Photo: totalAldo via Flickr
Every business person with a dollar and a dream these days thinks they’re a technical co-founder away from interweb stardom. It’s great if you can find one—but even if you can, I’m not sure it’s always the best move. That’s counter to what I used to think before, but I’ve done some more thinking about it.The reality is, a lot of the stuff being built now isn’t rocket science. If you read Marco from Instapaper, you see that what makes Instapaper great isn’t the technology and his ability to write code, but his thoughtfulness around design. He has spent a lot of time thinking about what users really want to do to solve information overload problems. He thinks about how he can offer solutions, not create more problems like RSS readers did. Good design is winning all over the web–at sites like Mint, Twitter,and Quora. User centric design is creating a real sustainable advantage in the same way technology used to.
On top of that, if you have an application whose initial build isn’t that much of a technical challenge, you may find yourself unable to attract a top tier technical lead. In my experience, top technical talents want to work on interesting technical challenges—and for a lot of apps, scaling and advanced functionality is interesting, but early, putting together simple prototypes may not be.
A CTO will also want to ensure that the businesspeople on their team will understand important product and technical decisions. They want to work in an environment where their opinions are respected and they also feel like they can have intelligent discussions about product. If you’re the founder and you’re a top salesperson, but don’t have a native understanding about the web and product builds, you have to face the fact that you might make for a very frustrating partner for a tech lead.
This is where product and design leads come into play. Remember the joke on Office Space where you can’t have the engineers talking to the customers? That the one guy’s job was just to interpret what the customers wanted for the engineers. That’s not entirely far off. Great tech talent will build what you spec out for them in the best way possible, but it’s not their job to necessarily push back on product-market fit, feature priorities, etc. Are you even building the right thing in the first place? Is it more important to build the marketplace function of your app or launch on mobile? That’s something that a business founder might have some ideas about, but it really takes a product manager to weigh resource constraints, internal input, customer demands, etc. to put together a product plan.
I find that a lot of business founders don’t really understand what a design focused product lead actually does–or why the user experience function is so important. Jared Spool really nailed at the Warm Gun Conference when he said that great design is invisible–you never really notice it unless something goes wrong. I think that’s why a lot of business founders really don’t appreciate it–because they don’t see it in the most successful services. It just works.
With a good user experience designer, a business founder can wind up with a complete spec–one that has been thoroughly tested in front of users and is well thought out in terms of what it aims to get users to do. Hand this to a competent outsourced development shop and what you’ve got is a great start. Contrast that with finding the best developer you can find, but giving that person a poorly designed and conceived product to build and you’re not going to wind up anywhere.
In his presentation, Jared outlined some of the critical functions of what a user experience team or person does:
Usability practices – Making sure the service is understandable and users can accomplish what they set out to with minimal confusion, time wasted, etc.
Information architecture – Does the layout, categorizations, data input, etc correspond with the way users think about dealing with this kind of service or content?
Information design – What kinds of feedback, statistics, statuses are you showing them and how are you showing it to them?
Copywriting – What does your service say? Are instructions and descriptions clear? To the point?
Design process management – When changes are made, who keeps track of what other aspects of the site they my influence? Who makes sure that proper versioning is maintained?
Editing and curation – Making qualitative judgments about what the user should see and be able to consume
Interaction design – What are the functional mechanisms by which users enter or consume information and services, the layout, etc
Visual design – colours, logos, spacing, fonts, layout
After you come up with a well designed spec and design that you’re confident will get your users to do what you want them to do (and what they want to do), then you’ve got something worth building and a better shot at attracting top technical talent.
Charlie O’Donnell is entrepreneur in residence at First Round Capital. He is also co-founder of Path 101, a NYC-based startup, and founder of NextNY, a tech community group. He blogs at This Is Going To Be Big, where this post was originally published.
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