This is my salute to a post of a similar name by Kevin Kelly.
Today, I’m reflecting on my 15 years of design and product management experience, mostly at early-stage tech startups. The product designers I admire most got their hands dirty with early Web 2.0. They ushered in a new era of apps, advertising, social, and big data. They started companies that would become modern-day juggernauts: Twitter, Instagram, Airbnb, Squarespace, Vimeo and many more.
Web 2.0 was the ultimate expression of right place, right time, right people. The right distribution ecosystems were built, like iOS and Android. The right developer tools were rapidly evolving, making experimentation fast and cheap. Startup funding was aggressive and plentiful. Billions of new consumers got their first smartphone. It was a golden era for products: user experience became very, very smooth. …
At Blockstack, we’re building an application stack for developers that protects fundamental digital rights for all internet users. This goal entails rethinking the basics of authentication and data storage so they can be fully user controlled. We use blockchain to accomplish this magic, but one downside is that we have to rethink nearly every common user experience pattern on the web.
In my personal opinion, these challenges, and the long-term implications, are 10x more interesting than anything on the traditional, centralized internet.
I’ll share some basics on four of these tricky problems…
The problem: When you signup for your first Blockstack app our authenticator will grant you a Blockstack ID. Your ID uses the same public/private key system as Bitcoin to secure your access. Great for security, but challenging for user on-boarding: No user database, no password, and no password-reset. …
What really matters at this particular moment in time?
Its often incredibly hard for teams to keep focused on the 1 or 2 things that really matter at this particular moment in time.
Keep asking yourself:
“Will building this directly create the one or two results we need this quarter to reach our next [funding round, sales target, market expansion, etc.]?”
“Can we skip building anything and still validate this idea?”
“Would an end-user notice or care if this [button, option, information] simply didn’t exist?”
When you’re planning your OKRs, creating your board-meeting deck, planning your design sprint, designing a user flow, talking to customers, standing in daily-scrum, or debugging a 1000 line file… keep asking these questions.
Ask each day. Ask bravely. Ask with fresh eyes.
Ask like a new CEO on day one.
Illustration above by the amazingly talented Alexa Wright.
What is product design?
Want a concise definition that strips away all the nonessentials and describes the heart of the question?
Imagine this scenario:
You’re a design founder. Your mobile app has launched. You’ve raised some money and added some features, but now your growth has flat-lined. You need to show huge growth or revenue to survive. You have one month of runway and one developer. 30 more days until your product and company are dead.
Feel your blood pressure go up a few points? What do you do next?
Become very good — and quick — at killing bad ideas. …
The ignored, unglamorous, & difficult fundamentals.
Do You Personally Talk to Users?
Nothing will improve your designs more than talking to real people about their problems and watching them use your product.
Talking to users is a simple thing — but it’s arguably the most important design skill you can practice. Not pixels. Not code. Talking to humans.
You might have a UX researcher who is better at this, but why put a layer of abstraction between you and the people you’re trying to empathize with?
Product designers talk to their users. Mastery of product design is mastery of understanding people and learning why they do what they do. …
Nobody really knows – and that’s a problem.
How much is your studio worth?
When I ask designers this question, they tend to get defensive.
Why is that?
It’s a valid, albeit private, question to ask someone who owns a business. Maybe they don’t like the figure, and don’t want to disclose it. Maybe they think I’m trying to prove a point. Maybe they just don’t know.
The reality is, I don’t know. Nobody I talk to knows. Nobody on the Internet seems to know. How much is your studio worth? The details surrounding that question are dark data (i.e., …
The elusive business knowledge that designers need for startups…
I received this question from a designer friend who works at a consultancy, and wants to create his own digital product startup:
“You’ve been writing about designers starting companies lately, and you’ve piqued my interest. […] There are plenty of books that purport to teach design thinking to people with a business background. Can you recommend reading for designers interested in getting a better feel for how business decisions are made?”
I had no idea. Are there books like this for designers? …
I’m hiring designers right now for an unshiny commercial real-estate/tech startup. I’ve been talking to friends and candidates. As soon as I say “real-estate,” their eyes glaze over, and they start pondering their grocery list. What’s going on here?
A friend explained, “My designer friends only work on shiny products.”
Well put, friend. And I know what you mean.
Why do designers think this way? What is a “shiny product”?
On the surface, shiny describes simple, smart, beautiful interaction and visual design.
Under the surface, shiny signifies innovation: an interesting thesis, a mission that’s good for humanity, and the latest technology. It involves photos, music, videos or games. It’s glamorous. Fashion, food, and sex are at the forefront. You know, the good stuff. It’s a shiny product; something you want to dish about at Brooklyn Beta to make your friends super-envious. …
For many years I did terrible 1.0 web design. Then I worked for some giant branding agencies. I helped big brands turn their new product concepts into designed, built, market-ready products on the shelf. Once or twice, these products became multi-million dollar businesses. For years I couldn’t reconcile the massive value I created at the product level, with the microscopic rewards of a design consultant. I couldn’t make peace with this “value-disconnect”.
Next, I created my own one man design agency. I hustled and found some clients. I charged a ton and made their apps look fancy. I was getting closer, but the value disconnect stuck with me, quietly annoying me, as I built my business up, but ultimately towards nothing. …
As a designer in a tech startup, I sometimes receive urgent requests from founders searching for great design talent. Here’s one from the founder and CEO of a funded tech startup:
“My company is at the stage where we need to optimize for brand and value prop. I need some help/advice. We need to invest in some user research, flush the benefits, get those all over site, put creative in place with those benefits, and streamline funnels.”
His tone confused me. This didn’t sound like he “needed to optimize” at all.
It sounded like he was grappling with fundamental product-market-fit questions — and maybe he didn’t know how his company was relevant and different. And this CEO seemed ready to outsource it, speed it along, or just not be bothered by it. …