Designing for Business / by Gavin Lau

The role of Product Designer in tech has never been more appealing as a career path. Whether you started as a visual, user interface, or experience designer to get there, the reason you create seamless user journeys and polished product experiences is ultimately business—and that’s a good thing. Understanding this and how to support it will make you a better designer and a better leader.


Designers Are Business Leaders

Not too long ago, designers were a lot lower on the organizational chart. I remember those years and experienced the frustration first hand. But the growth of software and mobile has ushered in a new era for the design community. Today, Product Designers are business leaders and many of us don’t even realize it.

As designers increasingly sit at the table and work side-by-side with CEOs, CTOs, VCs, and a host of other business leaders (the volume at which this is happening is huge if you compare it with pre-mobile) this point is only more pertinent. We are increasingly relied upon to help steer product concept, direction, and roadmaps. As our voice as designers gets louder, the bigger our responsibility is to understand the businesses we are designing for.


Business Models Are User Experiences

Tech startups are often changing the means in which we interact with products and services, and sometimes the related laws, but ultimately they are working under the same pressures, tensions, and environments as traditional businesses in their industry. Business is still business.

The economics of the industry and the business model of the company decide what we designers build, how we build it, and if we are successful. Without sound business metrics, our products and companies will not live long enough to make a lasting impact on people and the world around us. It is ultimately the best user experience to have a strong business model.

So, get to know your industry and business as best as you can. Understanding this will allow you to make better recommendations and judgements regarding the regular tradeoffs that arise. When you are in a small team with limited resources, how you respond to these tradeoffs can be the difference between success or failure.


Design to Grow, Retain, and Convert

Designing for business means creating a product that is self-supportive of its business goals. It means designing to facilitate growthretention, and conversion. While there are whole books and countless articles written on these topics, a few basic principles are worth mentioning.


Designing for growth means designing a system that supports, if not outright facilitates, the acquisitions of new users at no cost, i.e. organically. For many under-funded and early-stage products, organic growth is an important component of initial traction and take-off and a way to ensure you survive to the next round of funding.

Put simply, build mechanisms in your app for content or social sharing. But, don’t get carried away. Plastering share buttons on every screen or list item is an easy way to condition users to ignore them. Kamo Asatryan — who was recently covered in a great article on how to design for growth — rightly points out that you should prioritize moments of natural sharing and socializing. Try to put them in high-impact places where content is already being shared by existing users via screen captures, texts, or other means.

If your product doesn’t have these natural moments, Asatryan recommends trying to make sharing worth it for the user by offering financial or in-app incentives, e.g. a certain dollar or percentage off for both those sharing and those you acquire as a result. While a shareable and social structure won’t save a product that can’t find a market, it can increase the chances of a good fit taking off without a massive budget.


Getting new users to the app is pointless and an unsustainable feat if they don’t stick around. Long-term relationships and high engagement are the goals of designing for retention. And, as it turns out, they also help you in designing for growth.

The more users come back to your app, the more engaged they are. Those who are engaged are far more likely to support your product, tell their friends, create content on your app, and spend money. As Andrew Chen points out, most consumer app metrics are horrendous — it’s not uncommon to see 90% of users unengaged on a daily basis. In the face of these odds, doing the small things right will go a long way in keeping users interested.

Designing for retention starts by working with your CEO and product managers to define and maintain a strong product concept throughout the life of the app. Solving a real user pain point can save the designer from the awkward situation of being asked to compensate for lack of engagement by “making it pretty.” The idea that visual design can save a useless product concept is a fallacy. It never lasts. And users will be a lot more forgiving of early-stage missteps and shortcomings if you are relieving a real discomfort. So, make sure you understand the problem and create something that really adds value.

If you have a strong concept, you want your users to realize as quickly as possible what benefit it can bring to their lives. This means creating a user onboarding experience that is concise and sets the user up for ideal behavior. Prioritize learning through doing, not reading. The Appcues User Onboarding Academy is filled with useful tips on how to reduce the amount of time it takes for people to realize your app’s value.

After the first use, you want to keep the user coming back, so make sure your onboarding experience includes hooks for repeat usage. The user’s journey starts outside your app, so set yourself up to be welcomed into that space. Incorporate external prompts—like push notifications, badges, or trigger emails—that point to real rewards for the user, be it the chance to meet a hot date, get a discount on that dream vacation, or provide a solid cure for boredom. Set these up as quickly as possible for first-time users.

But be careful, if you don’t provide real value in these triggers, user tolerance can be pretty low with over 60% of users opting out of push notifications in some product categories. Make sure your push notifications say something meaningful either in and of themselves (due to the content and timeliness of the message) or for the reward they offer when the user enters the app. Using what you learn about the user to provide tailored triggers will only increase your success rate for relevancy.

Once users return to the app, make sure to minimize the physical and mental steps required for them to experience the rewards that brought them in. Ensure they once again realize your value while creating further hooks for repeat engagement.

If you have to prioritize, design for retention over growth. High retention will ensure growth initiatives, organic or paid, really take off and make maximum use of their resources.


Lastly, getting new users to come back to the app or existing users to return is only useful if it gets them to convert on the metrics that drive your business. If this is hotels, it’s booking; if it’s event tickets, its buying. Without this, your business won’t be able to sustain itself over the long run, and the wonderful experience you are designing will have a short shelf-life.

Conversion doesn’t always have to be buying or paying for something. For many apps—in particular early-stage, investor-funded products—this might be hitting certain growth or retention metrics, spending a certain amount of time on a particular screen, clicking through or viewing ads a certain amount of times, or pressing a certain button regularly. While these key performance indicators are usually defined at high levels within the company, or with board members, designers can play a key role in figuring out how to make them tangible and forming the structure of the app around them early on. At a minimum, designers need to be aware of what these metrics are and how each design decision will effect key funnels that lead to conversion. This is what it means to grasp the constraints of our work.

Many of the similar tactics described above help us get to this point, with frictionless flows tailored to the user’s interests naturally leading to better conversions. If we have them engaged and motivated via designing for retention, one of the most important things we can do for conversion is get out of the way.

Remove anything that doesn’t need to be there and allow the user to “convert” in as few steps as possible. Asatryan recommends designing “every dominant call to action to move users forward consistently with all previous calls to action they chose beforehand. All of these CTAs should look and feel the same in terms of superficial traits like color, font, wording, placement.”

You would be surprised by how little is required in a design, as we at Hopper learned building a booking flow for airfare. But make sure to balance this with the right types of content to build trust and allow users to feel confident in converting. Making it easy and providing proper motivation will get you where you need to go.

Design Methodologies Are The Means

Ultimately, we must solve real problems in real markets, if we are truly designing for business. Then, getting people to find and use the products we design at minimal cost to us, come back regularly to interact with them, and convert on our key success metrics will determine whether or not our designs last long enough to provide real value.

The ways we traditionally think about design and the importance we place on users are still incredibly important and striking the right balance between creativity, product experience, and business priorities can feel like walking on a tightrope sometimes. It is the role of the Product Designer, however, to be sympathetic to all sides. Difficult or not, our success will be defined in the end by our balance, not our stubborn insistence on one over the other.

User experience, interface, and visual design are the methodologies we use to solve these key business problems effectively. They are the means, not the end. Leveraging the tactics we use to deliver engaging product experiences to support growth, retention, and conversion will make us better and more effective leaders at a time when our guidance is more valuable than ever.