The best thing you can do as a young person looking to get ahead in the world is to just build something. Designing, organizing, and executing on serious projects that require long-term follow through is one of the most challenging learning experiences one can undertake and provides some of the greatest opportunities for finding new chances at learning, growing, and maturing into your desired field.
Building something is hard, though.
If you are building something entirely new, it’s even harder. Your act of building a product is an entirely singular act. New things can only be new once, and when they are borne of new-ness, the process for building them is also unforged. You can pull on mentors, advisors, colleagues, and potential competitors for sources of inspiration and guidance, but what worked for them will only generally work for you.
So the actual founding process of any product is, by its very nature, fraught with unknowns. From the type of company you incorporate to the actual monetization of the product you build, these decisions can be fatiguing if you are at the head of the founding process.
Imagine that you have the prerequisite minutia done, you’ve assembled your founding team, have built your conspiracy, and are prepared to build your product. Your next feeling may be an overwhelming sense of “now what?”
Option 1: Build Functionality First, User Experience Follows
Do you build the technical product first and then build the user experience?
Or do you build the user experience first and decide to put off the technical side until later?
If you’re a practically-minded person looking to solve a problem (i.e., if you are an engineering or philosophizing type who views your product as a hack of an existing system), you’ll probably be tempted to build the technical side first. You have the concept in your mind and on paper. Now all you need to do is sling some code together, go through with your full-stack developer, and pound away for a few days at the terminal and you’ll have a functioning product. The pretty user experience side can come later at any time and would probably be pretty hard to design for without a developed product, after all. Right?
Option 2: Build User Experience First, Functionality Follows
Work out from your user experience first. For every engineer or philosopher with a scheme to build a product there are a dozen users who are so annoyed and agitated with non-intuitive interface and use that they walk away from the product.
This doesn’t mean to pander to what a consumer wants in a product — it means to start with design and move backwards from there to development. Have the idea of the product that no consumer currently thinks they want, prove to them they want it with an experience that leaves them better off than before and a product that fixes a problem for them.
An obvious example of this philosophy of “experience-then-design” is the entire Apple Computers product line. From the Macintosh of the 1980s to the iMac of the 2000s and the iPhone of the 2010s, Apple designed products with the user experience in mind first. Apple was able to win over a sizable portion of the market in laptops and cell phones (and practically invented the personal tablet market) by focusing for years on an intuitive design that consumers wanted. People walked away from more powerful, (relatively) cheaper machines for the ease-of-use of the iBook (then MacBook), the iPhone, and the iPad.
This philosophy was evident since at least 1997 under Steve Jobs’ leadership. Responding to a hostile question at the ’97 WWDC, only a short time after being brought back to the company he was exiled from earlier in the decade, Jobs summarized Apple’s operating philosophy that helped it become one of the most powerful companies the world has ever seen:
And one of the things I’ve always found is that — you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it. And I know that it’s the case.
This philosophy took Apple to where it is today. For general consumer-oriented products, it can do the same in almost any industry. Uber is popular because it is so easy to use (i.e., you open up the app, press a button, and a car shows up). Airbnb is popular because it is easy to use (i.e., you go to the website, put in a location and a date, and choose an option, just like booking a hotel).
This strategy isn’t as powerful for highly specialized products, of course. You can only make accounting software, surgery robots, law citation software, and atom smashers so simple — in these industries, the trade-off between UX and technology comes at a much higher marginal return.
Build Back, Build Out
If you are struggling with where to start with your product, you have two options available to you:
1. You can build your technology, try to patch together a cohesive user experience between the technology, and then try to market it and hope consumers like it. If they don’t you can grumble about how they are missing the obvious benefits of your technology and must just have short attention spans
2. You can build your user experience first and then make your technology fit to it. You can make your user experience something people will enjoy. If they don’t find your functionality in your experience, you can always build out from an intuitive, easy-to-use, enjoyable experience.
Make your product easy to use, then make it work, then make it easy-to-find.