Charting New Paths to Startup Product Development

Liz Quann, Former Senior Digital Strategist,

Hannah Byers, Product Designer,

Noah Over, Application Developer, and

Kevin Vigneault, Vice President of Product Services

Article Categories: #Strategy, #Process, #Product, #Startups

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Over our many years working with early-stage startups, we’ve discovered that having flexibility in how we approach product concepting and development is essential to finding success.

Discovery. Design. Development. The process of building a new product may seem straightforward. But over Viget’s many years of working with early-stage startups, we know that this process is anything but linear — and certainly not the same from client to client.

Recently, we reflected on the work we did this year with three early-stage startups. We took a different approach for each engagement, informed by each startup’s goals, funding, and work done to date. 

Overflow: Design as Discovery

Overflow is building a SaaS product for video game development studios to handle all the economy portions of their games, such as creating, selling, and trading digital items. After spending a year shaping the idea, plus a few months outlining a high-level technical approach and creating wireframes, Overflow came to Viget looking for a collaborative design partner. Our goal was to push beyond general concepts and map out how the product would look and function from a game studio’s perspective.

What was our design as discovery approach?

To transition from wireframes to functional design, we needed to close some big knowledge gaps. We used super-quick low-fidelity designs to drive the conversation forward and create a shared understanding. The designs were a visual aid for what was really pure discovery — the UI was completely secondary.

We made fast progress, which showed in the hundreds of screen iterations we produced across all the platform features as well as the dozens we made and then archived. Each time we generated a batch of designs, we got closer to filling those big knowledge gaps.

What did we learn from this approach?

We found the most success when we just let our ideas flow onto “paper” (i.e., Whimsical), then collaborated as a team to iteratively refine and streamline. The main challenge was to avoid getting stuck in an infinite loop of refinement and redefinition. Many times we just had to move on and say, “that's good enough for now, we can come back to this.”

When do we recommend this approach?

A discovery-first process can be effective when the product you’re creating is complex. This doesn’t just mean there are a lot of features in a single product, but — as is the case with Overflow — those features are interconnected, so trying to envision the system in any abstract form is nearly impossible.

Also, consider the technical background of the team. Our lead client contact at Overflow is a software developer and provided constant technical perspective, advocating to keep our first designs simple. Not all clients can provide this kind of direction.

Upstream: Concept-First

Upstream came to Viget with a decent idea of what their product should accomplish: serve as an enterprise application for businesses to keep all their data central. But the concept was still fuzzy, and an Excel prototype and wireframes built in Google Slides weren’t going to get them to an MVP. Upstream needed something to communicate the idea with investors as well as future development partners to get them on board. So, we embraced the unknowns and just started designing.

What was our concept-first approach?

To begin, we purposely ignored implementation, diving right into high-fidelity designs. The designs were our discovery and allowed us to envision the full product scope and various opportunities for Upstream. We designed completely detached from technical consideration, hand-waving finer details as we went. This allowed us to make quick progress and provide Upstream with a working Figma prototype.

What did we learn from this approach?

Designing with no technical constraints can be a fun and productive change of pace. You skip the details, quickly iterating and exploring more unique solutions to design challenges that arise. But, when the inevitable transition to the actual MVP build begins, there will be a lot of clean-up. Files will need to be wrangled, components systematized, and ideas culled into what can be immediately built.

When do we recommend this approach?

The concept-first approach is ideal for when a client has fuzzy ideas and big, directional questions, but still needs something tangible at the end of the engagement to show investors and pitch to future team members.

Resolution: Functional Forward

Resolution came to Viget with plans for a more intuitive, math-powered way to map business’ “what-ifs”. The idea was accompanied by lots of documentation, including example sketches of functionality, multiple detailed PDFs, and even a small binary app prototype that demonstrated some of the basic math concepts behind the product.

While we had originally decided to spend the first few weeks planning toward an MVP, it was hard to discuss and map out exactly how this product would eventually work — even with all the work done to date. We needed to see the product in action and play around with it.

What was our functional forward approach?

We began with very limited design support and based almost all our work on low-fidelity (or nearly no-fidelity) example sketches. Our working prototype allowed us to build out a lot of features very quickly. It also meant the client could play around with a tangible app, which led to better answers to our questions.

What did we learn from this approach?

Even if it's not a fully functional MVP, seeing an idea in action has great value. Through the use of example models created on the app, Resolution could show users how the product functions for a business. That initial user base was later tapped for a UX research phase which informed future UX strategy, design, and development.

When do we recommend this approach?

A self-funded startup with a fairly singular functional idea could be a good fit for this approach, especially if the goal is to get to market as fast as possible and onboard paying customers.

What We Learned

As a team of flexible experts, Viget is able to tailor our approach to an early-stage startup’s needs. We have deep experience to draw on and high standards. The result has been more than two decades of innovative work that’s fueled big-name acquisitions, new rounds of fundings, successful IPOs, and profitable long-term business. 

Want to know more about how we’ve built trusted relationships with our 200-plus startup clients? Visit our startups page to see more case studies of this work.

Hannah Byers

Hannah is a Product Designer working from our Falls Church, VA, HQ office. She loves solving tough problems with beautiful design and constantly asking what users may need or want out of an experience.

More articles by Hannah
Noah Over

Noah is a Developer in our Durham, NC office. He’s passionate about writing Ruby and working with databases to overcome problems.

More articles by Noah
Kevin Vigneault

Kevin is Viget's VP of Product Services in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He concepts, launches, and optimizes products for the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Privia Health, and OPOWER.

More articles by Kevin

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