We’re in the early innings of a tech renaissance, with hundreds of apps and services coming online by the day. Cost-effective infrastructure, open source software and great developer services have been big drivers of this startup economy. But amidst all the activity, strong design is beginning to separate the good products from the great ones. Companies like Spotify, Atlassian, and Squarespace have re-ordered the traditional product team, giving designers a key seat at the table. As users now expect apps to dazzle and delight (and deliver a quick “time-to-value”) -- this shift couldn’t have come sooner.
And it coincides with a few new market challenges. We users are splitting time across more services than ever, a kind of digital ADD that’s changing the way we interact with products. In adapting to this shorter attention span, product teams are giving second thought to that extra click, swipe or push -- instead asking, how can we purposefully engage users, rather than sucking up unnecessary time? Add to this mix the rise of mobile. With different screen sizes and use cases, teams are delivering the same value on a limited canvas, while trying to build a continuous experience over all devices. Across the Accel portfolio, we see great design teams working hard to solve for these, and more.
Some of the best-designed products work hard to deliver simplicity (while hiding complexity), giving users the quickest path to getting a job done. Dropbox is an example of a service providing deep value without much input — across devices, files automatically sync and store in the background. Its user flows are simple; with clean folder structures and one-click sharing, Dropbox exposes the features that are used most often and largely buries the rest, getting you in and out without fumbling around too many menus. With quick screen tray access and subtle sync notifications, users in fact can shortcut much of the service altogether. In exchange for great customer loyalty, it’s a tradeoff the company gladly makes.
RelateIQ uses design and data science to “bury” a lot of the headache of data entry with its relationship management software. The platform auto-ingests email traffic, sorting relationships and events and saving users hours in manual input. With its clean data grids and easy-to-access lists, users get an interactive view of their contacts without the burden of running complex reports. By presenting timely workflow suggestions, RelateIQ absorbs the stress of keeping a current pipeline. Even the most overloaded sales rep can conquer their quotas in a breeze.
In a world where we’re constantly tabbing between screens and services, Dropbox and RelateIQ win by pushing work into the background. These silent products prove that the time you spend in an app doesn’t necessarily correlate with value -- and in fact, sometimes it’s just the opposite. Designing for this cognitive overload will be a big way product teams win hearts (and soothe minds).
Designing for a mobile world
At the same time, we’re now living in a mobile-centric world. The smaller screens of smartphones and tablets are challenging teams to think more about what they leave out, rather than what they build in — a classic design problem. In many cases, teams building for iOS and Android are designing entirely new experiences with touch and mobility in mind.
Apps like HotelTonight combine curated inventory with one-touch checkout to drive quick value for travelers, reducing the functions of a typical travel site (discovery, identity and payment) down to the push of a button. With its simple choices, clear pricing and ratings, you never feel like you’ve sacrificed quality despite the constraints of a mobile window.
Slack, a next-gen communication platform, uses smooth, colorful interfaces with quick-draw access to topics, helping teammates chat from the palm of their hand. Slack “consumerizes” collaboration, with a feel that’s more akin to a messaging app than a workplace tool. The embedded chat commands help you work across multiple cloud services, arming you with the power of your entire toolset from a single mobile view. In delivering on mobile, the best-designed apps work hard to pack smaller screens with just as much punch.
But it’s not just about designing for a discrete device. We’re opening apps across smartphones and tablets (soon watches, and glasses!) -- however we find most convenient. Companies like Etsy use design to tie together a spectrum of behaviors: users wake up to new item "cards" on their phone; zoom in on deeper, tablet-friendly product grids during their commute; and search earnestly at their desktop during lunch. An up-front history list and synced basket notifications mean shoppers pop in and out of Etsy across devices as they please, enjoying relative continuity. As users embrace more devices, teams will similarly have to think about the “hand-off” between each device, or risk letting a user slip through the cracks.
Great product-led companies will surely need a blend of both science AND design. But what’s next? How do you build a design team? How do designers, developers and product managers co-exist in this new tech order? How do you navigate the mobile-tablet-web “crossover”? These are some of the questions we’ll explore at the 2014 Accel Design Conference, held April 9th at the Terra Gallery in San Francisco, where we’ll bring together top design and product leaders to examine these, and more!
Vas and Andrew