Founder’s Choice: Picking the Right Problems

All of the hype lately about “designer-founders" makes me really itchy, even more than all the other hype. Just because a few people in khaki pants suddenly noticed someone in a black turtleneck cashing big checks, “thinking like a designer" is not new, nor is it a secret weapon. Of all the things the intensely secretive Apple has done to become outrageously successful over the past decade, their emphasis on design is absolutely the least secret. That said, what is considered good design isn't necessarily always a business advantage.

Reading Khoi Vinh's recent post about his experience as the designer-founder of Mixel brought this to mind again. As usual, he writes with a tremendous clarity and transparency:

Building a great UI, while almost always important to a technology startup, might not always deserve to be the central focus of the business itself. Because startups always have extremely limited time and resources, prioritizing the UI comes at an enormous cost to the company. Sometimes it's the right thing to do, but when it's not, when it gets top priority because it's the challenge that the designer founder might be most comfortable with, or simply the one that he or she prefers the most, that can be disastrous.

This passage contains two very important ideas.

  1. Prioritizing the UI is very expensive to an early stage technology startup
  2. Basing priorities on the founder's comfort zone is a bad idea

In my experience working with early stage companies, these are generally true and applicable regardless of the professional background of the founders—engineering, business, design, snake milking*, whatever.

Prioritizing the user experience is expensive, both in terms of cash money and opportunity cost. This does not mean startups should blow off the front end. It does mean that a startup (or any business for that matter) should invest in the interface design at the time and to the extent that interface design matters to the business. This point is different for every single company, product, or service. The right time depends on the business model, the audience, the competition, and the context of use.

To make a gross generalization, engineer-founders overvalue UI design when they've been led to believe it's magical. Designer-founders do, because, as Khoi pointed out, it's a familiar and pleasant challenge.

Over the course of a few painfully educational projects, we've learned when and how to talk startups out of hiring us because they won't benefit from the type of strategy and design work we offer.

The second idea above applies to every single design project ever, no matter what stage the business is in. When you are creating something for use by others, you need to be outside of your comfort zone. The place you feel most comfortable may be alienating, confusing, or just plain boring to your target users. This is where I generally flog research as the most comfortable means to keep yourself productively ill-at-ease.

So, let's try to put aside the founder-hyphenates and focus on the fact that being a founder is a damn hard journey into the unknown and we should be grateful to every one of them, like Khoi, who is willing to share their experience and allow us all to benefit from it.

* Totally a real job. I'll take the risks of running a company over that, any day, no contest.