Before you build a product, you need to verify you're designing based on the right data and whether you can successfully market the business. The best way to do that is to run an early user test. Here’s how I did that and what happened.

The first real test of every new product is putting it in front of users, but you don’t need a finished product to do it. I launched a teaser landing page to see what people thought of the concept and test whether I could successfully market the product. Here’s what happened.

First, I set a goal for 500 newsletter signups, which is a reasonable goal for me compared to past launches.

Of course email signups aren’t proof that users are motivated to purchase, but it’s a strong signal of interest. When I designed the teaser page, I made sure there was no incentive to sign up other than getting to try the product early. No ebook, freebie, etc. I’m not trying to collect email addresses; I just want to see if people want this app.

And, when people sign up, they get a welcome email requesting feedback. This way, I can gather early reactions to both the brand and the product details, and begin conversations with potential users.

Incredibly, more than 500 people signed up without me doing any other marketing work beyond that first teaser page launch day. I had thought I’d need to do a lot more to reach 500, so this is very encouraging. Further, a huge portion of those people emailed me feedback.

Because I reached that goal so quickly and the feedback has been so positive (more on that in a sec), I’m going to proceed with Mod&Dot. It’s happening. There is a market for this product, and it’s on track to becoming the right fit.

The landing page was also supposed to help me figure out which use cases the audience responds to. The copywriting intentionally mentioned a variety of use cases, and I hoped to hear via email replies which ones people found most compelling. This was a huge success. I learned that overseeing design implementation, not optimization, is the core reason designers open up devtools. The secondary use case is sharing design ideas, not long-term product design work. So I can focus my marketing and product around these. This is really wonderful information to have so early on.

Surprisingly, I also found many developers interested in the product. Many emailed and said "I’m not a designer, but I would definitely use this." So from now on, my audience includes anyone who works on websites, and while the purpose of the product is design-related, I’ll be careful not to exclude anyone.

However, I also discovered an area where my work really fell short.

Design for users, not yourself

Being the one who makes all the decisions can come back to bite you in so many ways. But the most common trap I’ve faced (and seen in past bosses) is self indulgence.

For Mod&Dot I chose a brutalist design style (see examples in update #2), which I was really excited about. Extreme color contrast, partially clashing brand colors, very bold typography, and heavily manipulated photos. I was trying to design something a little different than the same boring UI styles you see in every SaaS interface.

This new visual style proved to be very divisive; I got both very positive and very negative reactions. Nobody said "meh". It was either "I adore this" or "Not to be rude, but this made my eyes water." (Real user feedback.) The site was featured on Typewolf, which was extremely cool and I am super proud of, while at the same time I was getting emails from other designers advising me to tone down the color scheme.

It certainly got people’s attention, and that alone is a partial success. But as feedback began rolling in, I started to think I might have made a mistake. Choosing between Creative vs Safe concepts is always a struggle, and clearly I was seeing the downside of choosing a challenging and provocative design style: some people didn’t like it, and those people were my potential users. Worse, the design style was so limited that people couldn’t tell decorative elements apart from product screenshots—a major issue.

The pitfall of being a solo founder (or even just being the person in charge) is using yourself as the audience. Just because it’s fun to you doesn’t mean it will be a successful business. Truthfully, I designed the Mod&Dot brand more for myself than people who would use it. And because of it, I probably scared off a bunch of potential users.

The landing page test helped me to catch this critical error early on before it really caused any serious damage. There was no money on the line yet. That’s what’s so great about getting early user feedback: it helps you identify all the areas where your concept, approach, and/or data are incorrect.

But, because of that early mistake, I already have to redesign the product—before it’s even launched.

A redesign, already?

It’s time for the first redesign. Before I’ve even built the product. Does that seem wasteful? Here’s why it’s not.

The whole point of getting a concept in front of users early is to catch those major mistakes that could steer the entire product off course. If you’re not willing to act on what you learn from user tests, why do them in the first place?

The goal for my design is to appeal to my audience, and losing half of them at first glance is really bad. So I need to redesign the brand and app.

So I spent this 3rd week on a redesign. Here’s the new approach, which preserves some of the styles but softens the brutalist/antidesign elements in favor of a more "flat" style that feels less imposing.

New brand design

The new logo uses a simple nod to the brand name—an M with a dot completing the stroke that forms the letter. It looks like a bouncing ball, which I might get the chance to animate someday. Having a logo mark and not just a logotype makes the brand look more official. It also allows me to stop using the ampersand so heavily for favicons, social media profiles, etc, which I always felt was a bit cliché.

Oh, and I really want to put it on a t-shirt, but that will have to wait for now (remember, that self indulgence trap?!).

New homepage design

The first change I made was darkening the neon brand colors so they clash less. I also removed most of the thick dark borders, so that the result is a more pleasing balance of color contrast. Overall the design is much less challenging and intense.

I added new copywriting that uses phrases from user feedback. As I mentioned, I learned a lot from conversations about which use cases resonate most. So the page is focused around those and a more clear demonstration of how the app works in the context of browser screenshots.

I also broadened the design language on the site overall—fewer constraints so I can use illustrations, icons, and more playful layout elements rather than such narrow, repetitive brutalist elements.

New browser extension design

During this redesign, I realized that the browser extension should work differently than I’d planned. Having the extension live inside a sub-panel in devtools is frustrating because it couldn’t be open at the same time as the elements panel while the user is making changes.

So I redesigned the extension to live inside the browser extension "popup" which should make it much more convenient to use.

New web app design

Last, I designed a simpler version of the web app using the new brand elements, and removing a couple features that I—again, self indulgently—thought were important but really weren’t after seeing user feedback.

Week 3 was: exciting

I haven’t built the new site design yet, and I’m not quite sure yet when I will, but I needed to define the new design system before I start development.

Sharing the concept I’ve been working on and seeing what others think is always really enjoyable. The positive reception surprised me—maybe I’m too much of a pessimist—I expected people to be more hesitant to try a new tool like this that doesn’t really have an established market or competitor. That enthusiasm is proving contagious, at least to me.

Deciding to take the leap and commit to the product is always a bit scary. It’s a risk. The future is unknown. This could fail. But I feel my little landing page test showed there’s maybe just a little less risk in this product than there was last week, and it’s worth trying. So here we go.

Creating the new design was a lot of fun—even though I tried not to have too much fun and repeat the same mistake. 😉 While it’s maybe not quite as challenging or unique as the original teaser page, I think it will be more successful overall. It was worth the extra work to give my new product the best chance for success I can.

Next, I will start learning all the new coding techniques I need to build this thing. If you think the early redesign was crazy, just wait and see what it’s like to build an entire app as a solo founder.