Editor’s Note: This morning I read of Mint.com’s new $12.1 million funding round, lead by Benchmark Capital. Mint hawks online money management software. TechCrunch highlighted Mint’s impressive growth stats — 160,000 users in just 6 months of life as a startup; 10,000 new users each week, etc. I was reminded of a piece that one of Mint’s own employees, Jason Putorti, wrote for us back in November, on the topic of design and why it is as important for product adoption as your code. Mint is obviously doing a lot of things right, so I’m republishing Jason’s piece today — study this company!
Let’s face it, startup founders have their hands full with a multitude of issues, large and small. Most attention is placed on the nuances of business models, viral marketing, user acquisition, etc. But an often overlooked success factor in building a web business — or any business — is design. Good design can often tip the scales in your favor; make your company very hard to ignore. In this post, I’ll explain a few important reasons why design matters so much.
1. Good design implies credibility
You only get one chance to make a first impression. When people visit your website, most won’t go through a fact-finding expedition to figure out your Series A numbers, who your investors are, and what your story is just to decide if your company can be trusted. Initial trust is a gut-feeling. The easiest way to put your company on that path is via well executed visual design that shows you put some effort, and money, into delivering a first-rate and satisfying experience to your customers. They will notice. Ignore design and you risk creating distrust of your business from day one, and driving up that bounce rate.
There’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ brand experience. This little word is kicked around a lot and its meaning is often confused. Your company’s ‘brand’ is how other people feel about your company. (Yes I said feel!) Put another way, it’s what your customers say about you, not what you say to them. You might even call it your company’s personality. For example, what do you think about Amazon.com? That’s their brand. If Amazon has done a good job, what you think will match up with what they want you to think, also known as their “brand values.” Every interaction between your company and your customer affects your brand in a positive or negative way. Well-executed visual communication can go a long way to providing the right takeaways.
3. Usability is life and death
In the world of web 2.0 and beyond, a UI is what turns an idea into a usable product. A well-executed, intuitive UI is what turns a usable product into a successful one– especially today when there are so many options available. There have indeed been successful pieces of software over the years that were poorly designed, but in these cases you can point to lack of competition, closed-standards, or sheer market power. Web 2.0 changes this, and is forcing companies to create simple and elegant solutions that create the shortest paths from start to finish for their tasks. This is especially true with free apps, where little is invested. The age of feature bloat and design by engineers, with all due respect, is over.
4. Design is a powerful business advantage
There’s another adage about building a better mousetrap. Somebody had to design that mousetrap. For you MBAs out there, first-mover advantage is powerful, but great design by a second-mover can nullify it. Do you remember who released the first MP3 player in America? If you do, kudos, and you probably also know that they aren’t around anymore. The Apple iPod was three years late to the game, has less features than competing devices (the Zen, and now the Zune as well), and yet completely dominates the market today. Why? An innovative UI in the clickwheel, and purely emotive and beautifully-designed branding that pioneered music as a necessary component to your lifestyle.
5. Connect with your customers emotionally
Design is one of the only ways you can connect with your customers emotionally. Design allows you to deliver visceral experiences that can affect people. Recent advances in neuroscience, specifically FMRI, have shown that people tend to act on emotion, then back it up with reasoning later (if at all). This revelation has spawned a whole new marketing movement, known as emotional branding. The vehicle is pure design. Emotional brands, says Marc Gobé, create “strong…personalities that closely match the aspirations of their customers” through “the strength of their culture and the uniqueness of their brand imagery.” Apple is so successful at this that it spawned a book, The Cult of Mac. Facebook‘s new product pages are an excellent vehicle for emotional branding, too: people become ‘fans’; when they publicly declare support for your product, they are saying your values match up with their own. You’ve connected with them emotionally. You’ve won.
Jason M. Putorti is currently the lead designer of Mountain View-based Mint.com, which makes software for online consumer money management. Prior to Mint, Jason founded an advertising agency and publishing company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.