By Laura Klein (Principal, Users Know)
I asked on Twitter whether anybody would buy a UX book called Fucking Ship It Already. Apparently some of you are interested. So, in the interest of following my own advice, I’m shipping the book iteratively in the form of this blog. You’re welcome.

I’ve talked in the past about lots of ways to do user research faster. Now, let’s talk about a way to make your design process faster. This is not a new idea, but it’s worth reiterating for those of you who are trying to make decisions like this on a day to day basis.

Today’s chapter will cover the fastest and most useful sort of visual design for your lean startup.

There is some tension out there in lean startup land. Many people favor eschewing visual design polish all together, since it’s more important to figure out if a product is useful and usable before spending time “making it pretty.” Other people argue that a good user experience includes things like trust and delight, which can be enhanced by good visual design.

I’ve seen this work both ways. I was speaking with an entrepreneur the other day who told me a relevant story. Apparently, she had spent time on visual polish for a login screen. There were a few things that took awhile to implement, but they made the screen look much better. Unfortunately, the next week she had to rip it all out to change the feature, and all that time pushing pixels was wasted.

On the other hand, I’ve had dozens of people talk about Path’s gorgeous and delightful interface recently. Would they have gotten that kind of buzz without spending time on the visual details? Most likely not.

So, what does this mean for you? Should you spend time on pixel perfect screens and delightful visual design? No. And yes.

Here’s what you should do: spend a little time developing clean, flexible, easy to implement visual design standards.

What That Means

It’s probably not worth your time to fret and sweat over every single pixel on every single new page, mostly because you should always plan on iterating. When you’re a startup, any new feature may be killed or transformed in a week’s time.

If you spend days getting everything lined up beautifully on a product detail page, that could all be blown to hell as soon as you add something like Related Products or Comments.

Many people think that the right answer is to have a grand vision of everything that will eventually go on the page, but things just change far too rapidly for this. Imagine that you’ve carefully designed a tabbed interface with just enough room for four tabs. Now imagine that you need to add a fifth tab. I hope you didn’t spend too many hours getting all that spacing exactly right.

What You Should Do Instead

How about spending time on the basics that won’t have to change every time you add a feature?

For example, you could establish standards for things like:

  • An attractive color palette
  • Font sizes and color standards for headers, sub-headers, and body text
  • Column sizes in grid layouts
  • A simple and appealing icon set
  • Standards for things like boxes, gradients, backgrounds, and separators
  • A flexible header and footer design

Why You Should Do This

The great thing about having standards like these is that engineers can often combine them with sketches to implement decent looking screens without having to go through a visual design phase at all.

Also, since these things are reusable and flexible, there’s no wasted effort in creating them. Killing a feature doesn’t make knowing that your H1s should be a certain size and color any less valuable.

The best part is that you save time in a few important ways. First, as I mentioned, you don’t necessarily need to involve a visual designer every time you want to create a new screen. Second, this sort of approach tends to encourage a much simpler, cleaner, more flexible design, since items need to work in various combinations. And lastly, it tends to keep things more consistent across your product, which means that you’re less likely to have to go back later and do a complete redesign after things have gotten hideously out of whack.

It won’t solve all of your visual design woes, but it will make developing new features go faster, and you won’t be quite as sad when they fail miserably and you have to kill them.

This post was originally posted at Users Know.

About the guest blogger: Laura Klein is a Principal at Users Know, helping you get to know your users and create better products. Her goal is to help lean startups and other small companies improve their connection to their users and design better products, working directly with startups as a member of the team, not only to design a great product, but also to help you learn how to involve your users in the design process. Follow her on Twitter at @lauraklein.