Ryan Holmes is the CEO at HootSuite, the leading social media dashboard for businesses of all sizes. Ryan is one of the top authorities on the social business revolution, and has grown HootSuite from a lean startup to a global leader in social media with millions of users, and nearly 100 Fortune 100 companies.
Why focusing on design from the start makes sense
When you think of technology that gets people excited — long lines at stores, enthusiastic reviews in the blogosphere, passionate evangelists — the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t thermostats. Then along came Nest. The company took the most mundane of appliances, one that we already have in our home, and turned it into one of the year’s hottest new gadgets (as Google’s $3.2-billion acquisition back in January attests).
The lesson here is one that today’s startups should take to heart: never underestimate the power of design. Nest didn’t introduce any radically new technology, per se (though it did certainly bring the thermostat into the “Internet of Things” era). Instead, the company took an existing product and made it interactive, intuitive and even sexy. While this example largely concerns hardware, the same insights can be applied to startups doing everything from developing apps to providing SaaS. After all, engineering, no matter how brilliant, means little without great design. (I’ve been thinking about design a lot lately, as my company just had its first ever brand refresh. What’s under the hood is always important, but it’s incredible how critical design elements as simple as logos can be.)
In the distant past (five years or so), there were still old-timers who insisted that engineering was the backbone of any venture. Find the brightest programmers, the argument went, and everything else would fall into place.
But these days, with important exceptions like search engines and security software, the technology behind many startups is fairly straightforward. With code libraries, new programming languages and open-source launchpads, engineering has in many respects gotten easier and more accessible. And exactly for that reason, design is more important than ever. Among the only ways to stand out from the crowd is with an intuitive interface that users love and that lends itself to quick adoption.
Efficiency in design
At the most basic level, prioritizing design also represents a practical consideration. It’s far easier to design first and engineer later. Early in my career, I was involved with engineer-led projects, where designers came in late in the game and were expected to put lipstick on an existing code base. This almost never works. Workflow and usability are not afterthoughts; they impact the core of any project and dictate how it should be engineered.
Deeper still, a successful tech startup is almost always an iterative process. You’re going to go through several rounds of changes — or outright pivots — before finding something that sticks. Refactoring code, over and over again, to accommodate these changes is ridiculously inefficient and labor-intensive.
I learned the hard way that it’s infinitely easier to change napkin sketches than to change engineering. When my current company was getting off the ground five years ago, we had designers and engineers working collaboratively from stage one — a kind of head-and-heart approach that has served us well since. Before building anything, we started with simple wireframes — hammering down the look and feel of our social media tool, workflows that made sense, where to put buttons to facilitate use and encourage virality, etc — before getting down to the messy business of actually writing code.
Good design and bad design
Of course, a commitment to design is no assurance of success. There’s good design and bad design. I’m a firm adherent to the less-is-more approach. In fact, I think one of the primary failings of many new apps and tools is that they tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the user. Sticking to a limited feature set — even when there’s pressure to include more and more bells and whistles and please everyone — is critical. Steve Jobs knew this better than anyone. In fact, Apple’s very first marketing brochure from back in 1977 boasted “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This principle is as evident in the original 1984 Macintosh as it is in the latest iPhone.
Another critical design question is data vs. gut. In other words, how heavily do you lean on A/B testing, focus groups, analysts and user metrics when designing a product and how much do you trust your own instinct? Among the great virtues of working in a digital space is that data is cheap and conclusions are easy to tease out. When HootSuite was getting off the ground as a social media management tool, we’d tweak the design and immediately turn to tools like Google Analytics to measure our effectiveness. Changes that led to more signups or longer time on site we kept. Otherwise, it was back to the drawing board.
But I’d also like to sound a note of caution here. Data and user feedback can be empowering, but individual inspiration and passion still have to play a significant role in design. Having a clear vision of what you want — and, just as important, what you don’t want — can mean the difference between an unfocused, middle-of-the-road offering and something exceptional. After all, Jobs, after unveiling the radically redesigned iMac in 1998, famously quipped, “A lot of times, people don’t really know what they want until you show it to them.”
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