in the number (separating digits with dashes, using brackets, or some other variant). This caused confusion and uncertainty.
To resolve this issue, we added a small tooltip to make users adopt a standard phone number format.
Guide and handhold users
Sometimes we need extra instructions before we can complete a task or before our first-time experience. Instead of bombarding customers with loads of learning information, offer them contextual help. To make users feel comfortable using your app, you can add small tooltips, enable autofill and autocorrect, add error messages, support inline edits, and so on.
Meet users' expectations
Each person that comes to your product has some previous experience that forms certain expectations about your app. Meeting those expectations makes users feel in control over your application and therefore makes it feel more trustworthy.
Apply common UX patterns and limit the number of creative design innovations to help users adapt to the new interface quicker and focus on what matters most.
For example, the three dots notation typically indicates that there are more options available when clicking on it.
Choose the correct data visualization method
As humans are physiologically wired to analyze everything around them through visual means, representing data visually boosts content’s effectiveness by making information easier to perceive, process, and retain. So, help customers make data-driven decisions faster by choosing an appropriate form of data visualization.
For example, multi-line charts suit best to describe subtle variations in data, while bullet chart does a great job of showing a significant indicator in comparison to a goal.
Show users where they are currently in the process
Giving users a clear understanding of where in the app they come from and where they should go next removes uncertainty and makes their overall experience more intuitive. This principle is especially relevant for complex processes.
Focus users' attention on the elements that matter
Every step of the path your user takes to achieve their objectives has elements that are more important and will get them closer to the end result. Find such places and make them the focus of user attention.
Something that stands out from the crowd is more likely to be remembered. When we use bold type, or choose a distinctive color so that it differs somehow from the rest of the page elements, we highlight important information in a row of similar data.
Create a hierarchy using typography
You may have heard before that most users don’t read. That’s true, but UX readability is still important when designing for simplicity.
People scan your app looking for signals that would tell them “this information is worth paying attention to”. You can arrange the information on a page so that it will guide the user through their journey. This way, descriptive headings and labels, font size and color, the use of capitalization, and so on, allow you to create hierarchy and help users ensure they are in the right place, taking the right action.
Group components that relate together
If you remember the law of Prägnanz we’ve discussed here, you should remember that people’s brain perceives visual objects as a single form (not separate components). Therefore, it’s much easier for users to deal with several groups of content rather than multiple unrelated elements.
You can indicate that content relates to a certain group by putting it in one drop-down menu, using the same background color, adding borders, and the like.
For example, you can group related features together using the same style and size of menu icons.
Seems like simple design is not that easy to create. Also, you can’t just apply these principles without understanding the product idea, conducting proper planning, and research. Here’s how design for simplicity looks in real life.
A real example of the complexity of simplicity
Meet Prift, a personal finance platform that helps people achieve their long-term financial goals quicker.
Eleken was hired to create an MVP for it. Our goal was to design a platform that makes the complex process of controlling personal finances simple and understandable for a regular user. Together with a Prift team, we managed to create a clear, accessible, and minimalist interface that you can see in the screenshots above.
But what really stands behind this simple UI/UX design?
- A detailed user research to discover the true needs of the target audience.
- Competitive analysis and benchmark research to assess competitors’ strengths and weaknesses and, based on these findings, define the unique value proposition.
- Market research to understand the legal constraints of providing financial advice in the UK and coming up with ideas on how to adjust the app to existing rules.
- Feature prioritization to correctly define that minimum set of workable features.
- Wireframing to think out and visualize a consistent platform structure aligned with a product vision.
- A/B testing to determine which of several screen variants meets users' expectations and needs the most and will form future MVP.
- Prototyping to present a finished platform design with structure, functions, content, and visual components.
- Constant communication via Slack and regular video calls twice a week to discuss the design process progress and results.
And that’s even not the full list. Three people and about 200 hours stand behind this product. Not a very “simple” design, right?
The thing is that both complexity and simplicity in design are subjective. That is, different people perceive them differently. So, to successfully apply the UX principles we’ve discussed above and start reducing complexity, you have to first of all understand what is complex about your product.
Once your app gets to a stage where you can present something visual like a sketch, wireframe, or mock-up, show it to users to get their feedback. Analyze their feedback carefully and be ready to iterate. And remember that there is always a lot of work behind every simple product.
3 Aha Moment Examples That Can Redouble Your Retention
In 1924 George Mallory was preparing to summit Everest. A dozen people have previously perished along the way, so the New York Times reporter rightly asked the climber why he wanted to risk his life on this formidable mountain. Mallory replied, "Because it is there."
In August of that year, Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the way to the peak.
We retell this iconic story for the last hundred years because it’s an unprecedented case of man’s desire to conquer the universe. We’re not like Mr. Mallory. Your clients are not like Mr. Mallory either.
If you compare any SaaS app with Everest, you’d be amazed by the number of people who signed up and started their user journey just to leave in the very first days. The picture below shows that about 80% of people who signed up finally abandon an app.
Part of your contract with app users is that there's something worthwhile at the top of the mountain. Something valuable. But to reach that value, users have to learn how the app works, which is a tough task, because…
- How do I find out more about this?
- Where is that feature I’m looking for?
- What should I do next?
As a UI/UX design studio representative, I’d say there’s always something confusing for users in their user experience. And as they get trapped, people rarely show stoic persistence to continue the user journey just "because your app is there." They’ll go check Twitter, they’ll poke around for a smaller mountain nearby. And maybe the current solution to their problem is not bad at all?
Is there a way to reduce the number of churned users?
The picture from above says that the retention is almost the same for SaaS, eCommerce, finance and media apps. No industry has a recipe to stop the churn.
Best-of-breed companies in each category, however, seem to know something that most entrepreneurs never figure out. Just compare the retention dynamic for the top 10% apps in each category (the chart on the left) with the retention dynamic for median companies (the chart on the right).
Elite SaaS companies somehow manage to understand users better and retain them almost twice as good (38%) as median apps (20%).
If we match the two curves, we’ll notice that the tails of the charts are roughly the same, all the difference happens within week one. Best-of-breed apps make initial contacts with users in some specific way that retains even impatient ones.
“Aha” moments is the secret they don’t tell you
We can define “aha” moment as a user's emotional reaction to the discovery of how they can truly benefit from your app.
The most famous “aha” moments story belongs to Chamath Palihapitiya, ex-Facebook executive. In the darkest times when Facebook had 45 million users and MySpace had 115 million, the Facebook team coined their formula of 7 friends for 10 days. The rest was history.
After all the testing, all the iterating, all of this stuff, you know what the single biggest thing we realized? Get any individual to seven friends in 10 days. That was it. You want a keystone? That was our keystone. There's not much more complexity than that.
Facebook is a social network, and until users connect with a certain number of friends, they can’t feel any of its wonderful network effects. I still remember when I first signed up for my Facebook account, without a big friends list, I quickly lost interest.
But as soon as the number of friends rose, I started getting new posts every time I smacked the update button. Here came the “aha! now it makes sense” moment. That first insight was a turning point that kept me from bailing on my account.
Like any other social media, Facebook doesn’t leave your “aha” moment to chance. The company builds its onboarding path so that newcomers have no opportunity to feel lonely in their brand-new accounts.
- Facebook pulls in a list of suggested friends from your Gmail account.
- It recommends friends from your school, college, and the company you work for.
- It puts a big square blue “Add friend” button everywhere so that you don’t forget to add your friends.
Best product “aha” moment examples under the microscope
Any unsuccessful app is unsuccessful in its own way, but any successful app is good in hooking users with “aha” moments. So let’s reveal what is an “aha” moment for some best-of-breed SaaS apps and what exactly they are doing to make people stick.
Calendly and their step by step “aha” moment strategy
Why would anyone need a paid scheduling service when we all have Google Calendar, this free-of-charge perfection? And still, Calendly became an inherently viral meeting scheduler. After getting through its onboarding process, I see how it happened.
After the signup, Calendly offers you to schedule your first event. And as you go, you meet some little gems:
- “aha, I can specify the location where both parties will connect at the scheduled time”
- “aha, I can add some buffer time before or after events”
- “aha, I can collect payments inside the app”
- “aha, I can build automatic workflows around events”
These little features that Calendly strategically put on my road to the main value of the app made the road engaging.
But the kill shot was Calendly’s invitation to try booking my newly created event. What a smooth booking it was! In front of my eyes was a recent back-and-forth scheduling dance I had with my hairdresser, and in a moment of sudden, I realized the unique value that Calendly offers.
Monday’s road to “aha” when there’s no shortcut
Monday.com is a universal team management tool that works equally well for running a real estate CRM or an editorial calendar. When you see a tool so universal, it means that its customers not only stay in front of a mountain that pierces the clouds, the mountain also has numerous peaks. It’s a mountain range with multiple “aha” moments for multiple types of users.
For Monday, the road to “aha” starts not from showing you its finest features as it was for Calendly. It starts by cutting off all irrelevant branches of the road.
Monday asks users to self-select their roles, goals, and use cases to steer them toward features and templates that make them say “I’m glad I am using this tool.” I’ve selected a marketing branch at the very beginning of my trial and since then, through contextual tips, Monday was guiding me to my marketing success.
Monday allows a single-player mode but knows that in most cases the user reaches their “aha” moment after they invite their colleagues. So next the app pushes you (a bit aggressively) from solo productivity towards team productivity.
Another reason for pushing users hard is competition.
Monday.com is a relative newcomer to the team productivity space, which is pretty cluttered, full of large funded competitors.
For the product design team, it means plenty of testers, and it also means that if they nail fast, accurate and relentless onboarding experiences for each tester they win.
That leads us to a stream of reminders, emails, and push notifications that works pretty well. Monday didn’t become a meme as the most annoying app (check the Duolingo meme craze). Instead, it became the fourth fastest growing app in 2020, with 149% growth year over year.
Canva: I came, I saw, I said “aha”
The article comes to a close and I feel we know each other well enough for personal stories. Nobody knows, but when I was a child, I wanted to be a designer. Not for long, though, because I was traumatized by Photoshop and Illustrator, principal (and very complicated) design tools of the old times. That's how I became a writer — text editors were pretty intuitive even 10 years ago.
With all that background, it took me five minutes to fall in love with Canva, the easiest design tool on the planet Earth. The user onboarding is also the easiest — an engaged user doesn’t even have to sign up for the product to start designing.
Canva removes all the obstacles in the way of your “ah-ha, it can be that simple to make pictures” moment. The product itself is so straightforward that users rocket to the top of this not-so-steep mountain before even noticing it.
Yes, this app has a lot of limitations that you discover afterward. But it’s too late, you’re already hooked. And for non-designers, it’s still better than Photoshop.
“Aha” moment notice and note
Canva has taught us to pave the way in front of a user rushing to their “aha” moment so that no one tripped on an unclear feature or confusing form.
Monday showed us that personalization can help to point users toward the “aha” moment meaning that is relevant to them. And sometimes it wouldn't hurt to push them in the right direction with some reminders.
Calendly proves that you can engage users climbing big mountains by showing them little fancy features all the way up.
And Eleken design agency examins best practices from all over the world, so if you’ll need someone to create onboarding flow that will leave your customers forever hooked… you know where to find us.