UX/UI the obstacle in finding product-market fit

Since we started appssemble in 2016 I’ve worked with a lot of founders on their digital products. During this period I noticed that a lot of founders fail to find the product-market fit and scale their products. This is usually because of running out of money and they haven’t iterated their product enough to find the market fit.

There are a lot of mistakes that founders make. Two of the most prominent ones are building something that customers don’t need and focusing too much on the way the product looks like. Those two are linked as if you’re a founder you don’t know your customer and its needs you’re going to build something based on assumptions. Instead of building a business, they are building an art project.

The best way I found to explain this concept is by using Dan Olsen’s Hierarchy of Web User Needs as this can be applied to any user-facing software product. Below, you’ll find a modified version, based on Olsen’s adaptation of the Maslow pyramid of needs.

Like in Maslow’s pyramid of human needs if the base of the pyramid is not fulfilled is irrelevant to focus on the top layers. If you’re hungry and you don’t have where to leave you won’t bother with self-fulfillment. This is also true for digital products, besides the cornerstone, the technical ones — availability, accessibility, and stability, the most vital aspect for the user is the right feature set. While the cherry on top is the UX/UI is redundant to think about it before having the product-market fit.

Why focusing on UX/UI might kill your startup?

  1. You’ll develop more features than needed — costly and decreases the extensibility of the product
  2. Eye-candy designs — pricy custom components, users will have to learn new behaviors
  3. Won’t help the process of finding the product-market fit — increased time to market

More, unnecessary features 

The vast majority of first-time founders build digital products on a foundation of personal observations and assumptions. Going into the design phase, a lot of questions are being raised (about user paths, functionalities, screen estate, etc.), this leads to adding a lot of nice to have features to the product, because “it looks good”, “it’s better for the user experience”, or frequently because “TikTok/Instagram/Facebook/{Famous app} does it, we should too”.

This affects the MVP in numerous ways, but the most important one is that more features are going to be developed. From a technical point of view, the added complexity will result in lower extensibility and flexibility of the MVP — which are the most important elements in finding the product market fit. Secondly, it will make the founder focus on the wrong things when talking to the customer, instead of asking questions about the core feature, they would spend a lot of time discussing secondary, nice to have additions.

Custom components and behaviors

When building a product, its goal is to make life easier for its users. First-time founders come with a lot of ideas on how to make an eye-candy design and complex user interactions. They generally don’t want to use interactions that are well known and used through popular apps, as they will make their new product “too similar” to other products which don’t even operate in the same space as theirs. This leads to spending a lot of money on complex UI components and implementing a product that will probably need a tutorial or walk-through on how to use it.

The cost of developing custom UI components and reinventing the wheel can take up to 50% of the total cost of a software project based on my experience. Additionally, modifying those will also cost more, so future iterations will also suffer because of this.

Moreover, new, complex user interactions will require more time for first-time users to understand the product and actually be successful in completing its task with it.

Product-market fit

Implementing a complex, custom-made UX/UI design won’t make the founder’s job of finding the product-market fit easier either. Besides spending time on whistles and bells, a custom, complex UI design will also affect the time-to-market. It is much cheaper and faster to implement, launch and iterate a product that focuses only on the core feature and doesn’t have any advanced UI/UX designs. 

So instead of spending months and a lot of money on implementing something that doesn’t solve a real problem but looks good, it’s more advisable to launch as soon as possible, with a limited feature set and designs, and rework that till the market fit is found at the same cost.

But users won’t use my product if it’s ugly!

The user experience is one of the most important parts of a software product, however, there is a mismatch between what customers and founders view to consider a good user experience. In my experience, a good amount of founders focus too much on the user interface aspects of the product while ignoring the customer’s needs.

Let’s take an example, let’s say every day when you go to work, you would have to validate a parking ticket on a vending machine that is far away from the place you usually park. Instead of walking for 10 mins to validate wouldn’t you rather use a mobile app that’s boring from a UI perspective but gets the job done?

The same argument can be made for apps that live completely in the digital space, people use your product for how it helps them solve a specific need, only secondly for the way it looks. Minecraft, for instance, doesn’t have any advanced graphics but, tens of millions of people play it.

The UX/UI of a digital product is important for its success, but, I found out that in the vast majority of cases, products that are not defined and haven’t found the product market fit can be an obstacle in building a great product.

So what should you do?

If you’re a founder with a huge budget, going out and building a good-looking product would definitely help you gain more users, yet, if you don’t have a lot of resources, your first customers (the early adopters) don’t care about the UI, they care more about solving a specific problem. 

Everyone who builds a new product should focus on the core functionality and on solving a real problem, not trying to convince the users to use a sub-par product because of its UI. There are cases where a better user experience is the actual product, for those situations you should invest into making the user experience as nice as possible for the user, but usually, this is also reflected in the future set, rather than on how it looks. 

Let’s take an example, you are using 2 food delivery apps that both have the same restaurants and dishes available, would you use the one that accepts digital payments in favor of the other one that might have a better UI? I would, I don’t care how it looks like as long as it gets the job done and I don’t have to worry about not having enough cash.

I’ll even go further and say that if you manage to build a product that is not eye candy but has to pay users you’ve definitely found the product-market fit and you can build a business around it because you found something people want regardless of how it looks like. After all, this is the whole point of building a startup.