Three Design Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them: A Case Study [Part 2]

Posted in Blog
Aug 22, 2018

Invest Ottawa sees thousands of entrepreneurs every year, all with an endless amount of ideas. Yet not all ideas are made equal and most will never be commercialized. So how can an entrepreneur increase the chances of turning a business idea into a business reality?

Ron Gagnier

Ron Gagnier, Invest Ottawa Acceleration Programs Specialist

Invest Ottawa advisor, Ron Gagnier, has been helping get projects off the ground for decades, turning innovation into commercialization. In this three-part series, Ron walks through the dos and don’ts of product development and chats with an Invest Ottawa supported company which were able to avoid many missteps.  This is part two of a three-part series. 


Last week we explored the first of three common pitfalls a start-up typically makes. The first, being Absence of Research, is one that many fall prey to. If you haven’t already, be sure to read part one of this series before moving on to part two and three.  

This week we unpack the final two pitfalls, Absence of Design and Absence of Feedback and Evaluation. Let’s jump right in! 

Pitfall 2

Absence of Design.

Design is an essential part of any product engineering effort. You wouldn’t build a house without a design so why should software be any different?  I often see companies start developing without any design or even a clear understanding of the workflow for their product.  This is recipe for disaster especially when coupled with a lack of research.  So why don’t companies do the necessary design work to ensure success?  Again, common fallacies hold: 

  • Time fallacy – design will take too long 
  • Engineering fallacy – we know what we want to build 
  • Process fallacy – isn’t that what AGILE is for, gaining feedback early? 

I often look to other industries to illustrate how effective design is done.  A great example I like to use is from the film industry. When shooting “The Matrix” movies, each and every scene was hand illustrated numerous times in order to ensure the directors were happy with the overall “flow” before any actors and cameras were involved.  Many scenes were so expensive to shoot they could only afford doing the sequence once.  Getting it “right” by designing each scene allowed tough decisions to be made early and at minimal cost. The software industry can learn an awful lot from other industries like film.   

When referencing “design”, I am generalizing a number of activities to this category, including: business strategy, product strategy, high-level design, interaction design, and visual design.  Each of these activities help to define the overall direction and details for a product.  

Design is a behaviour, not a department

“To design” means answering tough questions about what a product will do and how it will work.  Effective design is the lead-up to answering tough questions about how it will be built (engineering).  The design portion of the project (often called the fuzzy front-end) requires skills in analysis, ideation, sketching, prototyping & again research and evaluation.    

When done well, design will provide: 

  • A prioritized list of key customer goals the product must satisfy 
  • Design concepts of how goals will be achieved (pre-evaluation) (wireframes, workflows, prototypes) 
  • A detailed specification of how each goal will be achieved (post-evaluation) (workflow, interaction, layout, visual design, iconography).  This often takes the form of a product specification 

Design will help to clarify what needs to be built and enable early evaluation so that ideas can be evaluated early. 

Pitfall 3

Absence of Feedback and Evaluation.

Too often, companies jump into development immediately which short-circuits a critical step of gaining design feedback. Companies wait until their product launches before engaging with customers for feedback about the product. Waiting until the product is fully released wastes valuable time, wastes marketing dollars rolling out a potentially unvetted product, but worse risks reputation and brand, especially if you have fallen prey to the other pitfalls. So why do companies wait?  Common fallacies include: 

  • Don’t want to show an unfinished product to a customer 
  • Don’t want to steal the thunder of the official product release 
  • Don’t think customers can comment on something that is unfinished 

When done well feedback of a concept will provide: 

  • A focal point for discussion to deeper understanding of a user’s workflow 
  • An opportunity to get customer opinions between A & B design options 
  • An opportunity to ask probing questions regarding the expected value the concept will enable 

Feedback will drive iteration and additional details into the design to remove any risks that the product won’t effectively satisfy user needs. 

Check back with me for part 3 of this series to hear wisdom from Gwen Malbec the CEO of FreightPath regarding how they have avoided the common pitfalls identified here.

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