• 01.31.12

3 Design Essentials For Early Adopters

SCVNGR and LevelUp Chief Ninja Seth Priebatsch shares three design guidelines to help early-adopter tech startups rocket out of the gate.

Good design is like pornography: You know it when you see it. Incredibly subtle Supreme Court justice jokes aside, design really can make or break a company–especially for an “early adopter” technology that hasn’t quite caught on yet. Convincing people to do anything that’s out of their comfort zone (in our case, getting them to pay with their phones using LevelUp) is tough. But one of the benefits of being somewhat early to a market is getting to define what an entirely new experience means for a person. In this instance, design, function, and brand can become one.


For the time being, let’s forget about major design failures like the Papyrus font and Rick Santorum’s sweater-vests. Design plays a huge role in making some of the wildest ideas become reality. For us, design is engineering. Part of an engineering team makes a product work, part of an engineering team makes design work. Both are key parts of the engineering process.

In an era where distractions are imminent… (oh, sorry, XKCD got me. Where was I?), hooking a person immediately means the difference between a product’s success or failure. 

Here are three design essentials for the early adopter tech company. Master them, and you’ll define your brand, create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable using your product, and ultimately win.

Keep it simple.

Everyone talks about simplicity, but there’s a really thin line between too spare and too complicated (and even a point where spare design can become complicated). Have I lost you yet? Ironic that I’m overcomplicating the simplicity section, eh? 

User testing and iteration can obviously solve a lot of these problems, but users can be of limited utility when an app is oversimplified to start. A strategy that’s worked for us is to begin with most of the features you’d imagine an expert user would want, and then assume that you’ll have to edit about two out of three of these features out.


It’s worked really well. Oh, and by the way, we launched without that subtle green tint. But when we made it get brighter as the tip increased, the average tip on the system rose from 19.2% to 20.1%, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in waiters’ pockets. Subtle design, big impact.

Create a memorable and consistent experience. 

With LevelUp, we’re fusing game dynamics into payments, so we need to be a lot subtler with a game-like design without losing out on the fun of the whole thing. In addition, some of the fun elements of our design needed to be replaced to showcase our intense focus on security.

LevelUp is defining industry standards for mobile payment security, but we don’t expect users to read our lengthy and technical dissertations on the topic. It’s important, but boring to many users. So we searched for a way to combine simplicity, security, and a little bit of fun.

It’s a really fun and somewhat magical effect but also acts as a secure chromatic confirmation of the transaction for the user. Combining key elements of your brand into the product design is tricky, but worth it. For us, the color-changing terminals embody simplicity and security, with a hint of fun.

Help users “get it” right away.


For many companies, usability and simplicity are one and the same thing. But for early adopter brands, it’s especially critical to have an out-of-the-box-experience (OOTBE for people who love unhelpful acronyms) that’s instructive without being obtrusive.

Two of my favorite examples of user onboarding are the Pulse news app and the Orchestra to-do app. Both apps are taking a fairly simple analog concept (reading news and creating to-do lists) and bringing them to the mobile world. In the process, it’s important to make sure users are fully connected to the experience and know how to get going right way. 

One final important thing to note: The onboarding experience should be consistent for both the first-time user downloading your app, and the prospective user who’s visiting your website to figure out how everything works. If people need to hunt around too much for instructions on how to use your app, chances are they won’t be using it.

So there you have it. An engineer’s take on functional design elements for early adopters. What else do you think is important for people using your app for the first time? Tell us about it in the comments. 

More from Seth Priebatsch:



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[Top Image: Flickr user Smithsonian’s National Zoo]

About the author

Seth Priebatsch was born in Boston, MA at the age of 7. At the age of 12, he founded his first web start-up.