User , Startups , Scaleups — 04.05.2023

Design First, Then Build — Avoid Exploratory Engineering

Building SaaS products is like building a house. Let me explain.

When you’re buying a house, you expect everything to work correctly. The roof shouldn’t leak, the floors shouldn’t creak, and the lights should turn on. Functionality is table stakes.

Because you expect functionality when buying a home, those items aren’t even on your checklist — they’re assumed. When you tour a house, you’re not testing whether things work. Instead, you’re focusing on how the house suits your lifestyle by imagining yourself living there. Does the kitchen and dining layout make sense for my family’s dinner routine? Is there enough room for my stuff? Can I imagine lounging comfortably in the living room?

The truth is digital products are no different. When users trial your SaaS product, they assume it will function properly. They’re looking for how the product will address their more nuanced and sometimes unexpressed needs. They’re testing to see how it will solve their problems in a way no one else can. They’re imagining how your product fits into their lives — your users are touring the house. 

Imagine you’re building a house. But instead of hiring an architect and a designer to first plan the blueprints and a construction team to build, the construction team decided what to build, built the house and asked the architect and designer to touch it up at the end. Or worse, the construction team planned, built and designed without collaborating with an architect or a designer. That’s a house I wouldn’t want to live in.

If engineers are the construction team, product managers are the architects.

Exploratory engineering is the process of engineering and developing a product before designing it.

In other words, your construction team builds the house before the architect and the interior designer have advocated for the future resident’s needs. 

Often, exploratory engineering is a result of the high-growth SaaS model. When you have limited funding and need to start selling and scaling a product, it feels intuitive to hire a team of engineers to quickly build the product, get it out into the world and start getting feedback. 

But this model is flawed. It prioritizes building a product over building the right product.

The motivations of engineers and product managers are fundamentally different. An engineer is focused on quickly building what is possible with the resources and systems you already have. While engineers are immensely valuable to building a product, engineers alone cannot create the most valuable product for your users. Engineers are the construction experts, laser focused on efficiently building the product. 

While engineers build the product right, product managers and designers build the right product. 

For your product to be valuable, it needs to solve real problems for real people. Product managers uncover user needs, identify the best way to solve user problems and prioritize the right features and functionalities. Product managers are the architects who advocate for user needs, align solutions to your business goals, and create the blueprints for your product. 

While product managers talk to users and build your roadmap, product designers work closely to execute the vision and ensure the product is intuitive and enjoyable to use. 

Engineers, product managers and designers are all absolutely essential to building a great product, but the order in which they happen and the ways that they work together will determine how valuable, usable and ultimately successful your product is. 

Because engineers aren’t focused on building the best product for your user, exploratory engineering creates a gap between what the product is and what the product should be.

Exploratory engineering:

  • Costs more time and money. Exploratory engineering is an experiment, but not one worth taking. You’re building based on assumptions, so it’s a slippery slope to a Frankenstein product.
  • Neglects your users. Your users are the ones actually using the product. If you build only what you find valuable, there will be gaps. Build what they want, not what you want. 
  • Prioritizes speed over value. Exploratory engineering is like fast food — it’s quick and easy, but there’s not a lot of nutritional value and ultimately, it’s not best for you. Put in the extra time to design first, then build.

To find out whether your product is engineering-led, ask:

  • How is your team identifying and prioritizing features? If your roadmap isn’t driven by user insights gained from feedback or research, then you’re probably building solutions to your problems instead of your user’s needs. 
  • Do you have a PM/UX talent gap on your team? If you haven’t worked with product managers or designers, but you’re building and selling a SaaS product, then you’re building a home without an architect. 
  • Do your engineers determine, prioritize and build features on their own? If they do, they shouldn’t. You need a product manager to bridge user needs with business goals and create a user-centered design approach for bringing the right solution to life.

If you’ve already built something, it’s not too late to renovate. 

Designing before building will cost less, return more and heighten your impact. But even when you design and strategize first, you’ll still have to update, refresh and renovate your product along the way. Product strategists help you build the most valuable product for your users, but user needs change, the market changes and technology advances. So you’ll need to adapt and implement feedback as you grow. 

If you’re ready to add more value with your existing product, we can help you transform what you have into what your users need by aligning with your business goals, timeline and resources along the way. Then, we’ll equip your engineering team for success with the information they need to build successfully.

Ready to design and deliver a more valuable and usable product? Find out how our product strategists and designers can help.