Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Waste not, want not (the mystery of the design-resistant startup) [post 25/100]

One of the students in the session I taught on Wednesday night – a super-bright 21 year old working for a startup – said he’s grown frustrated with the attitudes in the startup community, which always seem to demand a quite narrow “value proposition” defined more in business terms than in human terms. I’ve noticed this too of course, and often it seems the decision making process for investors has more to do with whether they think the idea fills a hole in the market than whether the product holds value for the end-user. There are some topics that I find it difficult to write about, and this is one – I tend to get ranty rather than productive, which doesn’t help – but I’ve been challenged to try, so here goes.

I don’t have anything against the startup community per se – I run one, for crying out loud. I love it that the entrepreneurial spirit is greeted with respect these days. Several of my friends either own or work in startups, and they are doing great things. What I take issue with is the fact that it often seems the customers of the startups aren’t the actual customers, but rather the investment community, which is not at all the same thing.

I’ve written about this before in the context of monetisation models, this time I’m on about design. A huge proportion of products that fail, fail because of poor design, and yet I still frequently hear that design resources are questioned by investors where technology resources are not. I have difficulty understanding this mentality. Most investors will agree that telling the story of the product, and telling that story well, is one of the key factors in a successful pitch. Good design is how the product tells its story to its users – why is that somehow seen as less important?

I once heard a founder at an industry event boasting to a prospective investor that he’d put together his whole app without ‘wasting any money on design’ – as if design is some kind of luxury that should be eschewed in the name of more practical, less fluffy considerations. These are usually the same guys who think the key to adoption is marketing. Seriously? Over 60% of all apps downloaded are used less than 10 times before they’re discarded – marketing might get you some downloads, but design will get you users that stick.

We used to get away with a lot in the digital space – because there were a limited number of resources, applications and ways of doing things, people pretty much had to put up with what they were given even if the experience kinda sucked. Now that we have over 2.5 million apps on iPhone and Android alone, that’s no longer the case. If an app is poorly designed, users will find another one that works better.

The other issue with hole-plugging – prioritising ideas that fill a gap in the market, no matter how small – is that it fails to consider the fact that users are actually people who have other shit to do besides messing about with their smartphones all day. Statistics suggest people are only able to cope with about 25 apps on an ongoing (monthly) basis, so how can it be a sustainable practice to crowd the marketplace with ever more single-purpose or extremely limited apps? I’m all for originality, but I wonder how often ideas for hole-plugging apps are considered within the broader context of the user’s personal ecosystem and life. Then again, there are still a fair number of companies out there that aren’t looking to make a successful product so much as to make something they think Google or Facebook will buy – maybe they think this is a viable means to that end.

App retention rates have been incrementally improving over the past few years, so maybe the gospel of design is catching on – I certainly hear promising things from my stateside friends. I still think it’s useful to remember who we’re making all these apps for (or who we should be): people. People will pay for what makes them happy, so make them happy regularly and you’ll have a regular revenue stream. That won’t satisfy those who are in it to become overnight billionaires, but it will make life a whole lot nicer for the rest of us.