Founders getting ready to launch a new product often wrestle with the question of how much effort to spend on design. How important is it to get your UI looking exactly right? And how do you make sure you’re not sacrificing functionality for aesthetics?

The simple answer is that it’s almost always better to ship once your product is usable than to spend time making it look perfect. Aesthetics probably won’t be the deciding factor in getting early adopters to use your app. And growing your user base quickly is the most important goal when you’re just starting out.

This dilemma points to a larger issue for new founders: how to ensure that you’re getting the best return on your investments, whether you’re spending dollars or hours. How can you tell necessary expenditures from waste? We’ll discuss how to cultivate the right headspace in the second half of this post.

Aesthetics Vs. Functionality In Product Design

The value of graphic design can be hard to quantify for startup founders, whose experience typically lies in tech or business rather than aesthetics. How exactly does adding or removing a serif translate into increased sales? 

Design is obviously important, because successful companies put a huge amount of thought into it. But it can be hard to know how much value you’re getting out of all that effort.

The good news is that design philosophy is moving in the direction of clarity and simplicity. More and more, UI designers are focusing on keeping visual choices from turning users off or getting in their way.

As a result, it’s never been easier to design a relatively bare-bones product that still looks good.

Case Study: Airbnb

Airbnb offers a perfect example of how you can achieve great aesthetics by focusing on usability. 

The company has a huge following in the design community, and they’ve talked a lot about the process and philosophy behind their product’s visual identity. It’s widely acknowledged that the look and feel of their UI is a major factor in their success.

Does that mean that their app looks like a work of art, with intricate flourishes and stunning backdrop images?

No. It looks like a simple, easy-to-use app.

When their designers talk about what they’re aiming for, they use words like:

  • Unified. Every piece is intended to fit into a larger whole.
  • Universal. The app should look the same across all platforms and locations.
  • Conversational. The platform uses plain text in places where others might use icons.
  • Trusted. Photos from hosts occupy much of the visual space, reducing clutter and helping users see what they’re signing up for.

Of course, these principles take some work to implement, but they’re all consistent with a streamlined look that takes the focus off the design and places it on what the user is trying to do.

Take your inspiration from Airbnb when you’re crafting a UI.

Just Ship Something

As important as design is, getting your minimum viable product into the hands of users is much more important.

You can spend a lot of time guessing what kind of look will appeal to your customers, or you can start finding out. Once you have some feedback from people who’ve experienced your UI in action, you’ll be in a much better position to update it.

The more time you spend playing with fonts, the more you’re delaying that research. Design work represents an opportunity cost even if you’re not spending any money on it.

Every time you’re tempted to swap color palettes or shift the position of that menu button, ask yourself whether that change will actually help grow your revenue.

  • Will it make customers more likely to download your app?
  • Will it encourage them to keep using it?
  • Will it remove an irritating distraction that makes them want to delete the program?
  • Will it prompt them to tell their friends about your product?

These are all different ways of asking the same question: will you get a positive return on investment for your efforts?

Think In Terms Of ROI

As an entrepreneur, you should be making the same kind of mental calculation every time you consider an expenditure. That’s true whether you’re spending time, or money, or both.

For startups with a ton of funding, this kind of mental discipline is harder when it comes to money decisions. It’s a lot easier to justify purchases without a definable return when you’re spending someone else’s cash.

On the other hand, time feels precious, because you have a pretty good idea of exactly how long your runway is.

The situation is reversed when you’re bootstrapping your business. When every dollar is coming out of your own pocket, you want to be sure that it will eventually put two dollars back in.

But you’re not answerable to anyone else when it comes to your launch date, so you can easily talk yourself into spending a little extra time to get something just right.

You need to remember that both time and money are finite resources, and you shouldn’t spend either one unless you have a clear idea of how your expenditure is going to help grow your business.

Ask yourself:

  • Will this new hire’s billings exceed the salary we’re paying?
  • Will this redesigned menu icon boost user retention enough to justify pushing back the launch date?
  • Will paying a developer to build this extra tool significantly improve our download numbers?

Don’t take this frugality to an unhealthy extreme, though. There are still lots of things that are very much worth their cost.

Many new founders are especially hesitant to talk themselves out of spending money on marketing and sales efforts. But those actually have a pretty clear path to generating increased revenue. 

Use your judgment, but don’t be so cautious that you don’t spend anything at all on growing your business.

The Bottom Line

The benefits of good design can seem a little intangible, but a design decision is still a business decision. Delaying your launch to build the best-looking UI possible will rarely benefit you in the long run. 

Look for a positive ROI from every expenditure, and remember that an opportunity cost is still a cost. 

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