4 telltale signs you should revisit your digital product design

Chantelle Little May 27, 2021 8 min read Design
Blog 10 product 01 2

We often talk to brands who, in an effort to get their product to market, have favoured the feature-set over the user experience. Many startups tend to invest significant portions of their capital into engineering and build robust products with powerful capabilities. But these products often aren’t well designed and as a result, aren’t very usable.

We get it. A minimum viable product (MVP) is a minimum viable product. It’s not intended to be perfect, and overinvesting in it can be dangerous. But when product design is an afterthought, tech companies often struggle with customer acquisition and retention.

After all – if your product doesn’t solve a real problem and isn’t easy to use, how can you expect people to use it day in and day out?

A story we can all relate to…

Last year Tiller was on the hunt for a new project management tool. We had been using Asana, but it lacked some key scheduling features that we needed to keep our sales and production teams in sync.

We tried at least 20 different tools: Monday.com, Flow, Wrike, Basecamp, and many others you’ve probably never heard of. We signed up for free trials left and right.

And you know what?

We eliminated many of them within the first 10 minutes.


Because the user experiences weren’t up to snuff. In some cases, the company’s marketing website explained the tool with cool illustrations and clever copy and claimed it would be easy to use. But when we actually got into the app we realized it was pretty clunky. In some cases, even basic functions weren’t intuitive. Most of the issues we encountered tied back to poor product design.

And if we were going to uproot our entire team from the comfort and familiarity of Asana, you better believe we expected the tool to solve our scheduling challenges and be relatively easy to use.

You’ve probably experienced this same thing before as you’ve researched and reviewed products. It’s a pain we can all relate to. So many options. So few good options.

Graphic showing a good product design experience and a bad product design experience
Nobody likes hanging out in a poorly designed product.

A poor product experience is a poor brand experience.

You might have the coolest brand identity on the market, the most intriguing brand story, and the highest website conversion rate of all your competitors. But if a customer has a poor user experience on your web or mobile app (meaning they don’t know how to use it or they don’t enjoy using it), you’re in trouble.

With the exception of very loyal customers (or dedicated early adopters who believe in the mission of your brand), the majority of users will move on to a competitor who delivers a better experience.

Users don’t differentiate between your brand and your products and services. And if you don’t exceed (or at least meet) their expectations on user experience, customer acquisition and retention will suffer.

How do you know if your digital product design isn’t delivering a great experience? Here are four signs.

4 sure-fire signs your digital product design needs more attention.

1. Too many users drop off when the free trial ends.

Free trials serve one purpose, and one purpose only: to introduce a prospective customer to your product and demonstrate how it will solve a very real problem that they have.

Think of it like a first date. There’s no real commitment. It simply facilitates the first impression and helps you decide if you want to move forward or run for the hills.

Free trials come in two forms:

  1. Opt-in – you can sign up without providing any payment information, and when the trial ends, your account expires.
  2. Opt-out – you must provide payment information to begin the free trial, and you will be automatically charged a subscription fee unless you opt-out before the end of the trial.

Klipfolio has identified ideal free trial conversion rates for opt-in and opt-out:

  • Opt-in – 25% of your free trial users convert to paid accounts
  • Opt-out – 60% of free trial users convert to paid accounts

To calculate your trial conversion rate, simply divide the number of trial-to-paid users by the number of trial users. If the number is drastically lower than the benchmarks above, you should figure out why.

2. Users flock to freemium, but nobody wants to pay.

Customers love freemium (a basic pricing tier available at no charge), and it certainly plays a role in increasing brand awareness and building a customer base. But if ad revenue isn’t your bread and butter and users aren’t upgrading to a paid account, you might have a problem with your business, product, or pricing strategy.

It could be that your product’s feature set isn’t quite right. Maybe you’ve offered too many high-value features within freemium and have inadvertently given customers everything they want without asking for anything in return (very noble of you, but not ideal).

But what’s more commonly the problem is that your product hasn’t delivered a user experience people are willing to pay for. Research tells us that people are willing to spend 140% more after a positive experience than they are after a negative experience. That’s good news!

If your product truly solves a key problem or pain point (and does so in an intuitive and engaging way), people will pay. But if your freemium offering delivers an underwhelming user experience and doesn’t leave users wanting more, there’s no reason to upgrade.

3. You have paying customers who aren’t regular users.

If paying customers aren’t regularly using your product, they won’t keep paying for long. Maybe they don’t know how to use all of your features to their full potential, or you aren’t quite solving the problem in a way that would make users utterly and completely dependent on your product.

If you aren’t sure how many users are engaging, how they’re engaging, and how often, it’s easy to find out.

  • Fullstory analyzes user behaviour and proactively surfaces top opportunities for optimization, allowing you to measure the impact of changes you make within the product.
  • Kissmetrics delivers advanced SaaS product analytics (e.g. user-specific data, drop-off points for various user flows, etc.).
  • HotJar uses heat mapping to display user movement and demonstrate how people interact with your website or digital product design.

If the data shows limited engagement from your users, it’s time to revisit your product design and make some changes.

4. Users are confused – and they’re telling you that.

Gathering user feedback is the number one way to assess the effectiveness of your digital product design. Here are a few ways to gather feedback:

  • Usability testing – observe user tests to see how they engage with your digital product in real-time to identify and address snags in the user journey. These users can be unbiased members of your team, friends and family, or volunteers within a controlled study.
  • User surveys – ask your users about their experience with your product. Is it intuitive? What do they like and dislike? What features do they want to see?
  • Review help center requests – your customer support team often has the clearest view of user questions or frustrations. Survey your team for patterns they’ve noticed, or review chat transcripts to see for yourself. Look for patterns in questions like “where do I find this feature” or “how do I accomplish this”.

If users are confused about how to use your product, a thoughtfully crafted onboarding experience and product tour may be part of the solution. For onboarding, consider using a tool like Appcues. Appcues delivers tips and prompts to new users to help improve onboarding and increase product adoption. You can also use it to measure in-app behaviours to pinpoint gaps in your onboarding process or identify opportunities to improve the user experience.

All that said, don’t wait for your users to offer feedback. It might be too late. Leverage available tools (like those mentioned above) to gather data and engage in proactive testing.

So people don’t love your product – now what?

The first step is always realizing there’s a problem, right? If one or more of the signs above are ringing true, it might be time for you to look at your mobile app or web app design with fresh eyes. Specifically, through the eyes of your customers. But how?

We recommend using design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a thought process that can be leveraged to identify and problem-solve issues in product design (or any problem for that matter). It’s not complicated or technical. Everyone on your team can use it, not just UX designers.

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

    -Tim Brown, Chair of IDEO

At its core, design thinking frames design in the context of how it helps the end-user. Let’s take a look at the process.

1. Empathize

The first (and most important) stage of design thinking is empathy. In order to deliver a first-class solution, you first have to understand who you’re creating that solution for. As technology has progressed and artificial intelligence has become commonplace, some seem to have forgotten that digital solutions are (for the most part) created for real, thinking and feeling people.

The people we seek to help have real needs, problems, frustrations, and pain points that require innovative digital solutions.

As you consider your digital product design, consider your end-user. Who are they? What are their problems? What keeps them up at night? Don’t make assumptions. Really dig in and make sure you understand.

Only when you understand who you’re creating for can you determine what and how you should create.

2. Define

After empathizing with your user and their needs, define their core problems. The problems must be specific to your target audience and their unique needs and pain points.

For example, if you’re on a mission to build a real estate app, your user problems might be defined as:

  • Homebuyers need an easy way to locate available properties that suit their lifestyle (e.g. desired commute time).
  • Homebuyers want to understand not only the cost of purchasing the property but also the cost of living in the property (e.g. property taxes, utilities, etc.).

Defining these problems positions your team to craft a solution that meets the true needs of the user. Not only the practical need (in this example, a real estate app) but needs related to user experiences, like intuitive navigation, clear messaging, and more.

3. Ideate

This is where you and your team brainstorm viable solutions to the problems you’ve defined. The first solution isn’t always the best solution, and very rarely do great solutions come from one person. It’s best to gather your team (including UI/UX designers, developers, and any other creative or strategic thinkers), and brainstorm as many potential solutions as you can.

Ideation should be done with your users’ specific needs and requirements in mind. First, get clear on the impact you want your product to have. Then figure out the best path to achieving it.

Get all your ideas on the table, then look at them critically. You may have a long list of features, but some should be further down your product road map, and some may not actually add value and shouldn’t be built at all. In fact, it’s wise not to overbuild features. Identify what’s most important first. Once you’ve given users a great experience with your product, they’ll tell you what they want to see added.

4. Prototype

Now it’s time to bring the best solutions to life (well, partially to life) in a prototype. Prototyping allows your team to explore how different solutions can actually solve the problems identified in the Define stage.

Because prototyping is relatively low-effort and low cost, it’s ideal to prototype multiple solutions to each problem. Your team can then test and rate each concept.

The most important thing to remember in the prototype stage is to put yourself in the shoes of the end-user. Can they onboard quickly and easily? Is your solution easy to navigate? Will first-time users understand what each icon means?

As you review each prototype, document the strengths and weaknesses of each, all in the context of the user experience. This information will help you continue to iterate and craft the ideal solution for your users.

5. Test

Next, test your prototypes. This might be in the form of usability testing with your team, friends and family, early adopters, beta users, etc. Testing your hypotheses is key to ensuring people are using the product as intended and confirming that the experience is intuitive, engaging, and most importantly, solving the users’ actual problems.

Your testing results provide valuable information your product design and development team can use to improve your product.

Graphic showing high-level design thinking

Design thinking is an ongoing process.

Design thinking isn’t a one-and-done process. It’s an ongoing loop of brainstorming, testing new ideas, challenging those ideas, and refining solutions. It’s a tool you should leverage for everything from branding to website design and from MVP through to the rest of your product roadmap

Ultimately, it’s a way of thinking that puts the needs of your users front and center. It helps you deliver a solution that solves a real-life problem and makes your users’ lives easier.

To wrap up: Prioritize digital product design.

It’s challenging to strike the right balance between product development and product design, but there are tremendous benefits when you get it right. Your customers will have a better experience, be more satisfied, and be more likely to spread the word about how great your product is. And your business will be better for it.

Is it time to revisit your product design?

Let's chat

Keep Reading