Ending Soon! Save 33% on All Access

Why Lisn Lost: It Got the Design Right, But It Didn't Get the Right Design. Most startups are merely solutions in search of problems. You might think you know what your users want, and you might even get the design right by building something beautiful. Unless you start with the right design, however, your startup is as good as scrap.

By Skot Carruth Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


By all accounts, Lisn built a beautiful app. Unfortunately, by its co-founder's account, it didn't build a bountiful business.

"We were married to the solution rather than the problem," co-founder and designer Abhinav Chhikara told Tech in Asia. "And unfortunately, the solution solved a problem, but it wasn't big enough." After a year of delivering more than 120,000 songs to more than 10,000 users, Lisn closed its doors in August.

To borrow a phrase from design leader Marty Neumeier, Lisn got its design right; it didn't get the right design. The music-sharing startup's epitaph might read, "A compelling product is not enough." Felled by a flawed business design, Lisn is now interred alongside SpoonRocket, Homejoy, NastyGal and many more once-promising peers.

What does it mean to "get the design right"? It means using design thinking to align market, stakeholder and product needs to create a viable business. Startups that do so tend not only to survive, but to also outperform the S&P 500 by an average of 211 percent, according to the Design Management Institute.

Related: Embrace Design Thinking to Create More Relevant Marketing

Design, as Lisn learned, is about so much more than aesthetics. A product's "look" is often the least consequential part of its design. Infinitely more important is whether -- and if so, how -- it profitably addresses a problem for its users. That's the heart of design. How, then, can your startup hold its own in the market? Standout design starts with these four steps:

1. Step into your user's world.

Say you're a kinesiologist. Master's degree in hand, you're ready to tackle heart disease. In fact, you've developed an exercise that helps people get fit in minutes -- without breaking a sweat.

Here's the truth: If you turned your exercise into a product, it would fail. Sure, you might sell a lot via late-night informercials. But would people pick your product over their pricey gym membership? Would you solve the single greatest killer of Americans? No, you wouldn't -- at least not until you started thinking like your user.

The first rule of experience design is this: You are not the user. You may know who your users are, how wealthy they are and where they live. You may even know what's best for them. But neither expertise nor data nor good intentions are enough to build a viable product.

Related: Usability First: Why You Should Pay Attention To User Experience

Design research must be qualitative. You need to experience the world as your user does. Start with a sales safari, a process by tech industry veteran Amy Hoy for observing real users in their natural habitats. Wade through websites, forums and social media in search of your layperson's perspective. Shadow your target users. Go where they go; jot down what they say and do in the problem context. Interview potential users, and really listen. Switching into selling mode will only tint your test and turn off interviewees.

My company's work with ZeeMee, a multichannel app that matches college-bound students with universities, began with user research. Our objective? Empathize with ZeeMee users: counselors, college admissions officers and students alike. We didn't send interns or third-party researchers to do the job, either. Together with the CEO, the VP of product, the VP of engineering and a designer, we recruited and interviewed actual users. At the company's highest levels, ZeeMee listened to its customers, and it continues to do so today.

2. Learn why similar solutions have failed.

ZeeMee wanted to help students share their stories with colleges. So why weren't admissions essays enough? Couldn't they do the same?

In ZeeMee's case, the reason other solutions had failed became obvious rather quickly: Artists, athletes and musicians aren't always great writers. As we came to understand this about our users, we felt the competitive landscape shift beneath us. Suddenly, we saw the problem as our users did: We needed to help everyone -- writer, artist, athlete or otherwise -- tell his story to his college of choice.

Focus on the job to be done for your users. Do they want to alleviate fears of premature death by heart disease? Are they looking for a faster way to recruit? What are they trying to accomplish? Clayton Christensen, author of the "Jobs to be Done" theory of innovation, pointed out that of 20,000 products launched between 2012 and 2016, fewer than one percent thrived within two years. Why? Just 92 companies solved a job to be done.

3. Describe your product hypothesis.

You know what life is like for your user, and you know what problem he wants to solve. But do you know why your solution will succeed where others have failed?

This is your core product hypothesis. It's your line in the sand: bold, hyperfocused and, frankly, somewhat scary. You should believe in it, but it should also be fresh enough that it's not a surefire bet.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of that kinesiologist. Your killer (or, perhaps, life-saving) feature's selling point isn't that it's quick; it's that users can exercise anytime, anywhere. Users may have a gym membership and home exercise equipment, but do they have the added travel, changing and shower time to spare every day?

So how did ZeeMee do it? Its core hypothesis was that high schoolers on social media would be thrilled to tell their stories to colleges not verbally, but visually. Did it matter that those users were already on Facebook and Instagram? No, sharing a selfie wasn't the job to be done; it was getting into college.

4. Test your hypothesis.

How do you test your hypothesis? With an experiment, of course! To be clear, this isn't the same as building your product. Your prototype may evolve into your product, but it's not your product.

Prototyping is all about speed: The faster you create it, the quicker you can learn from it.
Believe it or not, Google Glass was prototyped in a single day. Tom Chi, former head of experience at Google X, used everyday objects such as coat hangers to quickly simulate Glass' augmented reality. Don't worry about how your prototype looks; worry about whether it works like your product will.

Related: Google Glass Enterprise Edition Is Ready for Work

For ZeeMee, we defined a profile-based web application that we could build and launch within weeks. We wanted to solicit feedback from investors, prospective hires, students, high school counselors and universities. We signed up students, made sure they actually used ZeeMee and collected their concerns.

Your prototype should test your riskiest assumption. Depending on what that is, you could use advertisements, paper prototypes or even preorder forms. By building your product's unique and risky parts before the obvious ones, you zero in on your product's differentiator while keeping development costs in check.

Most startups are merely solutions in search of problems. Listen up, lest you end up like Lisn: You might think you know what your users want, and you might even get the design right by building something beautiful. Unless you start with the right design, however, your startup is as good as scrap.

Skot Carruth

CEO and co-founder of Philosophie

Skot Carruth is the CEO and co-founder of Philosophie, a digital innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. It helps large organizations validate and develop their promising ideas through agile design, rapid prototyping and software craftsmanship.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Business Solutions

Help Your Business Excel with a Lifetime of Microsoft Office for $49.97

Invest in productivity and get Microsoft Office for life.

Business News

More People Are Exploring Entrepreneurship Because of This Unexpected Reason

More new business applications were filed in 2023 than in any other year so far.

Starting a Business

How to Find the Right Programmers: A Brief Guideline for Startup Founders

For startup founders under a plethora of challenges like timing, investors and changing market demand, it is extremely hard to hire programmers who can deliver.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Business News

TikTok Reportedly Laid Off a 'Large Percentage' of Employees as the App's Fate in the U.S. Remains Unclear

Laid-off TikTok employees were notified Wednesday night through Thursday morning.