Is design a part of mainstream startup culture now? Absolutely.
GigaOm’s Roadmap Conference opened yesterday with a clear message from Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom — “some of the biggest services in the world started off with really simple problems.” The day’s themes were around focussing your product, going deep on user experience, empowering meaningful, high-quality content, and embracing design as a way of running your startup. It was an inspired roster of speakers and a promising outlook for the role of design in startups.
Focus Your Product + Go Deep on User Experience
Kickstarter’s Perry Chen talked to their team’s desire to stay small and focussed saying, “We want to do great things, but we want to stay small. To stay committed to the one thing that we do well. To shape the experience around this one thing that we’re committed to.” Similarly, Evan Williams shared that the goal of Medium, a product aimed at re-inventing publishing, “isn’t to reach the entire world; it’s to create depth of value.” And the strict focus and product experience was echoed even further by Systrom. “Once products become really popular,” he said, “there's a tendency to expand into additional verticals. But I decided really early that what we were going to do instead is take what we have and go really deep on the user experience. What can we do to make this experience superlative? What can we do to shave off load time? We believe that user experience is what makes people come back to the product again and again.”
The startup community has matured. “You’re going to have the smartest people in the world working as hard as they can, competing at every corner of the industry,” Williams said. So stay focused on your core mission and go deep.
Empower creators of high quality content.
Malik spoke to one of the major pain points of the internet — there’s simply too much information out there and not enough context. Twitter’s main API, for example, is called “The Firehose” — and it’s exactly that, a stream of new content with very little context and parsing.
But over the last few years, the shift has been towards the creator. For Instagram, it’s not about consumption, but about participation. During the past week’s hurricane, over 800K photos were tagged #Sandy — compared to the Super Bowl’s 85K. “You weren't far away,” Systrom said, “You weren't watching it on TV. You were participating in real time.” For Kickstarter, their bets are on creators. Chen said that “2% of the population is creators. 60K people have created projects on Kickstarter. And 3,000,000 people have backed a project.” For Medium, they’re betting on the fact that all creators are not created equal. “One of the things we're trying to go contrary on at Medium is that it's not always about new,” Williams said. Medium aims to improve quality on the web by empowering those influences who have better stories to tell and better insights to share.
Embrace design as a way of running your startup.
Design’s role in startups has long been misunderstood. AirBnB's co-founder Joe Gebbia shared that when AirBnB launched in 2008 their founding team of 2 designers and 1 engineer were introduced to 20 investors. And of that group, 10 replied, 3 met them for coffee, and zero invested. “We broke the mold of the traditional founding model for a startup,” Gebbia said. “People had a hard time understanding how a designer from art school could run a successful internet business.”
Zooming out even further, Systrom questioned the very role of design in a startup, asking if designers were even necessary in every company? “No,” he answered, referencing commodity businesses where simply shipping a product at a low cost might be all you need. “But,” he added, “if you decide that user experience is core to your company and if you believe that it can push the way forward, everything from the slides you put up at board meetings to the way you interview people matters.”
AirBnb baked design in from day one — taking the time to design the entire user experience from the maps to the review forms. Warby Parker? Same thing. CEO and co-founder Dave Gilboa thoughtfully discussed that they spent a year and a half designing a beautiful site, thick card stock printed elements in their packaging, and a really polished product. And Medium? They're competing for designers because, as Williams stated, “they're no longer a nice-to-have.”
If yesterday’s Roadmap conference is any indication of where the world's most talented entrepreneurs are betting, it’s on design's role as an essential element within the startup to create positive impact in the world. More design-savvy companies means more holistic, richer products. More high-quality content means a higher bar for the internet as a whole. And more understanding around the role of design in a startup means that design is no longer something you slap on at the end, but rather, as Williams said, “a part of everything that you do.”