Startup Perils – Focus on Function, not just Form


In today’s startup perils, I want to discuss an increasingly common trend – focusing on form over function. It seems the new rule is MIPF – Make It Pretty First. I’m here to advocate for MIPF’s often misunderstood sibling: MIFF – Make it Functional First.

Don’t get me wrong: I love great design. I like it when things look beautiful. I also like it when things do lots of stuff. As a kid, I loved my cheap knockoff Swiss Army Knife. Obviously I have a soft spot for Sporks. And multi-tasking is my middle name.

But… Whatever you are building needs to serve its primary purpose, and serve it well. Serving a purpose is Job #1. Everything else is secondary. Making your app do what it is supposed to do should come first.


Increasingly, I see more and more startups making beautiful looking sites and apps. But I also see many apps that don’t actually serve their intended purpose. Whether it’s a fatally flawed user experience, badly implemented features, or just a wholesale misunderstanding of the problem being solved, this is a growing problem.

As an old man in the world of web design, I blame those damn young kids and the introduction of whizzy AJAX web UIs. That’s almost certainly unfair, but fancy animated web controls on otherwise useless sites was a precursor to many of the failed experiments I see today.

From design doesn’t matter a damn if your product doesn’t do what it is supposed to do

Surely you must have an example?

Why yes, yes I do! Let me share a recent experience that provides a great case study in how not to build an app. In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve recently been forced to become more health conscious. Since the weather is still decent, I started taking walks a few times a week. Since I am a data nerd, I (of course!) downloaded an app to track what I was doing. I downloaded a pedometer app from a market-leading company whose name references RUN and Fantastic. It got great reviews and appeared to work well. Or so I thought.

Complaint #1 – Focus on your core feature

As a data tracking app, I would argue your single most important function is to capture data reliably. The core of your app has to be obsessive about keeping track of the data being recorded. On about the third session with FantasticRun, it crashed. It crashed hard. No warning and no notification. I was two-thirds of the way through my route before I noticed that it had crashed. Worst still, the app apparently doesn’t do any kind of backup during a session, so everything recorded was lost. And la pièce de résistance? I am using the freebie trial version which only allows so many sessions per day. When the app restarted and crashed multiple times, it used up all of my session allowance for the day, rendering the app completely useless. Sadly, this was not a one-off. The app routinely crashes and loses all recorded data from the current session. #Fail.

Lesson: Understand the root of what your app has to do and do that thing well.

Complaint #2 – Get out of my way!

RantasticFun is chock full of gamification goodness. I am, admittedly, one of the least motivated people on the planet when it comes to working out, but a bunch of goofy half-assed crapification is not going to cure me of that. Are you really going to make me accept my “you’ve been a good boy” points for opening the app before you let me get on with my walk? Are you then also going to lock out the start button until I review some other drivel you want to force feed me? I JUST WANT TO WALK. It’s infuriating. I don’t give a cats ass what my friends are doing with Fruntastic, nor do I care to share what I’m doing. Just let me damn well walk already!

Lesson: Let me get to the root of what I want to do quickly. Do not get in my way!  

In Conclusion…

These two complaints are by far the most common form over function issues I encounter. They are easily avoided. When you build something, make it useful (unless it is deliberately not intended to be useful). Make it work. Make it so the end-user can actually get on with what they want to do. Then go back and add whatever else you think it needs, but build that solid foundation first.

Gooooooo MIFF!


A few months ago, I had the pleasure of working with the team at Fresh Tilled Soil and their work is the epitome of functional and beautiful design. I can’t show off that work just yet, but they were, as they claim, bloody brilliant.