Jason Putorti has made the boring beautiful and helped expand the role of software in the lives of ordinary people. As one of the founding members of the Mint team and as co-founder of recently-acquired Votizen, he’s worked on creating interfaces that inspire trust in users from the moment they lay eyes on them. Putorti also occupied the first-ever designer in residence role at any venture firm with Bessemer Ventures. He’s currently Creative Director at Causes.
Creating trustworthy design prevents new users from clicking on the dreaded ‘back’ button on their browsers, or slamming on the ‘Home’ button on their smartphones. It’s becoming common knowledge that design is just as important as engineering in creating products that people become loyal to. Software companies know why design is important. The difficulty is in the execution.
When you ask someone for their checking account and bank routing numbers, unless you’re either the Prince of Nigeria or a Brazilian supermodel in need of a ‘short-term loan,’ most people will ignore you.
Most venture capitalists rejected Mint when the founders were seeking funding for this reason. Few ever expected that ordinary users would be willing to give up their bank credentials to a third party on the web, no matter how useful the service was at providing elegant solutions for ordinary personal finance. Personal finance software had traditionally come in boxes, sold by trusted corporations like Intuit and Microsoft, and not through full-featured web apps.
How did Mint’s design team prove that they had routed around this problem? Putorti explains, “A big part of it was just does it look credible. Does it feel credible? A lot of it’s visual. A lot of it’s being a good copywriter, writing friendly copy, making people feel comfortable as they go through the process... It’s our job really to figure out what makes it trustworthy.”
Simplicity and responsiveness were some of the organizing principles behind the design. Whereas most online web services at the time, like Flickr, used a flat design aesthetic, Mint used more 3D designs, particularly to separate out important sections. This makes it tougher for users to make erroneous clicks.
The emotional experience of the design is crucial for both the designer and the user. Mint’s designers spent countless hours airbrushing design elements and choosing the right color scheme to get the feel of the web app precisely right. The iconography for logins emphasized the secure nature of the page, helping to convince users who might otherwise be skeptical of giving away their bank information for free to feel comfortable.
Designers tend to be sensitive to criticism. And many managers, particularly those who aren’t designers themselves, don’t give design feedback in an effective way. In Putorti’s experience, just telling a designer that their work isn’t good or that they need to scrap a design and start over isn’t a productive way to go about it. That holds even if the design does genuinely suck and needs to be redone. Even if a design is terrible, managers need to be specific about why:
Figure out what’s important. Figure out what to strip away. I try to keep feedback rational. Remind people about what the goals of the interface are.
Putorti credits Justin Maxwell, another designer at Mint during the founding days, for teaching him about some of the processes used at Apple and other design-centric companies. Putorti was originally self-taught, and used to start doing heavyweight design work in Photoshop straight from reviewing product specifications. Maxwell taught him to work from sketches before transitioning to mock-ups.
Design is more than making buttons pretty. It’s about helping users get things done in the most effortless way possible. If the design is muddled, mis-orders priorities, over-emphasizes the trivial at the expense of the important, or is dysfunctional, then the design isn’t working, even if it makes for an attractive picture. The form must support the function for the product to attract devotion.
Putorti argues that the concept of the ‘minimum viable product’ has been misapplied by many startups, who take it as an excuse to release poor quality software. Many teams take the term to mean “minimal effort product” rather than paying attention to the word “viable”:
“It’s becoming more and more important in a crowded market place to build that emotional connection. You can’t just sort of throw something together in a month, launch it, and expect that it’s going to work unless the core competency at your company is something truly technically remarkable.”
For example, with Mint or Votizen, a “minimal product” might have exposed banking information or voting records respectively. To be viable, the products had to elicit trust and continue to respect the customers. Also, expecting customers to invest themselves emotionally into your product ifyou aren’t willing to do that is a basic breakdown in understanding the reciprocal nature of the relationship that a business has with its customers.
Releasing poor quality products under the guise of the ‘MVP’ also fails to produce worthwhile data on customer behavior. All you get from a poor quality release is data on how customers react to being treated poorly. Those results are well-known: the customers leave for better products eventually. The key is to define what “viable” really means to your company.
Personal finance is typically time-consuming. From 2007 until 2009, when Intuit acquired Mint, the majority of the personal finance software in the market was both expensive and feature-rich.
“A lot of people weren’t using personal finance software because it was too complicated. It was a lot of work. There’s a need for people to know how much money they have. We need to know how we’re spending it. We need to know if we’re keeping things under control. We set out to build something that was completely auto-play. ‘Turn it on and forget about it’ was the guiding principle there.”
The key insight the Mint product brought to the market was their real-time data importer. Rather than laboriously inputting information from different accounts, the software syncs with other bank accounts to pull them into a central place that made it easy to review them. Instead of collecting receipts or reviewing credit card statements to check if you’re staying within a budget, the software does that automatically. While challenging to build, that product and design decision was transformative.
This is a core example of why design is more about creating tools that deliver massive value to the user versus just creating pretty pictures. It has to do with the gap between the work that users need to put in relative to the useful output that they get out of it. A jackhammer is a better-designed tool for breaking up asphalt than a ball-peen hammer for the same reason. Well-designed software operates on similar principles. Tools that require minimal effort to operate and that generate maximum output are designed well.
What users say they want is often a dangerous temptation for startup teams. Few managers have ever been fired for listening to customers too much. But maybe they should. “Simplicity was paramount. We had customers asking for more features that would make the product more complicated. That was where we took it all in and then ultimately ignored it because we placed a premium on keeping it simple for the majority of people.
When the competition produces feature-rich products that cater to enthusiasts while alienating a larger market (that still has important work to do), it’s a solid strategy to go after the more casual users who need lighter tools to accomplish their goals. Adding new features always means new trade-offs in other areas. What some groups of vocal customers say they want isn’t always congruent with what they want, and can easily alienate others.