Brian Rhea Brian Rhea

Bright & Early Podcast

UI Design for Early-stage Startups with Jane Portman

Episode Transcript

The following transcript has not yet been edited. I am slowly editing them, identifying speakers, and cleaning up issues; but I haven't gotten to this one yet. For now, it's helpful for some Ctrl+F action to find a pull quote.

Brian: Hey everyone and welcome to bright and early the podcast for people building early-stage startups.

I’m your host Brian Rhea.

I talk to entrepreneurs, product people, designers, and marketing pros to learn what works, what doesn’t, and why; giving you at least one thing to apply to your business first thing tomorrow.

my guest today is Jane Portman. Jane is a UI/UX consultant in web application design. she’s the host of the UI breakfast podcast and a co-founder of user list which is a behavior based email automation tool for SAS companies Jane welcome to the show

hey Bryan thank you so much for for having me

I’m thrilled to have you. So people who are probably already listening to your show know that I was on it a couple of months ago and that was just such a thrill for me because I’ve been following you and your work for four years now so it’s it’s such a thrill to have to get to talk to you again

yeah I hope we will link to the episode in the show notes because the conversation was just spectacular you you you were an amazing guest thank you well thanks I enjoyed it hey so Jane I want to talk to you about UI design in the early stages you’ve got a ton of expertise to share I also want to talk to you about user list the product the SAS tool that you’re working on right now in its early stages would love to hear how all that’s going and get your thoughts there but first question I want to ask you is what is your favorite podcast that you’re listening to right now you know my answer would be unfortunately I don’t get to go scintillating I guess these days I don’t really commute and I don’t do too much cry do so and luckily we delegated cooking and cleaning so various yeah yeah that’s so fun that’s really funny about working remote you know when you don’t have a commute which is you know that’s when I load up on podcast is either if I’m in the car or at the gym so as you say like you’ve got a good a good bundle of those you’ve got the convenience to not have to listen to podcast a– to kill away the time right absolutely but yeah there is so much so much great material out there really I’m feeling like I’m missing out but in the next life or something sure yeah yeah well listen I would love to hear if you’ve done so much interesting stuff over the years with a couple of books you that you’ve written and shared you’ve got your consulting practice what are you working on these days great question so I wear a lot of hats and I really try to reduce the number of cats lately and right now my dominant position is the co-founder of userlist you zola’s detail that is it’s an automation tool as you mentioned so we’re working on that and that’s been an exciting journey almost maybe you’re in half I think by now in addition to that I do I still do consulting but just not as much and they’re around a podcast so these are probably three major things these days and I’ve been doing a lot of content production over the last five years or so but that’s kind of quite a Down know that I’ve worked towards my authority and now my third is working towards me however like podcast production still takes time but I used to do like webinars have published four books about design that’s been great but I’m thankful that now I’m getting to work on on a serious software product with great co-founders yeah so I want to ask about your co-founders and how you’re all sharing roles and get into that I would love to hear a little bit about how you have how is the transition from consulting and content production it sounds like into building a software product I’m sure that many of the people listening to this show me in particular also find themselves in that position of trying to make that transition so how has that gone for you and what are some lessons you’ve learned so I’ve been dreaming of running a product for for a while and I think that I did a few attempts and this is a serious attempt

  • so this is my second take on sass my first product was nice and small and I was a solo founder and I paid for development actually hired benedict to build it is this tiny reminder yes exactly so as a small utility that allows you to collect like documents and other things through a questionnaire and it was small and and nice and I kind of tested the waters and ultimately I sold it off and was immediately like up for starting something else that’s when that’s when I recruited the remaining two co-founders to start userlist mm-hmm so did you do you regret selling tiny reminder and wish that you had continued to dig in on it or was it the right move and now you’re transitioning to this this other thing that you can go much deeper deeper in on I’m absolutely thrilled because I made all the possible mistakes with tiny rewinder and some of them were fundamental and and quite hard to fix so one of them was one of them was not having a clear target audience okay another one was not having like a clear use case it was it was too versatile have too many option was to be used and it was a vitamin not a painkiller if you know what I’m talking about so yeah really there were so many alternatives and this was so easy to live without it while userlist is an essential business tool and even though they on boarding is a pain and it’s definitely hard to get new customers but those who do join they become loyal and they just stay on it while they’re in business because the switching the cost of switching is much higher there okay great well yeah so let’s let’s talk about let’s talk about userlist then so who are your co-founders and how did you come to meet what was the genesis for you know getting this thing going and and committing your time and effort to it yes I’m thrilled about the people who got to be my co-founders so it was the fall of 2017 and tiny reminder was still still running in my hands but I got that acquisition offer and was like so excited to start userlist that I already got the ball rolling the first person I approached was Benedict because he I totally knew that I couldn’t leverage like with the money I had I couldn’t really just hire out such a complex technical product so I got to have a technical co-founder at that time so approached Benedict and we kind of got that vibe going together already of working together well and he hesitated a little bit brainstormed it and said yeah it’s gonna be fun let’s do it and another person who joined was Claire Suellentrop and she’s our marketing expert and she was previously director of marketing at calendly and she was a guest in my podcast and she was like number one on my list of marketers I knew so I I was like maybe I should just Beach my idea and see if if I get lucky and I was so lucky that she said yes because at that point of her career it was exactly what she wanted a little a little fast to practice her marketing skills look to not skills I would be like top expertise of her own and there we had like design figure it out development figure that was all the missing pieces of the puzzle together so when we got together we spent quite a bit of time laying out the groundwork such as figuring out the shares we signed a pretty long and formal agreement even before we incorporated so that all the roles only like commitments are written down on paper and it was hugely helpful was great-grand work for incorporation and it was also great to feel somewhat safe about our commitments we had the vesting schedule that allowed us for to account for friend kind of flight situations because situations always arise yeah so did you use did you use stripe atlas or some out-of-the-box thing for getting all of that formal reliable paperwork in place or how did you all go about that we have a blog post about it because we have we we span across three countries so I’m based on Russia Benedict is based in Germany and Clary’s in the US and we’re lucky to have a u.s. co-founder however is still not a silver bullet for an international foundry good particularly Russia is somewhat not very favorable for banks and stuff so we couldn’t really use stripe atlases fortunately so we went with hiring a lawyer getting everything done in a custom way I mean it was pretty stunned for a straightforward like shareholder agreement but the the research for that we had to do to figure out that setup was was pretty extensive but it’s definitely worth it because not only we feel secure but we also feel confident as a business having you know business credential that doesn’t address and everything else I didn’t have any of that since I’m here my nerve

okay that’s growl I’ll link to that in the show notes that’s a post on userlist vlog somewhere okay so so that you’ve got the groundwork in place everyone feels good about responsibilities and you even get a legal agreement which is much more than I think many people can say that early on how did you go about establishing what the MVP would be and what is what’s the product development process going to look like and who’s in charge of product and prioritisation decisions yeah that’s a great question it’s always a challenge for for everyone building a project because as a UX person as a design person walking up new features is like a few hours of my time like a few days max literally just because I kind of know how to use my hammer right so it’s it’s really not too long to design however implementation is a whole different story it’s it’s I know weeks months of development time polishing and everything else so we decided to really strip down the features however they it was still loveable and doing the key key function that was supposed to perform like I seriously supported the concept of minimum lovable product as opposed to Minimum Viable Product I just can’t can’t allow myself in ourselves to ship something really ugly or tough working especially in such sensitive industry where part of that is facing our customers customers which is really serious yeah I heard you say that I was gonna ask you to talk more about that lovable the minimum lovable product so how do you I would love to hear your thoughts on this because you’re you know one of your entire approaches with UI audit and just hearing you speak about other things is even mentioned it there is simplicity and stripped down and coupled with making something really really fantastic and great especially if you’re going to be representing your your your customers to their customers how do you get over what seems to be the inevitable hump of it’s not quite perfect yet we can’t ship it yet it’s not ready how do you balance that in your own in your own eye yeah so we we do take a time to polish things however we do we do really focus on on smaller subset of features that’s our recipe how we can ship something faster so the recipe here is to say like we just don’t have customization we don’t have like broadcast entirely well we do have broadcast now but we just like cut off half of the app and ship the other half which really but that other half was was good we would love to have filters while there is no filters in place but but the list itself is nice well designed and looks good even though it’s pretty simple well and and I really need to mention that the whole approach to user list from day one was to build a simple simple amount great word but a pragmatic focused tool like you mentioned that with with the feature or if your goal was to dramatically under do Google Analytics yes I just love the way our goal was dramatically under do existing email automation tools because they’re so bloated and and high to use so we wanted to build a simple version so we built a simple version of a simple version and was really bare-bones but nonetheless pretty in terms of visual style okay okay and so in terms of the design though how how important is it do you think for maybe not for yourself because it comes so naturally it’s very easy but thinking about some early stage SAS founders who may not have a design background and they’re hiring out or at least outsourcing some design and development is pixel-perfect design and execution a worthy goal in the run-up to launch day of course not there is a load of amazing products who were not so pretty from day one and the majority of my consulting clients are like that so they they made it to market pretty successfully was you know somewhat half-baked design version design themselves or customize the theme or something and when they validated their product then they have resources and time to upgrade their UI UX however it really depends on who the founders are like if the founder is a designer then it’s a little bit more interesting because I really can’t allow myself to ship something somewhere because my clients will judge me for that process of that experience yes however if the designer the founder is a developer and the product is deeply technical why not and there are so many ways you can approach it however probably the main rule on it it’s called it’s called gales law and I really love it says that complex system can only be built by making a simple system by approving a simple system not from the ground up and the biggest mistake I see is founders trying to recreate very complex systems like all kinds of bells and whistles from day one and our approach is to build something super simple and then build up on it later of course we like I do have design experience I know like that I should probably leave that corner empty because that’s where fillers are gonna go etc etc and kind of build with that accessibility in mind but there is no problem redesigning certain things entirely down the road as soon as you have the simple thing working yeah you’re absolutely right it just it seems like you know playing playing into your strengths is you know the context that matters there you’ve got you have yourself on staff and so design is a strength of userlist from day one if a would you think is fair to say if a company is founded by a developer and a marketer then they’re probably going to have fantastic functionality and great content but maybe the design is not like best-in-class it really depends what if they have if they have saved up money for hiring a designer it might as well look good I shouldn’t mention there some frameworks these days I’m talking about let’s say bullet train by undercover when the they are really really streamlining everything to look good from day one all the basic functionality it’s already baked in it it’s looking good and they have a lot of components and it’s not a UI kit but it’s like a app groundwork so I’ve seen a few startups that are using bullet train and they’re looking good already even though they invested like I’m sure not so much time into their decision because it was like their boiler plate template right yeah so I haven’t seen bullet train I wanted I want to take a look at that I was going to ask you you know what what are your thoughts on these UI kits that you see all over the place and they have you know every component you can imagine and 27 screens that you can download and sketch what what are your thoughts on those it’s amazing that they’re available anyways because these are like hundreds and hundreds of design work however if I were to use one as a developer I would definitely pick something that’s already implemented in code so I would rather come in like UI library or a theme that’s already alive that he can use because the gap between sketcher figma layout and in real life thing it’s enormous it’s it never looks the same in the browser indeed so I would really say towards towards themes and things that are really life and there’s plenty of those so there is great way to start without any design help at all yeah yeah and it does seems like as the as the years have gone on the the ability to have at least very good not great but at least you know very good and certainly not terrible UI and good design in the early stages becoming you know easier because if because of these things if you have you ever seen air BnB x’ like original site that they launched with not that you’re talking about I should probably investigate it’s it’s kind of crazy because now I mean air air B&B; is like this paragon of design you know and they they’re their founders are incredible and they put out all these amazing you know design resources and the design that they launched with granite this is like not sure what what year it is but probably still you know some tables and layout kind of kind of an era but it’s it’s really really bad like it’s ugly and it’s awful but what they what they did was to at least ship something and found that they had a found that they had a market absolutely I’m by no means saying that design can determine the success of the product product market fit is way more important however design can be your competitive benefit that’s for sure yes Vantage well that again depends on how you approach the problem that you decided to solve yeah it’s always nice it’s it’s it’s very indirect but to me and I know to other people design communicates quality and and Trust and those things are very important in the business yeah yeah and I you nailed it right there quality and trust and it it does feel like that that bar is it gets raised you know each each year that goes on as as internet companies as the the end of three matures it does seem like you’re hitting on it there that maybe if Airbnb were to launch today with that terrible design like no there’s no way I’m staying on bad persons on that person’s couch on that website design no chance especially it really depends on the industry for example if you launch a banking app you’d better make it polished because people who really feel feel scared too trusting their money absolutely and therefore I’d know health industry anything else like that it’s worth extra polish for that very reason yeah yeah so hey so if I if I had yeah hypothetically speaking here so if I were trying to launch a brand new SAS product and I had zero budget to invest in design how would you recommend that I spend my time thinking about design well I would still recommend that you come up with $50 for a theme so lemonade stand to get 50 bucks okay I’ll at least get there go ahead oh I don’t know probably more affordable ones but seriously and maybe if you have designer friends they could spend a few hours helping you pick the right theme that that they think art is good and high-quality or if they don’t have a design friend maybe something with a large amount of positive reviews can cut the deal yeah okay yeah so thanks thanks for that so now let’s say that my lemonade stand went really really well and now I’ve got a budget of ten thousand in the very earliest stages these early days to invest in UI design how would you recommend that I spend that budget it really depends once again I would get a a very expensive designer do little work for me and maybe speak to the same theme again but ask that designer to customize it for you make recommendations and I would really invest into having a great marketing website ah okay because that eye candy it’s even more important on the front end of things when you’re trying to capture a visitor’s interest with with attractive website okay so you’re you’re saying so we start we start with a super cheap theme that looks nice we look we’ve got some trust and there’s some quality there but it’s not custom to us and then then the next step from that you would recommend a very expensive experienced designer do a small amount of work as opposed to a mid-level designer doing a decent amount of work the thing is yes absolutely the thing is that an experienced designer can do something really good with a very small amount of time however if you if you hire someone less experienced it might work out work out great but you’re also risking that you’re gonna spend like three months wandering in different directions yeah not come with the right direction well for for seasoned professionals will be like let’s get down to that I’m not sure that might mean different things for your business might be customizing a theme it might be like what I do typically I lay out a few key screams for the person they’re on a tight budget mm maybe some branding and styling you know also part of that work yeah okay it’s really dangerous to go with like low clouds designers because you’re gonna spend the same money waste and still get the desired outcome that’s really bad yeah okay so so work with a high quality designer to get a screen or two like important screens you’re saying and then those those UI patterns you will probably be able to apply them in a number of places and just get a lot more quality for your buck yeah hopefully so yeah awesome hey you so I mentioned it earlier you’ve got what part of one of your part of your consulting services is what you call a UI audit and so you say in this UI audit I’ll take a fresh professional look at your web app and determine critical design flaws so what are some of the most critical design flaws that you see most often what can an early stage founder who may not have a deep background in design or a design oriented co-founder what are those critical flaws that that they might be able to keep an eye out for yes I do have some indeed so probably the my favorite one is dashboards because people are trying to cram all the functionality in their app into a dashboard and all the things are like all the workspaces and all the functionality appears on one crammed screen which is custom designed from scratch by a non designer which doesn’t typically work great so the idea is that dashboards are only important for apps that are mission-critical if they’re unsmooth I’d know if you’re controlling something hosting to see that things are going well for example with user lists we are planning on a dashboard because one of the things for our customers is having peace of mind that their automations are indeed running yes so dashboard is not in our MVP it’s not there yet but when we have more time this year we’re definitely going to build something in that direction however people don’t go to our dashboard to compose messages or make new campaigns and that leads to us leads us to a second most popular improvement that I introduced is restructuring the navigation so that it makes more sense and it’s just overall more understandable for the user and the approach I advocate for in my book is to write down all the things that you’re working with in your app because let’s just be honest most of the business apps are lists of different things so write down the objects the types of objects that you’re going to be managing and and and work from there so a navigation should represent a place for these objects to live in like supernormal reliable way to find them at anytime and that’s just not always true in apps that were designed by no designer let’s say yeah is there a I’m thinking about like card sorting maybe to determine that the organization of the navigation are there other exercises that that you have found to be helpful and taking this big list of objects and then organizing them in a way that that does make sense to the audience do you have a preferred technique I don’t have any preferred techniques because card sorting might do well for a brand new app or for I don’t know a government website when you have dozens of different things right what I use that is somewhat somewhat mmm you know regular business apps that are they know what they’re doing pretty well it’s just that some things are confusing so my goal is to come in and find those confusing things and fix them yeah so it’s not like over doing things from from day one yeah however on on my part I guess we’ve been talking a bit with the Andrew Mayfield or the founder of of tools that just do just that so you might head over there yes and that’s the design spring technique who might also be hugely useful if you want to get up and running with a earth-type very fast we also have an episode on that but there is that design spring book and a spring book and a lot of resources on that great yeah thanks so much for that ok Jane we’re about out of time here but out one final thing I wanted to ask you about and speaking from personal experience you know working on working on startups can make you feel a little nuts if you don’t actively you know work on maintaining some sanity and calmness are there any practices that you have found helpful for yourself that you would like to share you mean for organizing the working process to find peace so everything from practical pragmatic functional how do you do your to-do list all the way to mindfulness meditation taking a walk having a hobby what what do you what do you do that you find helps you to maintain some some level of sanity okay so I don’t get to mid to take much because I have three children and I work from home and thankfully I do have a babysitter because otherwise it would all not be possible and the younger one is six months now so it’s fun I guess I find pleasure and flexibility so and in my combination as flexibility and focus so I’m not always sure when I’m gonna get those working hours but when I do there is something on top of the mind on top of the list that I’m gonna be working on and and wine box takes takes care of the rest okay I like that flexibility focus when when you’re working and a babysitter okay all right there you go audience my guest today has been Jane Portman Jane thank you so so much for your time for everything that you shared and hope to talk again soon my pleasure my pleasure hope this podcast is a blast [Music] I hope that you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did so just a couple of few closing thoughts here I really and I wish I would have dug in on it a little bit more I liked that that when Jane mentioned how with tiny reminders she she came to the conclusion that it was a vitamin and not a painkiller and I really like that mental model without that way of thinking and so I found this article I’ll link to it in the show notes that talks about products being a candy a vitamin or a painkiller I would love to hear what what you all think about that the other thing that I loved was Jane talking about galls law and this is something else I’ll definitely link to Josh Kaufman who wrote the personal MBA is a really great book it just puts all these business concepts into very plain plain language and plain explanation it’s just like the whole book is just a bunch of you know one-page chapters and one of them is on galls law and so I’ll just state it again galls law says that all complex systems that work evolved from simpler systems that worked and if you want to build a complex system that works build a simple system first and then improve it over time and I think that is just extremely extremely fascinating and super important Jane mentioned it it’s the it’s the quote that I was the soundbite I opened up the episode with the mistake that she often sees founders make is trying to create a complex system and I see the exact same thing I think we I think we all do you know in many different capacities and perhaps if if you can be honest with yourself and and you’re trying to build something brand new go from something to nothing then you you probably recognize this in your so oh we need to add this thing oh it should you know you’re on a particular screen you know what it should do X and that is how complexity happens too soon and so I I love that I would love to hear what you think about that as well and finally I really enjoyed the piece of the conversation about UI kids and the role of design in the early stages and how quality and Trust are communicated by good design and I’ve I I think my thinking is evolving on this particular topic because as time as time goes on as the web continues to mature the expectation of good design or at least non bad design that expectation continues to go up and I think I mean we can still see that Craigslist it does not have a beautiful UI and Airbnb as I mentioned you know began from from a garbage design I I would love to hear from you all are there well what’s your what’s your take on this do you think that a or maybe you have examples even a brand new concept that has a market as Airbnb did a brand new concept that launches with terrible design not no design not like here’s a landing page click on this and you know we’ll measure demand from it I mean the the launched first version was objectively terrible and they that yet the company managed to get enough trust and an interest from customers such that they but they have gone on to become to get some traction and become some measure of successful