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How to build a compelling product: Canva founder Melanie Perkins

Monday, 19 May 2014 | By Melanie Perkins

Recently, I was looking back through the very first plan I put together for what has now become Canva. It’s amazing to look at the similarities between what I first imagined seven years ago and what we’ve now built.


After we had built our very first version of our online design platform in 2007, I wrote an instruction manual. It explained how all the buttons functioned, how to create a design, everything you needed to know. After flicking through all these pages, it struck me: why should a user need to read a manual before they can use your program? Technology should adapt to the user, not the other way around.


This guiding principle has stuck with me over the past few years. With Canva, we’ve done everything to make it as simple as possible to take an idea and turn it into a design. There is so much involved in building a compelling product. Here are a few pieces of advice based on my experience.


Make your product work the way your users expect


Users go on an emotional journey when they use a product. We did lots of user testing before we launched Canva. We ran design workshops where we asked different groups of people to come in and try our product. Usertesting.com was also incredibly helpful. Despite spending years building the simplest tool we could possibly imagine, we found through user testing that people doubted their own creative ability and felt scared to experiment in case they broke something.


We realised we needed to change people’s entire mindset in a few minutes. They had to realise that Canva was a safe and fun place to create; that they didn’t need to invest years of learning our design tool. They needed to realise that they could create something that looked good. We introduced a 23-second animation which walked the user through the basics of how to use Canva. This is followed by a series of five Starter Challenges which allow users to play with Canva.


Now in the first few minutes of entering Canva a user’s entire belief about design tools being hard to learn and self-belief about their own creative abilities is transformed. This new onboarding experience dramatically increased net promoter score and people are now much more likely to recommend Canva to others.


Solve a real problem


I optimistically believe that in the future, the world will be better, healthier, safer, friendlier, wealthier, and smarter. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the way design should be done. There was simply no doubt that in the future, design would be simple, online and collaborative. Back in 2007, when I was teaching design at university, students were using Facebook to connect with each other. Yet design software was still expensive and difficult to use.


The vision for Canva hasn’t changed. While we’ve applied a lot of polish along the way, the plan for the product has been as we originally imagined it. Find a real problem that you know exists and solve it. That’s the best way to create something compelling.


Focus on the user experience


When a user lands on your product, it should be so intuitive that a user doesn’t need to read instruction manuals or spend years learning how to use your software. They should be able to do what they need to do right away.


Since launching eight months ago, Canva has grown to 400,000 users. We’ve learned a lot about our users during that time. Getting to know your users is essential. We’re now seeing 150,000 designs created each week and people are coming back daily to use the product.


Every decision you make is an important one. Focus on the details of each interaction in your product. While we know where we want to take the product, we’ll always test new features to make sure users find it simple to navigate. Sometimes a small tweak to a menu or a different icon can make all the difference. Listen not only to what your users say, but also what they do.


While every step of the way has its challenges, that’s one of the best things about starting a company. The most important thing is to get started. For me, that was writing out a plan for how an online design platform would work. Only once you start can you gather feedback, test out your ideas and put the wheels in motion.


Melanie Perkins is CEO of Canva, which makes graphic design simple for everyone. Since launching eight months ago, the company has grown to 400,000 users who’ve now created more than 2 million designs. Connect with Melanie on Twitter: @MelanieCanva