Idealog - - EXTRACT -

Un­til very re­cently, suc­cess in Sil­i­con Val­ley re­quired fo­cus­ing al­most sin­gle-mind­edly on an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s tech­ni­cal prow­ess. It meant hav­ing an unim­peach­able tech­ni­cal founder, 10X engi­neers, a re­lent­less de­vo­tion to com­put­ing dom­i­nance. What truly mat­tered about con­sumers’ in­ter­ac­tion with tech­nol­ogy was that it be fast. Ex­pend­ing valu­able time on any­thing else—par­tic­u­larly de­sign—was ev­i­dence of dis­trac­tion from the real work of the com­pany. Years ago, when Larry Page was asked what Google’s de­sign aes­thetic was, he replied, “Pine,” re­fer­ring to an old com­mand line email pro­gram that was known pri­mar­ily for its speed. And when we look at the ori­gin sto­ries of es­tab­lished tech giants like In­tel, Mi­crosoft, and Ama­zon, they’re sto­ries of busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and engi­neers. De­sign was an af­ter­thought.

But things have changed dra­mat­i­cally in just a few short years. In­dus­try giants, like Sam­sung, GE, and IBM, have spent hun­dreds of mil­lions to build in-house de­sign stu­dios and hire thou­sands of de­sign­ers. Google has in­vested heav­ily to rein­vent it­self as a de­sign-cen­tric busi­ness. Highly lu­cra­tive new com­pa­nies—in­clud­ing Airbnb, Tum­blr, Snapchat, Pin­ter­est, In­sta­gram, and Pocket—have sprung from the minds and hands of trained de­sign­ers. While other bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies, like Slack, have been built by of­fer­ing bet­ter de­signed ex­pe­ri­ences with

fa­mil­iar tech­nol­ogy. More de­sign­ers, like my­self, have be­come in­vestors. At Foun­da­tion Cap­i­tal, my ven­ture cap­i­tal firm, we’ve backed De­signer Fund, the first and only in­vest­ment fund fo­cused solely on de­signer-founded star­tups.

That’s be­cause most of the in­dus­try has come to un­der­stand a new truth about mod­ern busi­ness: More and more, de­sign comes first, and is now as in­dis­pens­able as tech­nol­ogy.

Three things are re­spon­si­ble for this re­mark­able shift. First, whether you're work­ing on hard­ware or hosted soft­ware, the un­der­ly­ing tech­nol­ogy to pro­to­type, pro­duce, and launch prod­ucts has only be­come bet­ter, cheaper, and faster over the last 25 years. Free and easy-to-use CAD soft­ware, 3D print­ing, and crowd­fund­ing have made it eas­ier and faster than ever to de­sign, sell, and ship. Where, once, engi­neers used to rely on raw pro­gram­ming lan­guages to cre­ate soft­ware, to­day, they build from open-source li­braries and pre-ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy plat­forms.

Mean­while, at the bot­tom of the OSI stack, net­work speeds have gone from one gig to 10 gigs to 100 gigs. But we’re ap­proach­ing the lim­its of op­ti­cal lithog­ra­phy—the sheer phys­i­cal con­straints of how much we can fit onto a chip—and thus an end to the no­ble metro­nomic march of Moore’s Law. (One prom­i­nent en­gi­neer calls this “com­puter ar­chi­tec­ture’s midlife cri­sis.”) Even as­sum­ing we eke out another decade and then make the leap to quan­tum com­put­ing, it re­mains the case that the most fun­da­men­tal soft­ware in­fra­struc­ture has be­come com­modi­tized to the point where most of the in­no­va­tion is now cre­ated at the in­ter­face with end users.

In the con­sumer in­ter­net world in par­tic­u­lar, the mar­ginal cost of soft­ware is zero—and de­sign is now the dif­fer­en­tia­tor. “The ex­pec­ta­tion for a new com­pany is so much higher now,” Airbnb’s Joe Geb­bia said to me, “be­cause what they did in six months [10 years ago] some­one could do now in a week.” And there­fore, “People have to come with more value.”

The sec­ond rea­son that de­sign has moved cen­ter stage is that con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions have evolved. Busi­nesses, even in the very re­cent past, weren’t doomed to cer­tain fail­ure be­cause of a weak em­pha­sis on de­sign. The bot­toms of draw­ers across the free world are lit­tered with poorly de­signed prod­ucts that sold well be­cause of bril­liant

sales and mar­ket­ing. (If you don’t re­mem­ber or were too young for it, go check out the “Mi­crosoft re-de­signs iPod pack­ag­ing” par­ody video from a decade ago.) But the pub­lic has come to ex­pect more. Thanks to the work of vi­sion­ar­ies like Bill Mog­gridge, David Kel­ley, and Steve Jobs, people want userde­voted, fric­tion­less ex­pe­ri­ences in their in­ter­ac­tions with tech­nol­ogy.

Jobs’ in­flu­ence is es­pe­cially pro­nounced. Per­haps no sin­gle prod­uct has re­shaped what people ex­pect of de­signed tech­nol­ogy more than the iPhone. Ever since its re­lease a decade ago, con­sumer de­mand for use­ful, beau­ti­ful prod­uct ex­pe­ri­ences has grown more in­sis­tent. You can fol­low the trail of Palm’s death crawl all the way back to its CMO say­ing, "De­sign is a com­mod­ity.” Even de­vel­oper ex­pec­ta­tions for bet­ter de­sign have height­ened. At Par­ti­, a user-friendly plat­form for build­ing IoT ap­pli­ca­tions, Jon Lo­gan and Richard Whit­ney told us that de­vel­op­ers tol­er­ate bad ex­pe­ri­ences “only when there’s no other op­tion." And they’ve found that cus­tomers of­ten come back to their bet­ter­de­signed prod­uct af­ter hav­ing aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ences with com­peti­tors.

Was Lost But Now I ’m A Founder

Where do we go from here? It’s my con­vic­tion that the 21st cen­tury will be the de­signer’s cen­tury, be­cause I be­lieve that de­sign is the great­est lever for build­ing the great­est com­pa­nies to come. The most in­ter­est­ing in­no­va­tion is hap­pen­ing at the top of the stack—at the in­ter­face with end users—where tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment in­ter­sects with de­sign and where a swipe right or a hold might de­cide the next break­out busi­ness.

To take one ex­am­ple, if you haven’t logged on to Face­book in over 30 days, you’ll get an email that will link you through to your ac­count without need to re­call your pass­word. You’ll have 24 hours to re-en­gage with your friends, which Face­book hopes will lead you to come back more of­ten. This very sim­ple so­lu­tion—a de­sign so­lu­tion dubbed “By­pass Lo­gin”—of let­ting you in for 24 hours without a pass­word ad­dresses the very ba­sic hu­man trait of for­get­ful­ness.

Now, that is an ex­am­ple of how an es­tab­lished gi­ant has put de­sign to work to give its prod­ucts an ex­tra edge. And it’s just as ap­pli­ca­ble in the early stages of prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and in the early life of a startup. Adam Ting, head of de­sign at Blend, a next-gen mort­gage startup, re­ports that “De­sign has closed deals for us … de­sign is the main rea­son we’re dif­fer­ent. There’s other things we do … but the one read­ily ap­par­ent thing is that the user ex­pe­ri­ence is much bet­ter.”

De­sign has be­come the pri­mary dif­fer­en­tia­tor for most com­pa­nies, and it is un­likely that a com­pany founded to­day will flour­ish without a ro­bust and thor­ough­go­ing de­sign strat­egy. As a ven­ture in­vestor, I’ve seen star­tups fail for a lack of de­sign, and com­pa­nies that would’ve have been an or­der of mag­ni­tude bet­ter if they’d had de­sign pro­cesses in place from the very be­gin­ning.

Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite how in­dis­pens­able de­sign is to­day, a stark gap per­sists: Not many people run­ning top com­pa­nies come from de­sign back­grounds. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data I could find, only 15 per­cent of the mem­bers of FounderDat­ing claim de­sign as their pri­mary skillset. And, as its former CEO said, once you cor­rect “for people who are more de­sign-ap­pre­ci­a­tors than de­sign­ers, it’s prob­a­bly closer to 6 per­cent.” Yes, there are no­table ex­cep­tions. But there should be more. And there will be—if de­sign­ers start see­ing them­selves more of­ten as en­trepreneurs. As the builders not just of prod­ucts, but of com­pa­nies. Lead­ers not just of de­sign but of people. De­sign­ers must em­brace the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit.

When I left Stanford and be­gan my ca­reer in prod­uct de­vel­op­ment I was set up with a $15,000 work­sta­tion and a $20,000 CAD pack­age sold by ex­pen­sive sales reps and ac­com­pa­nied by a one­week train­ing course in Bos­ton. My pro­to­types cost $50,000 and were made in ma­chine shops on equip­ment that ran up­wards of half a mil­lion dol­lars. When we were ready to re­lease for mass man­u­fac­ture, we sent draw­ings and, in some cases, 3D files to tool­mak­ers who spent 12 weeks hog­ging out hard­ened steel tools that cost no less than $100,000 per part.

Slowly, my prod­uct would wind its way through the labyrinth of dis­tri­bu­tion, ul­ti­mately land­ing in re­tail stores which re­quired their own care and feed­ing— point of pur­chase dis­plays, end caps,

pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als, in some cases, train­ing. And for all of this hard work, you might earn 40 points of gross mar­gin, less than the end re­tailer that served as a shelf and not much more.

To­day, 20 years later, you can de­sign a prod­uct with the free­ware ver­sion of SketchUp, make your first rapid pro­to­type on your own desk­top Mak­erBot, raise $100,000 in crowd­fund­ing on Kick­starter, pur­chase $5,000 soft tools from PCH, set up vir­tual dis­tri­bu­tion with Ship­wire or Ama­zon or both, and mar­ket and sell di­rectly to your cus­tomers off your own web­site and in your own voice.

The tools re­ally are in your hands now. But the car­di­nal ques­tion that ev­ery as­pir­ing de­signer founder needs to an­swer be­fore em­bark­ing on their en­tre­pre­neur­ial odyssey has changed. It is no longer: Can you build the prod­uct? The start­ing point is now: Why are you build­ing it at all?

When we asked Joe Geb­bia what he would say to en­tre­pre­neur­ial de­sign­ers if he were de­liv­er­ing the com­mence­ment ad­dress at RISD, he said, “Solve a prob­lem that is per­sonal to you, a prob­lem that you live in. Be mar­ried to the prob­lem. Be so close to it that you un­der­stand it from the inside out.”

Gabrielle Guthrie founded Moxxly, which is build­ing a bet­ter breast pump, pre­cisely be­cause she saw that so many prod­ucts for women were aw­ful due to the fact that they were de­signed by people—i.e., men—who weren’t close enough to the prob­lems. “One thing that re­ally res­onated,” said Gabrielle, “was a blog post that said, if men had to use breast pumps, they would be qui­eter than a Prius and look like an iPhone by now.”

Echo­ing Joe, Nate Weiner’s ad­vice for an as­pir­ing de­signer founder is,

Solve a prob­lem that you re­ally care about....Be­cause there are go­ing to be days [when] you, lit­er­ally, are not go­ing to want to go any­more. And the only thing that will get you through that is car­ing about that prob­lem. Be­cause if all you're here for is, I just hope that we can make a big exit—and that's it, that's not go­ing to get you out of bed on those hard days. The only thing that does is know­ing that you're solv­ing some­thing im­por­tant.

Evan Sharp was lucky enough to find his The What. “Hon­estly, Pin­ter­est is just my fa­vorite thing, my fa­vorite prod­uct. I just love think­ing about it and work­ing on it.” And, like Evan, the true re­ward for any de­signer founder who finds the right prob­lem to solve—is that you get to try to solve it:

To own the de­sign….That was what I wanted to do ev­ery day….It’s fun to be judged by the ac­tual value of your work rather than some­one’s per­ceived value of your work. It’s fun to have no lay­ers between….It’s amaz­ing when what you should be do­ing is ex­actly what you think is the most valu­able thing to do with your time.

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