Tools for Practical Design

by Dominika Blackappl

Design doesn’t have to be complicated, intimidating, or expensive. In an early stage startup design serves one purpose: helping you understand your users. To that end, design encompasses more than logos and layouts, it also means user observation, messaging, MVP specs, concise pitches, and more.

I’ve set out to create a set of free tools to demystify design and help founders improve their user understanding, including: User Observation, Design Brief Creation, Messaging, MVP Spec, and Deck Design.

These tools are all designed to drive action. I hope they can lower the barrier to entry around thoughtful design by helping you learn by doing. The first tool is on user observation. Interactive versions of each tool will be available on my site.


User Observation Tool

User observation is the process of getting to know your user. To bring a successful product into the market you have to leave the comfort of your day-to-day routine and get out to meet people. People are your customers and all people have pains, which is why all people have needs. The product makers - i.e. you - can satisfy some of those needs with a great product.

Below are steps that correspond to the User Observation Tool.

1. Familiarize yourself with these sample use cases. A successful product solution responds to a need that grows out of a pain. As examples we’ll use the iPod and Zappos to illustrate the difference between pain, need, and solution.


Pain: Joseph could not have all his music with him wherever he went. Need: Joseph needed a way to spontaneously access all his music on the go.

Solution: A pocket-size portable player that carried Joseph’s entire music collection.


Pain: Gisele could not wear shoes other than those available in a local mall. Need: Gisele needed a way to choose from and buy other shoes on the market.

Solution: An online shoe store with free, fast shipping and returns.

2. Decide what you need to validate and stay focused. Successful user observation requires a clear goal. The same process applies whether you need to validate your understanding of a user’s pain, your assumption about a user’s need, or your product as a solution. While quantitative research can tell you how many people clicked, only user observation will tell you why (or why not.) User observation will lead you to the original pains that drive human behavior.

3. Choose the right person to observe. Realize that users and customers are sometimes two very different people or entities. The person you observe should be someone you do not know. Plan to conduct the observation face-to-face and in an environment where the pain occurs, the need surfaces, or the solutions would be used. If you have to travel, do it. You can usually plan multiple sessions in each location.

4. Prepare trigger questions and props. User observation is the opposite of a sales pitch! Your role is to listen. The less you talk, the more you learn. The purpose of you speaking during an observation is to keep the momentum and make sure you stay on topic. The most useful trigger question is “Why?”.

Regarding props, sometimes it helps people to start sharing when you provoke them with a prop. For example, when validating the Zappos need, you can bring a piece of cardboard the size of a computer screen and, with a marker, sketch out a catalog layout. You can pull that out during the interview and say: “Imagine this was a site with all the shoes on the American market, what would you do with it?” And after they reply you’d ask, “Why do you say that?” You can also plan to use props from a user’s environment. You could walk with the user to their closet and ask how they create outfits and how they match shoes with them.

5. Choose your observation partner. Users share the most valuable insights when they are certain that you are listening. Decide who will lead the observation and who will record the observation. The main role of the leader is to actively listen and pay undivided attention to the user. The role of the leader is also to ask questions or to make comments, but only those that keep the conversation on track. The role of the recorder is to take notes, observe the surroundings, keep an eye on timing, and manage the recording technology, if any.

6. Get started. You can find an interactive version of this tool on my site.


Design Brief Tool

Good design briefs provide a clear context for a product. Whether or not you’re hiring a designer, writing a design brief is a useful exercise because you’ll expose gaps in your understanding of the product’s context.

This tool will allow you to create a design brief in less than ten minutes. It will guide you toward providing concrete language around your product’s context and away from forcing a solution onto a designer or yourself. If you force a solution you risk creating a product that doesn’t solve your problem – and maybe solves no problem at all.

Answer the questions below to create a design brief.

About Use Case

Playing with our User Observation Tool will help with answering these questions.

  1. What problem does your business solve?
  2. How did you discover this problem? What is the user pain that inspired you?
  3. What is the user need that inspired your business idea?
  4. How do people currently solve this problem?
  5. Who is the user of your product?
  6. Is your user and your customer the same person or entity?
  7. Describe briefly how your customer uses your product.
  8. Where and when is your customer experiencing the value of your product most?
  9. Where and when is your customer experiencing the value of your product least?

About Market

  1. In what markets will your product be sold?
  2. How many customers do you anticipate in each market?
  3. What is your sales channel?
  4. How will your customer learn about the product besides the sales channel?
  5. Is this your first product? If not, what were your past products?
  6. What is your next product going to be?
  7. What other products already on the market solve the same problem?
  8. What is your price in comparison to similar solutions on the market?
  9. What is your direct competition?
  10. What is the main barrier of entry for others wanting to solve the same problem?
  11. Do you own IP? If yes, what is the practical application of your IP?
  12. Will your product require certification? If yes, describe your strategy for overcoming the certification related delays for market introduction.

About Company

Playing with our Messaging Tool will help with answering these questions.

  1. What is the value proposition of your company?
  2. How do you deliver your company's value? How do you deliver what you promise?
  3. How does your business make money?
  4. What are the core values of your company?
  5. Does anyone on your team have any product development expertise?
  6. In what stage is your business?
  7. How big is your company?
  8. What is your current runway?

About Engagement with Designer

  1. When do you need the design?
  2. Preferred form of engagement. (Contract, full-time, etc.)
  3. Have you done any user observations? If yes, will you be able to share the process and the findings?


Messaging Tool

Great businesses are marked by the founder’s ability to state clearly what the value to the customer is and how their business delivers that value. The most common mistake founders make is interchanging the value of their business – with how the business delivers the value, often the technology.

For example, the value of Zappos in the early days was not the free delivery of any number of shoes and a 365 day return policy. It was access to the largest selection of shoes. The free delivery, return policy, and intuitive site design were the enabling infrastructure, not the value itself.

[The Messaging Tool][3] helps you refine how you communicate the value of your product. It also suggests a landing page layout hierarchy to better educate potential users. To get started you have to ask yourself four questions and answer them in the most succinct, least jargony way possible.

What is the value proposition of your business? Zappos puts any pair of shoes on your feet.

How does your business deliver its value to your customer? Zappos delivers any number of pairs of shoes to your door with fast, free shipping and returns. You have 365 days to decide whether you want to keep the shoes or return them for a full refund.

How does it work?

  • Choose any number of shoes and sizes from the largest online shoe store.
  • We will deliver the shoes to your door, in two days, free of charge.
  • You have 365 days to decide whether you’d like to keep the shoes or return them for a full refund. The return shipping is on us.

What can your customer do right now? Order now!


MVP Spec Tool

A minimum viable product, or MVP, is the very first product of any business. The purpose of this product is to test demand. The launch of this product concludes a validation of a business opportunity. It is the milestone that transforms a project into a business. The market reaction to an MVP inspires you – the founder – to iterate or pivot.

Product Versus Prototype MVP stands for minimum viable product not minimum viable prototype. A prototype, however sophisticated, is not a product. A prototype usually has a very narrow purpose, and there are often several parallel prototypes for a single product. For example, “look-like” and “work-like” prototypes together typically demonstrate one product concept, because the working technology, hacked from off-the-shelf parts or free templates, does not fit the anticipated form or user interaction. There are prototypes for user observations to validate needs and test solutions. There are prototypes for crowdsourced campaigns to showcase the anticipated product. There are pre-production prototypes. There are tangible prototypes to trigger intangible user experiences. There are intangible prototypes to illustrate possible use cases for physical products.

A minimum viable product is a real product. Real users and real customers will use it and pay for it. While founders might think of it as a prototype, users and customers will think of it as a finished product. Therefore, an MVP needs to be a complete story with a clear purpose, or function, and with just the right set of features to promote this function. Unlike with a prototype testing, you – the founder – will not be there to curate the experience.

Function Versus Feature A product is a manifestation of a function. A function is a purpose intended for a product. Without a function there would be no reason for a product to exist. Every product has one leading function. Having multiple functions in one product is confusing.

A feature is an attribute, a characteristic, a quality or a property of a function. A feature focuses attention on a product function. Too many features confuse an understanding of a product purpose. A feature war is like a price war. It is a downward spiraling business strategy that leads to a destruction of value.

The most common mistake technical founders make is falling in love with a feature, but thinking of it as a function. A light switch is a feature of a lamp. It is not the purpose, or function, of the lamp. An airbag is a feature of a car. It is not the purpose, or function, of a car. A product rating is a feature of an online store. It is not the purpose, or function, of an online store.

Minimum Versus Maximum If there was such a thing as a maximum viable product, what would it be like? The purpose of this product would be clear, because the positioning of the function would have been refined by many user testimonials. Just the right amount of features would enable the consumption via a unique user experience. The production would likely encompass proprietary technologies – from an authentic code to a custom-built assembly line. Social responsibility would be part of this maximum viable product design spec.

A minimum viable product is the most efficient way to deliver a function of a product to a market. An execution of such MVP has to be technologically feasible and economically viable for founders.

Create Your Own MVP Spec This tool is more interactive than the previous ones so it's only on my site. Create your own MVP spec and complete the quiz.


150 Second Pitch Tool

A short pitch in a group setting rarely results in an investment on the spot. Therefore, the purpose of a pitch is to gauge investor interest and secure follow-up meetings. This 150 Second Pitch Tool helps you, the founder, plan your pitch.

Our guided template introduces constraints to avoid common mistakes such as lengthy language, illegible imagery, complicated infographics, and meaningless charts. The slides you create with our tool present your statements in a legible font, size, and with appropriate contrast so you can focus on practicing your pitch, rather than pushing pixels.

A pitch is sometimes referred to as an elevator pitch, because it should be easy to understand in a short period of time and without any supporting assets. If all founders were great speakers, slides would not be necessary. During your short pitch, think of your slides as a scenography for what you’re saying.

A typical short pitch summarizes what your company does, how it does it, the size of your market, who your customers are, your team, your progress, and your growth. However, a successful short pitch elevates the three most powerful facts about your company above the expected information. These powerful facts are sometimes referred to as the pitch vertebrae.

They are powerful when investors remember them. These facts get you meetings and investment.

I. List the five most powerful facts about your company.

II. With your mind set on those facts, lay out your pitch. There are nine sections in our short pitch template that correspond with nine facts about your company that investors expect to see. Each section consists of explanation of its purpose and forms for filling in your narration and the copy for the slide in support of your spoken words. The order represents the most common short pitch flow. But we specifically designed this tool to create standalone slides. Change this order, or even omit some slides, to follow the arc of your story. For example, some founders open with an impressive revenue number, statement of profitability, or a unique insight before presenting the expected details.

1. What does your company do? State concisely what your company does and for whom. Be as specific as possible. The more specific you are in this statement, the less time you need to spend on explaining the problem you are solving. Playing with our [Messaging Tool][2] will help you tailor these statements.

2. How does your company do it? Explain how your company delivers what it promises. Describe the process as you would in a “how it works” section on a typical landing page.

3. Who are your customers? Mitigate the fear many investors will have about you building a product based on your assumptions of a need, rather than a well understood and tested need. Sharing your story, or someone's story close to you, about a need that inspired your business is a meaningful way to contextualize your product.

4. What is your unique insight? Share a unique insight that either you’ve discovered during interactions with your users or you know because you’re an expert on the subject matter.

5. How big is your market? State how big your market is. There are two methods for estimating market size - top down and bottom up. The bottom up approach is more credible, therefore we suggest using that. First, figure out who buys products similar to yours. These people are your potential customers. If your product is novel, look for current solutions to your problem and determine who buys those. Then figure out how much your potential customers would be willing to pay for your product, i.e. the unit price. Last, multiply the number of potential customers by the unit price to estimate your total addressable market.

6. How much progress have you made? Help investors understand how effective your team is. Describe when you started, what you have built in that time, and if you have customers or LOIs (Letters of Intent).

7. How fast are you growing? Share an impressive growth number if you have one. If you share something it must be true and impressive. You can show revenue, a statement of profitability, a significant number of customers or users, or any other number that communicates a healthy upward trend.

8. What’s impressive about your team? Convince investors that you are the perfect team to deliver on your mission. Focus on showcasing only the most relevant experience. For example, if you are entering a highly regulated market or building a sophisticated technological product, investors will look for founders with specific expertise and a proven track record.

9. Summarize your powerful facts This is the grand finale. Plant in the heads of the investors the three most powerful facts about your company. These can be repeated statements from previous sections or specific to this slide.

You can find an interactive version of this tool on my site.