Article

Is Design Valuable?

2018 My Year as a Maker

Nothing is as daunting as questioning your life’s work, but I’ve been ranting to all who will listen that businesses are severely undervaluing design.

Instead of continuing the relentless designsplaining, this year I wanted to clarify my stance by creating live case studies of applying design to business outcomes and putting my money where my mouth is.

Becoming a Maker

Making stuff online is hard. From acquiring a memorable domain to designing the interface and building the code to deploying in production and eventually making cash money 💰💰💰, there are so many steps to putting something on the web.

There was no way I could do this year long experiment alone.

Surrounding myself with an amazing group of talented folks, I was lucky enough to have continual motivation and feedback throughout the year. From my best friend Dixon (with a massive digital publishing business of his own) to a group we call the Collective™ that updates each other Every. Single. Friday. I had enough design, code, and marketing resources to get through the hard parts of making web products.

Creating the Test

In order to control for design as the primary reason for success, I stuck to redesigning generic web tools with existing audiences: yet another gradient tool, a gallery of desktop backgrounds, and a meta tag generator. Design constraints were limited to product simplification, friendly defaults (color palettes, etc), visual design, and animation.

To prove business value, I targeted valuable keywords that have a high cost per click (meaning they require a high Adsense budget to drive traffic).

With my super boring product ideas, I was off and running with ambitions to launch several monetized sites this year.

1. CSS Gradient

The first project felt like it had to be good to really build momentum for the rest of the year. Through an innocent tweet the idea was born…why isn't there a nice gradient tool online?

Little did I know I had gotten into a mess of product work with edge cases eating at every part of the app. Starting in December it took me 3 months (nights and weekends) just to write the JavaScript let alone design the app!

So what were the results? Targeting the keyword "css gradient", the project is ranked #2 in Google (with about 30k monthly uniques) but with only a 1/4 of the traffic of the top ranked site. From obscurity to top 2 is a solid achievement but doesn’t fully sell the value of design.

I needed a simpler product!

2. Cool Backgrounds

So this project was a complete distraction and not part of the original plan, but the traffic made it so enticing. I discovered during the process of building css gradient that apparently 200k people search for “cool backgrounds” every month 🤔.

This turned out to be a very straightforward product (I mean I could have literally just made a gallery of images that were cool). But I believed that creating a unique product design experience would expedite the rate of sharing which would drive more backlinks and a higher rank.

Holy hell 😈! From a quiet first product to an explosive second launch, Cool Backgrounds defied all expecations.

The bright, happy colors and playful animations helped it not only rank #1 but also quickly become a significant resource in tech. Admittedly it’s weird being at dinner parties in SF and random people have used Cool Backgrounds (and nothing else I’ve built) 🤦‍♂️.

Needless to say design had proven its value here. But could I continue the trend?

3. Gradient Backgrounds and 4. Service List

Can you imagine even less product work?? Lists are all the rage on Product Hunt and Twitter, so it seemed like a perfect test bed for my design hypothesis.

Gradient Backgrounds was built over two weekends and is at its core just an 8-item list of gradient palette websites. Add a bit of CSS and cool animated transitions and it was the top product of the day and ranked #2 in Google!

Service List rides the momentum of unlimited services and was shipped in a single weekend. The wild gradient and simple layout also landed it at the top of Product Hunt and Google (since then it's been redesigned to be considerably more useful).

While it's still early (Google uses site age in it's ranking algo), Service List is currently ranked around #2-5 for "unlimited graphic design" a low volume but high buying intent keyword. While the previous projects make money with ads, Service List generates revenue through an affiliate model, passing visitors to each of the services and getting a small commission if the visitor becomes a paying customer.

It seemed like I had figured it out…design is the key to business and marketing success.

5. Meta Tags

This was the one. Months and months of work and design iterations.

Launch: top of Product Hunt, 1k twitter favs, shared all over the design community…

But it landed with a thud…the market is miniscule.

I ignored the experiment's parameters and the keyword research thinking I could expand an emerging market. But design ultimately can’t overcome a product that only a few people need, and that’s still the most important metric.

While I’m still proud of the design effort, it stings to be corrected on the fundamentals of product. Lesson learned, build things people want.

Takeaway

So is design valuable?

Even with the final project having less success, I’m confident that if your product is useful, design accelerates growth like no other channel.

Your product is easier to onboard, enjoyable to use day to day, and creates a general feeling of happiness—causing users to naturally share your product! Compared to most software, design is such a significant differentiator that a well designed product is capable of dominating any industry (see Apple, Tesla, Stripe, Coinbase, Gusto, etc).

The goal for this year was to prove business value based on design and with passive income and a network of highly ranked websites, I’m concluding the experiment a success. Happy to debate and chat with anyone who’s curious about the results @moeamaya.

What’s next

With an emboldened belief in the value of design at the scale of smaller web tools, it’s time for a bigger challenge.

Next year’s focus will be on growing our Saas product Monograph a back office tool for architecture firms. In the second half of 2018 we hit Jason Lemkin's magical 10 unaffiliated customers metric and since then we're growing 20% month over month.

Ultimately we’re taking on billion dollar ERP companies with a simple thesis that better design is in fact better business.

Cheers 🥂

Inquiry

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