SaaS Design Principles: Enhancing User Experience and Engagement
You may have noticed this fascinating trend where many SaaS driven brands are achieving unicorn status so fast compared to brands in other models.
This trend is the reason why the model catches the fancy of many builders in the tech industry today.
SaaS presents an enticing proposition, where your product is offered primarily through the internet on a subscription basis. With this model, you have the opportunity to tap into a thriving market that is currently valued at an impressive $273 Billion.
One factor that plays a massive role in how big a share of this market you can claim, or whether in fact you will claim any at all, is the success of your product with users - primarily affected by user experience and, ultimately, engagement. How much influence do these have?
For a quick overview, a study by Toptal shows that online platforms lose 88% of customers from just one bad experience, while Amazon Web Services tells us e-commerce brands lose 35% of sales revenue due to bad UX.
You definitely don’t want to make simple design mistakes that will leak your revenue.
What do we mean by SaaS design principles?
SaaS design principles refer to the guidelines and considerations used to create effective user interfaces (UIs) and user experiences (UX).
These are the practices tested by top designers over the years, and found them to work. Applying these principles will give you an easy time and translate to better outcomes for your SaaS product.
The design principles are applied to certain key elements of a product. The “key elements” here are the different pieces of your product’s UI and UX design that come together to make it a whole.
Let’s look at these elements.
Key elements of SaaS design
The following are the core elements of a typical SaaS design:
1. Visual appearance
The User Interface (UI) of SaaS products is the part of your software that users actually see and interact with. This includes all the buttons, colors, icons, typography, animation, arrangements, and overall style through which content is attractively presented to users.
According to a report by Forrester, an excellent UI design can increase the conversion rate by up to 400%.
Navigation refers to how users move from one part of your SaaS product to another. It is the essential structure that determines how users access features and information. The goal of design here is to create a navigation that is seamless and easy to understand.
Using the mobile market as an example, Reussers reports that 67% of users will leave your website if they find the navigation difficult to figure out.
Responsiveness refers to how well your SaaS UI design adjusts when rendered by different sizes of desktop and mobile device screens.
The best responsive design is one that ensures your UI elements and navigation remain aesthetically pleasing and functionally appealing, regardless of whether they are rendered by 5.8-inch smartphones or 45-inch desktops.
A survey by Toptal shows that 83% of users expect a seamless experience across any device they use to access a product.
The performance element in SaaS refers to the speed at which your design items load and the rate at which your application’s availability is sustained. How fast does your SaaS website or application render content, processes interactions, and stays up for use?
The aim of good design here is to reduce load times to the barest minimum and increase uptime to the maximum.
According to a report by Portent, a site that loads within a second offers a conversion rate that is three times higher than a site that loads in 5 seconds and up to 5 times higher than a site that loads in 10 seconds.
Branding is all about building loyalty and trust in your product. But it doesn’t stop there.
For design, branding also involves the incorporation of certain elements of your company into your SaaS application development to give it an identity.
This could include integrating your company’s unique logo, typography, color schemes, and illustrations, among others, into your SaaS product. Customers will recognize the product faster and differentiate it from competing products.
A report by Marq shows that 68% of business owners confessed that brand consistency across all platforms helped improve their revenue by at least 10%..
Design principles make sure that, through excellent visual and practical rendering of your key design elements, users have a satisfactory perception of your SaaS product in terms of appearance and ease of use.
Now to the design principles;
Top SaaS design principles to improve user experience
With a focus on user experience, here are the principles to apply to your SaaS design.
1. A simple and responsive UI
According to Hubspot, 76% of consumers rate the ease of use as the most important factor for them. The key determinant here is the simplicity of your design - can users explore your product with zero or minimal friction?
Yes, the functions of your SaaS product may be as intricate as it gets. But keeping the UI design as simple and minimalist as possible makes the user experience more accommodating.
Minimalism allows you to maintain a visual hierarchy and present your design elements without distractions. You make your application easier to use for less experienced customers.
Of course, you don’t want to sacrifice beauty and branding for a minimalist UI layout, and that is why hiring great UI designers is key.
Responsiveness should not be left out of the equation when creating your simple UI design, and this principle of simplicity should trickle down to other elements.
2. Always release one version at a time for all users
The methodology of “release early, release often (RERO)” is the top choice for many, and it works perfectly. RERO prioritizes frequent feedback acquisition and SaaS version releases to ensure that the latest version of your solution satisfies the latest user expectations and requirements.
While using this agile methodology, however, always ensure that your latest version releases are available to every user of your product. RERO is a fast-paced software development method, and hence, you need to streamline user experiences to unify user feedback on time and achieve quicker and more effective version releases.
The contrary is dissimilar versions and experiences. This presents the challenge of non-aligned user feedback, which slows down your agile workflows.
3. ilities alongside features
The “ilities” are the different attributes used to evaluate a product’s performance.
You may have a rockstar application in terms of what it can do. However, if any of these “ilities” is compromised, your envisioned SaaS design is flawed.
What are the “ilities” to pay attention to?
- Availability: Technically known as the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF), availability is all about ensuring that your SaaS application is up and running for as long as possible.
- Scalability: Incorporate back-end designs that allow you to seamlessly increase or decrease the supporting architecture. You must be able to manage user traffic without affecting user experience.
- Maintainability: Ensure your SaaS design allows for easy repair and timely restoration after a fault.
- Portability: Focus on the ease of migration in case your hosting partner or supporting operating systems run into big trouble.
- Security: Cyber attackers are becoming extremely dangerous. So you want to make it hard for malicious actors to target your product. Build security features into your design, such as multi-factor authentication. Check these top cybersecurity dangers that expose the greatest risk to businesses.
- Accessibility: This is a critical “ility” you wouldn’t see a lot of other companies pay attention to, but it makes such a big difference and sets you apart. Accessibility refers to inclusive practices (and, in our case, design) for people with disabilities and socio-economic restrictions.
Approximately 16% of the world’s population live with some form of disability. Considering this critical group in your design will not only make you a responsible business but will also improve the reach of your product. In fact, some studies have shown that inclusive design offers a $490 billion opportunity, and this is where you can get ahead of the competition.
4. Offer great search capabilities
Have you ever encountered a product where you struggled to locate the search button, only to find it seemingly elusive? We bet you experienced a sense of frustration during that moment.
This is exactly how your users will feel when you fail to provide a search function.
Search capabilities allow users to access information and features without having to navigate through the entire website or application. When providing a search function, however, you want to offer the best capabilities available.
Simple capabilities that improve search and make navigation even more seamless include filters, support for AI-powered suggestions, multiple languages, data collection, and search data analytics.
Top design principles to improve user engagement
User engagement is a great determinate of the conversion rate that your product is going to achieve.
Many make the mistake of thinking about user engagement when the product is complete. Even worse, many more mistake user engagement for social media buttons. Far from it.
User engagement is about keeping the user on your product. The more they stay, the more they are getting closer to buying. It means they are enjoying the experience and are happy to spend time there.
Pay attention to these principles to get to this enviable position:
1. Build for the target audience, not just one customer
While collecting and analyzing data on users, a lot of SaaS businesses get it wrong by being consumed by the specific wants or challenges of one or few customers rather than the overall target audience.
A single customer represents just a single persona that you expect to use your SaaS product. This persona may be derived from, for instance, the most consistent customer. This tendency to focus on just one customer unfortunately limits you to specific demographics, interests, and behaviors of one individual or a few.
On the contrary, a focus on the wider target audience offers you more.
The target audience is a broader group of user personas. It contains multiple target customers and, hence, covers more diverse but related demographics, interests, and behaviors.
By widening your scope and focusing more on target audience analysis, you create UI and UX designs that serve a wider user base and increase engagement.
2. The sign up flow must always remain smooth
The sign-up flow refers to all the registration steps, activities, and information required from users before they have access to your SaaS application.
This is the “activation gap” where you tell users to create a username, submit contact information, and create a password to access your platform. It usually serves as the first contact with your services and, possibly, your brand.
Whether you choose to implement signup flows before or after allowing access to your app, always ensure that you keep the activation gap as short and friction-less as possible.
Your business objectives are key to choosing and designing the right sign-up flow.
If you only need basic information, a simple flow allowing users to sign up through email or social media accounts saves them a lot of the overbearing agony that is normally associated with elaborate sign ups.
If you offer financial services, for instance, and cannot cut down on steps or the amount of information collected during sign-up, put more focus on making the flow as interactive as possible to improve conversion rates.
3. Offer simple, repeatable on-boarding
On-boarding is the phase where you educate customers on the use of your product. It is through on-boarding that users get acquainted with your UI and navigational elements, as well as how your features can be used. The principle here is to keep your on-boarding process as simple as possible.
For the more basic applications, you can implement low-touch on-boarding, where you allow the product to guide customers. To keep the process short, you may create quick in-app tutorials that pop up only when users try to interact with certain features.
For complex SaaS solutions, high-touch on-boarding complements in-app tutorials with customer support resources and services to guide most of the users through the application’s use.
4. Create clear Calls to Action (CTAs)
CTAs are the different buttons and links that direct users to perform different actions that move them closer to conversion.
They show users (in clear terms) what exactly to interact with to achieve a goal, such as signing up for a newsletter or making a purchase, just to mention a few.
High-converting CTAs use language that is clear, motivating, and urgent.
5. Provide extensive help options
A report from Slideshare shows that 78% of users will abandon a SaaS product when they receive bad customer service.
Apart from how the support staff engages with customers, a common problem for businesses here is the failure to open up the right channels for communication.
If you are dealing with a largely younger target audience, for instance, you’ll have to consider designing your product to accommodate support channels across the top social media channels that they frequent. If your customers are mainly the older generation, then phone support should be prominent.
In the same report, Slideshare shows that email and chat are passive and low-cost but seen as low-effort, while support through phone is deemed very okay by 75% of users.
6. Enhance user control as much you possibly can
The SaaS model ordinarily puts all the management of software and infrastructure in your hands- the owner. But you need to give your users some level of confidence while using the product.
Examples of what you can do to cede some control to users include permitting the customization of visual elements. This will allow them to meet their preferences and get closer to what they deem desirably attractive.
Please note that control is different from personalization, where your system monitors user data to tailor experiences. In personalization, you are still in control.
User control, on the other hand, allows users to apply their personal touch, creating a personal connection with your product.
This doesn't have to be as complex as you may already be imagining. Incorporating simple features like “back,” “close,” or “cancel” buttons into your design will go a long way to make users feel in charge. This shows them that if they make mistakes when using the product, they can fix them - giving them the confidence to explore the product.
7. Keep promises in mind (such as SLAs, SLOs, SLIs, etc)
We acknowledge that life does not provide absolute guarantees, and it is true that making absolute guarantees about your product is impossible. However, when all variables remain constant, it is crucial never to break any promises made to your users.
Ensure that your SaaS design allows you to meet your Service-Level Objectives (SLOs), and that you can monitor your Service-Level Indicators (SLIs) to avoid missing out on important improvements.
Example: If your SLA promises 1-second load times, the SLO is for your application to always meet this expectation, while your SLI would involve monitoring how fast the app actually loads.
There are many more principles you can incorporate into your SaaS design to improve user experience and engagement:
- Provide elements for social sharing, where you allow users to share content from your product across social media platforms. Studies have found that word-of-mouth marketing, which is the equivalent of social sharing, has been established to be more effective than advertising by 92% of consumers.
- Incorporate gamification elements: In the context of a SaaS product, gamification refers to the integration of game-like elements into the design to enhance user engagement and make the product enjoyable. An example could be awarding badges and unlocking higher levels based on completing tasks.
- Design for minimal operational costs: Your design should minimize ongoing expenses and resource requirements for maintenance, support, and infrastructure. A good example is designing self-service features that allow users to easily find answers to their questions,thus lowering operational costs associated with support personnel.
- Build with a business mind, and not just a technical mind: Prioritize the product's ability to generate revenue by ensuring that the design indeed serves the needs of potential customers.
- Use the best talent within your budget. This allows you to satisfy the more complex technical design requirements.
Case study: How Duolingo implements best in class design principles to great impact
Duolingo is a popular language-learning platform that offers gamified lessons to help users acquire new language skills. Their mission is to make language learning enjoyable and accessible to everyone, regardless of their prior language-learning experience.
We chose Duolingo for this brief case study because they have succeeded at leveraging several design principles to enhance user experience and engagement.
Here are the top that we like:
Duolingo leverages gamification by incorporating game-like elements such as levels, achievements, and a point-based system. Users earn experience points (XP) as they complete lessons, which adds a sense of progression and achievement to the learning process.
Duolingo employs a vibrant and friendly visual design, with colorful illustrations and animations. The visual elements create a visually appealing and inviting atmosphere, making the learning experience enjoyable.
The required information for sign up is minimized to just an email address or social account, offering one-click sign-up options. This streamlined approach reduces friction and makes it convenient to create an account.
Users encounter strategic CTAs throughout the UI, such as "Start," "Continue," and "Practice," to prompt users to begin lessons, progress to the next stage, or reinforce their learning.
These CTAs use clear and actionable language, often accompanied by visually appealing buttons. The resultant effect is a sense of urgency and motivation for users to take specific actions.
The success of any app hinges on the ability to capture and retain users' attention in a highly competitive landscape.
While many applications struggle to gain traction and fade into obscurity, those that adhere to these design principles stand out and thrive.
These principles are not mere guidelines; they are the very foundation upon which all the successful SaaS applications are built to deliver a seamless and delightful experience to users.