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? 

Allow me to show, not tell. The first iteration of the proximity-based Color app was radically simple, to the point where most first-time users got lost and weren’t sure what any of the icons at the bottom of the screen meant. This is a case of simplicity leading to complexity.

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.

For example, LevelUp worked on making the tip-calculating experience as streamlined and simple as possible, assuming people using this function would be focused on the beautiful date across from them at Sel De La Terre, not on our app. It had to be lightning fast and ultra-intuitive to make both the consumer and the merchant want to continue using it. We landed on a side-toggling tip selector and a subtle green border that gets brighter as the tip goes up. HEY, big spender!

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. 

At our roots, our company is setting out to build the “game layer on top of the world.” With SCVNGR, the app experience for the user was purely a game, so our design choices–from the “SCVNGR bot” to the badges–were cartoon-like, humorous, and fun.

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.

To achieve this, we built a version of the LevelUp Terminals with a 6 LED panel baked in. When the user pays, the dock authenticates the user, authenticates the merchant, and glows a color as a visual confirmation that all is secure and the transaction is legitimate on both ends.


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. 

Let’s start with Pulse. One of the most appealing things about Pulse’s first-time user experience is the fact that the user can get started quickly with instructions on everything you need to know to use the app. Only after you’ve had a chance to play with the app are you even prompted to register for a user account, and the benefits of choosing to register are clearly explained. 


Orchestra has an equally instructive onboarding process, but follows the step-by-step registration and tutorial process within the app with an email that gives the user all of the information they need to know to get started. This is especially important, since the app connects tasks the user performs on his or her computer to the mobile phone. Since it’s a cross-platform experience, it makes sense to follow the in-app tutorial with email help.

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. 

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

About the author

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