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How deep does design go?
April 19, 2012 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Start Ups: This is how Design works.. A guide for non-designers by designer Wells Riley.

Related: Why can't Start Ups find designers?
posted by Potomac Avenue (46 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's not that startup founders don't appreciate design or acknowledge its importance. It's that a lot of the models for how you should run a startup - customer development, lean, mvp - emphasize learning what customers want at the greatest speed possible with minimal waste. You can have an incredibly well designed product but if it fails the expectations of the market, your startup is going to fail.

I like the idea of having a designer as a co-founder or part of the team. Silicon Valley has for many years emphasized the importance of having co-founders with both biz and dev competencies but I think the time has come to add designer to the equation.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:25 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Beautiful website in the current day style.

Cites are limited to [software] and one single industrial link reference to Wikipedia.

There's more to this than Dieter Rams (wonderful though he may be).

A sprinkling of curmudgeons like Norman et al wouldn't have hurt, especially if this is a primer.

Ditto reason why links need to be a little more deeper and wider for the curious learner to dive into.

A- for effort.

But a little more substance might have gotten him a scholarship.
posted by infini at 9:30 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dislike the design of the page itself. It seems jumpy. First the text is over here, now it's over there, and the white space is equally inconsistent so my eye can't use it as a guide. The different elements (fonts, images, video, etc.) don't come together in any kind of cohesion. It's ironic because the content does flow in a relatively logical cohesion, but the layout just feels jumbled.

"Consistency" isn't one of the cited ten principles, but I think it's somewhat implied by "unobtrusive." This page's layout is very inconsistent and (at least for me) it gets in the way of trying to process what it's saying.
posted by cribcage at 9:39 AM on April 19, 2012


Looks like someone needs to re-do his webpage design. Starting off with "hint, click the words that look like links!" doesn't help, either. In other words, TL;DR.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 9:50 AM on April 19, 2012


Yes, design is important when you are making what are essentially fashion items.
Startups like Path, Airbnb, Square, and Massive Health have design at the core of their business, and they're doing phenomenal work.
None of those companies are really about creating any kind of new "technology" It's just the same technology that's been around forever. AirBnB has an interesting business model. I don't even know what Massive Health is supposed to do but apparently they've raised $2.24 million dollars and have a calorie counting app. Path is just another social network, which apparently everyone still loves despite the fact they were caught surreptitiously uploading the contacts list from users's cellphones.

Any kind of business that depends on a social component necessarily needs to be fashionable to succeed. Myspace, despite being ugly was fashionable for a while. There were tons of other social networks that came out the same time facebook did, and never got any traction because they never became fashionable. Instagram was fashionable, Twitter became fashionable, and so on.

But moving beyond FB and myspace, which managed the technical challenge of making a scalable social network (which friendster failed to do) none of these companies are doing anything innovative in a technological sense.

The main point of this seems to be that people looking to start silicon valley startups should team up with guys* like him at the base level so the can become billionaires on exit just like the programmers and so on.

*I mean seriously, he had pictures of seven designers including himself and Dieter Rams. All dudes. His "special thanks" has 11 guy's names and 1 woman's. Design isn't even a male dominated field, as far as I know.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well he is talking about UI design. Delmoi can you name some software innovations that did not need attention to user interfacing?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:07 AM on April 19, 2012


This feels like: Ex-designer gets MBA and attempts to start design consultation business upon graduation.
posted by jnnla at 10:13 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there a new unwritten rule that says that a designer needs to have a smug-looking mugshot? I ask, because I don't have one and I am trying to get back into the field ...
posted by moonbiter at 10:14 AM on April 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Also: I love that 22% of the tech world people he talked to were like "Ehhh, no, my product's design sucks." The rest were probably too scared to answer honestly.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:15 AM on April 19, 2012


Well...It's all nice and all, and I certainly don't disagree with any of it in-principle. But, it's really just the [design]1% talking to the [tech]1%.

Most of it is meaningless to the small "tech" entrepreneurs here, who scream bloody murder at the idea of being charged more than $200 for a logo and identity program.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:17 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good design is not a collection of aphorisms, nor is it accomplished by the mindless aping of what is largely considered good design.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:21 AM on April 19, 2012


User Experience (UX) design "incorporates aspects of psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, graphic design, industrial design and cognitive science. Depending on the purpose of the product, UX may also involve content design disciplines such as communication design, instructional design, or game design."

Is this really true? That may be what Donald Norman means by it, and it sounds nice, but in practice the now-widespread use of the term seems more like a shift in the reference rather than the referent, at least in the web world: UX designers are just what we used to call graphic designers for web, and it doesn't seem like the practice involves any more empirical or inter-disciplinary aspects than it did before. I wish it did. Maybe then we could stop mistaking aesthetic fads for good, functional design.
posted by invitapriore at 10:27 AM on April 19, 2012


I think what is missing from the replies here thus far, and what this page fails to mention, are the studies showing that good designers make some of the best founders and building from good design to begin with is obviously going to make it a lot more likely you'll succeed as a whole -- software dev or otherwise.

That said, the comments here regarding the page design and the UX itself are spot on. When he launched this page, his portfolio was still in progress. Now he's updated it, and it is an eyesore. Design-student-turned-mere-advocate sounds about right.

Using High Charts was a nice touch, but making users click on definitions instead of using one of the thousands of JS tooltip libs was a poor decision. The layout itself seems more print-oriented, so maybe that explains his lack of web design savvy.

Delmoi -- while design isn't a male-dominated field, there's still not a lot of well-known female web designers. I've been considering starting a site devoted to highlighting women in UI/front-end design since I've found quite a few through Dribbble. Not sure if that would be interesting to people or 'just another blog'.
posted by june made him a gemini at 10:31 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because hanging out here is more fun in the middle of the night than anything more productive...

Well he is talking about UI design.

He doesn't clarify. His choice of words is very "and this is the final statement on this topic, so there" kind of tone.

Yes, design is important when you are making what are essentially fashion items.

Never mind.

None of those companies are really about creating any kind of new "technology" It's just the same technology that's been around forever. AirBnB has an interesting business model. I don't even know what Massive Health is supposed to do but apparently they've raised $2.24 million dollars and have a calorie counting app. Path is just another social network, which apparently everyone still loves despite the fact they were caught surreptitiously uploading the contacts list from users's cellphones.

I rather like Norman and Verganti's latest paper on this (PDF) though I have my own bones to pick but those are based more on operating environment differences.

This feels like: Ex-designer gets MBA and attempts to start design consultation business upon graduation.


Link says he's finishing up his BFA at NorthEastern. More like leveraging social networks, framing and language attempting at capturing the 10,000 eyeballs/sorry tweets and a job.

Most of it is meaningless to the small "tech" entrepreneurs here, who scream bloody murder at the idea of being charged more than $200 for a logo and identity program.


Until the day they find nobody is buying and stumble upon the Lean Startup or some such for an epiphany, at least for UX. (on preview, see invitapriore's observation)

/end indulgence
posted by infini at 10:32 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think what is missing from the replies here thus far, and what this page fails to mention, are the studies showing that good designers make some of the best founders and building from good design to begin with is obviously going to make it a lot more likely you'll succeed as a whole

Imho could be water for the fishes
posted by infini at 10:33 AM on April 19, 2012


Is this really true? That may be what Donald Norman means by it, and it sounds nice, but in practice the now-widespread use of the term seems more like a shift in the reference rather than the referent, at least in the web world: UX designers are just what we used to call graphic designers for web, and it doesn't seem like the practice involves any more empirical or inter-disciplinary aspects than it did before. I wish it did. Maybe then we could stop mistaking aesthetic fads for good, functional design.

Yes, that is what a UX designer really is. The problem is that UX gets flung around like nobody's business these days and unfortunately graphic designers inherently think they know a thing or two about heat maps and general user studies. As always, you are not the user.

A shop with a true UX designer works them in with the UI designers and engineers, but they also spend a lot of time with the architect and the business facet to ensure that needs are met in the most friendly form, not that needs are prettified to cover broken functions.
posted by june made him a gemini at 10:34 AM on April 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


delmoi: none of these companies are doing anything innovative in a technological sense.

Not defending Riley, or his unimpressive site, but this is a strange argument. Innovation necessarily has a technological and a commercialization component. You could argue that "building a scalable network" was more impressive or significant than being able to design a business model that can attract and sustain a billion users, but I don't know how strong that argument would be. Future historians, even technology-focused ones, will probably not look back and marvel at Facebook's technical accomplishments, but more likely will talk about how Facebook was able to get a sixth of the world's population to all use the same product and the implications of that phenomenon for our culture, society, etc.

Similarly, Google is notable not for their search algorithms or their massive server farms, but for Adsense and how that allowed them to dominate online search. Was this a technical or technological innovation as much as a business model innovation? The two are unavoidably intertwined, but it strikes me as weird to focus on the technology side of things as if the other side didn't matter (one could argue that the only real technological innovation that matters with any of these companies is the Internet itself which none of them are responsible for.)
posted by AceRock at 10:35 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Was this a technical or technological innovation as much as a business model innovation? The two are unavoidably intertwined, but it strikes me as weird to focus on the technology side of things as if the other side didn't matter (one could argue that the only real technological innovation that matters with any of these companies is the Internet itself which none of them are responsible for.)

An invention is not an innovation until adopted by the users ~ John Heskett (2003)
posted by infini at 10:38 AM on April 19, 2012


Yes, that is what a UX designer really is. The problem is that UX gets flung around like nobody's business these days and unfortunately graphic designers inherently think they know a thing or two about heat maps and general user studies. As always, you are not the user.

Yeah, that's what I was getting at, I think I just mis-phrased it -- it's not so much "does UX as described this way actually exist," but rather, "can I depend on the people that claim to be UX designers actually having a grounding in the things that nominally define the discipline?" It seems like the answer to that second question is "no, not necessarily," and that's a shame.
posted by invitapriore at 10:52 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hmm. MISSING: Any mention of concepts like design for manufacturability, or reliability, or mistake-proofing, or serviceability; these are extremely important in everything under-the-hood. Here I'm referring to manufactured things more than software products. The look and feel of a keyboard is important, but almost meaningless if the mechanism underneath the key fails in fewer than a thousand presses and can't be repaired because the damn thing was glued together and will be destroyed by trying to take it apart.
posted by drhydro at 10:56 AM on April 19, 2012


Similarly, Google is notable not for their search algorithms or their massive server farms, but for Adsense and how that allowed them to dominate online search.

Maybe, but first of all their algorithm was no joke back in the day, but/and secondly, their design was perfect. From the perspective of a relatively ignorant late-blooming internet user in 2001, compared to all the other search pages, crowded with ads, add ons, and other detritus, Google.com was clean, pure and intuitive. It inspired calm and trust. It was magnificently designed. The best-designed thing doesn't always win (RIP Gowalla) but when it does, the design clearly had something to do with it, right?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:58 AM on April 19, 2012


I work for an established consultancy (on the services and products sides of things) and I wanted to a make a few points.

- UX Designer is a terribly misused term. We all do "User Experience" design; visual, strategist, business etc. The people that specialize in creating experience architecture are Interaction Designers. They're just one piece of creating a great user experience as mentioned in the article.

- Everybody is a damn UX designer. It's a young profession, and far and wide it's a masturbatory practice of just ripping off products in the market place from Apple, Google, Facebook, etc and calling it "best practices." The best interaction designers (I've met very few in the whole bay area) have a great understanding of using the concept of best practices as an auditing process for understanding the competitive landscape and creating a solution that is appropriate and tailored for the specific user experience they're designing.

- Innovation. I want to slap the word out of people's mouths. Companies small and large should be concerned with first creating a great product/service before trying to push the boundaries of what it is. People mistake what Apple does as innovation. Apple just does things takes the time and spends the money to do things right. Were they the first touch screen phone? No. They just made one that didn't suck. Play the game well before you try to change how the game is played completely.
posted by straight_razor at 11:08 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


What Google did was take the 'simplicity' which was at the core of their design value/philosophy and eff with it behind the scenes so that the simple, easy, fast loading search engine now takes eons for an inbox to load.

As drhydro says, just because it looks pretty on the outside doesn't mean its not like a monopolistic PC OS on the inside.. overcooked spaghetti.
posted by infini at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2012


You could argue that "building a scalable network" was more impressive or significant than being able to design a business model that can attract and sustain a billion users
Impressive and significant businesses are not "technology" though. Home Depot is not technology, Nike isn't really "technology" (other then silly gimmicks) Versace and Louis Vitton aren't technology, and they've all built business.
Similarly, Google is notable not for their search algorithms or their massive server farms, but for Adsense and how that allowed them to dominate online search. Was this a technical or technological innovation as much as a business model innovation?
First of all you're putting the cart before the horse. Google's search technology worked, while their competitors didn't, that was what allowed them to dominate online advertising. Their search worked, and people liked their lack of portal crap. That gave them a lot of page views to advertise on. Their first business model was actually selling appliances to corporations that they could use to search their own intranets.

And how was adsense even innovative? Sites like doubleclick were trying to context sensitive ads long before Google started. Google's algorithms might have been a little better, and their competitors were destroyed by the dotcom crash. That let them pick up the pieces by copying other text-ad companies that cropped up afterwords. If they were better able to target people, it was by having better algorithms to do so.
posted by delmoi at 11:12 AM on April 19, 2012


Dave Morin looks familiar...
posted by Meatbomb at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2012


It's that a lot of the models for how you should run a startup - customer development, lean, mvp - emphasize learning what customers want at the greatest speed possible with minimal waste.

In a manner of speaking, that is good design.
posted by infini at 11:17 AM on April 19, 2012


With all due respect, delmoi...
posted by infini at 11:18 AM on April 19, 2012


Saw this in the page source and it made me chuckle:

- Notes -
"Yo dawg, why isn't your site responsive? Also, your code is crap."

- I know. I'm a designer first and a coder second. Due to the nature of completing a large scale research project on my own, I had to prioritize. Unfortunately, perfect code doesn't rank as high as the message or layout in this particular instance.

That being said, shoot me an email (wells.riley - me.com) if you notice anything I can easily fix. I love you.
posted by pmcp at 11:24 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love you.

Is this a thing? Should they be getting off on my lawn?
posted by infini at 11:26 AM on April 19, 2012


Should they be getting off on my lawn?

Yes, along with all the anthropomorphised fruit juices.
posted by pmcp at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


delmoi, we're talking past each other a little bit here. My argument is that innovation is not only or even primarily about technology but rather equally about economic viability, value creation, capturing, and delivery (business model design). My apologies for the MBA buzz words, but Google's search algorithm of course needed to work and work better, but it needed to be embedded in a business model and a commercial system so that people could utilize it and so that Google could continue to offer and improve it, with both sides benefiting. And I mean, the algorithm was not a technological leap either, but an improvement over other search engines. Moreover, it was an idea taken from citation analysis in academia and ported over and made applicable to web search.

History is literred with examples of inventions that cam "before their time". Shit, someone built what we would recognize as a rudimentary programmable computer in the 1800s. But the inventions that stick, the ones that matter, are (besides being lucky) embedded in business models that work. Famously, Apple's personal computer was not a huge technical or technological achievement, but more of a business model achievement. Apple figured out how to rearrange mostly existing technology in such a way to deliver computing and its value to the masses. Design is and was only important in that it helped deliver value to people, making computing intuitive, simple, accessible, etc (not just pretty or fashionable or attractive, though those things too). Again, I apologize for using the word "value" so much, but it works here.
posted by AceRock at 11:36 AM on April 19, 2012


Putting what AceRock has just said about creating value into perspective here, one can see this clearly in the difference between the introduction of the Segway - an innovative invention or "new technology" and the iPod - nothing terribly new in a well designed package except for the innovation in creating an entire ecosystem from device --> service ---> business/revenue model -->end user (badly articulated) but the bottomline, if I might use that double entendre, being the iPod has since managed to change the way "we" listen to, store and purchase music while human transportation has not really evolved much from what it was 10 years ago i.e. we're not whizzing about on that thing the way you see everyone with white buds in their ear on the street.

I know, my sentences are always far too long.
posted by infini at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2012


In Silicon Valley, Designers emerge as Rock Stars
posted by Bwithh at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2012


UX is mostly a buzz word. It gets thrown around a lot on resumes and job postings, but there doesn't seem to be any agreed-upon definition of what a "UX designer" does. When somebody says there's a "UX issue" in a meeting, they usually mean "this will make users angry/frustrated". So I usually take it to mean that a UX designer is someone doing product development whose area of focus is on a high-level design approach as opposed to, say, someone who designs logos or icons.
posted by deathpanels at 2:03 PM on April 19, 2012


delmoi, we're talking past each other a little bit here. My argument is that innovation is not only or even primarily about technology but rather equally about economic viability
Sure, but the focus of this piece seems to be entirely about high valuation "tech" start-ups in silicon valley. He doesn't specifically call them "Tech" startups, though. But instead he seems to be talking about them as if they are the only thing called "startups" in the world. There are lots of startups that don't have programmers/technical guys as founders because they don't involve programming or anything technical at all. New restaurants, for example. New fashion labels: obviously they would need designers. Does a new Mining company need to focus on design? What about a new reinsurance company? A new Hedge fund?

On the other hand, a tech company with a new type of microchip doesn't need a designer as a founder, does it? Would a company with a new video compression codec need one? A company with a new database engine?

What I would say is that a lot of the companies getting a lot of hype these days came from the same funding sources as traditional tech companies - Silicon Valley VCs, but they are really more about fashion and about what's current and being popular. So of course, if you are selling fashion, you need designers. You probably don't even need developer founders at all.
Apple's personal computer was not a huge technical or technological achievement, but more of a business model achievement.
Yeah, that's not really true at all. What Woz was able to do was create a system that could be used with with a TV for a monitor that sold for a couple hundred bucks. It was a major technological advance. As far as I know, Apple's business model selling the Apple 2 (and the Apple 1) wasn't any different then any other other small scale electronics company. You buy a bunch of electronic components, solder them together, stick the completed boards in a case and mail them out. It wasn't any different then what the Altair was doing, the difference is that the design was far superior from a technological perspective.

I mean, compare it to the Altair, which came out in 1975 - it had no floppy drive and the (paper) teletype for it cost $1500. The apple 2 had color graphics that you could use on a regular television, and didn't use an off the shelf video chipset (from what I can tell) That was 2 years later, in 1977. From a technical perspective it was revolutionary.
posted by delmoi at 2:13 PM on April 19, 2012


So what you're saying is that the author of the website's lack of focus and breadth and scale of knowledge has derailed the thread.
posted by infini at 2:17 PM on April 19, 2012


I'm pretty sure that the Apple ][ was sold as a complete package, not as a kit.

While there were lots of small, important tech innovations (Woz's controller for the floppy drive is basically what made floppy drives affordable) it was that they made the Personal Computer a product, not a project.
posted by modernserf at 2:34 PM on April 19, 2012


My eyes hurt trying to read that site. No joke.
posted by davejay at 3:12 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


On bwithh's linked 'news' - feels like they just invented sex. But I wonder if I could be wrong and its actually something more significant than simply "design thinking" being plastered everywhere all over again? Last time it was industrial design and strategy/business, this time its UX and Interaction Design or is it simply that the media has actually noticed that design graduates have been moving to the West Coast for the first time?
posted by infini at 3:21 PM on April 19, 2012


I'm pretty sure that the Apple ][ was sold as a complete package, not as a kit.
I'm pretty sure you could buy Altairs pre-assembled if you wanted. And again, I said their bussiness model wasn't any different then other electronics companies. Walkmans could be purchased as a complete package as well. So could Pong machines. The big difference was the fact that it was a practical computer you could use in your home with a TV set. Lots of other people would have sold similar devices if they had been able to make them as cheap, but they couldn't.

There was nothing particularly innovative about the business model as far as I know: selling circuit boards in boxes that you hooked up to a TV. The Atari 2600 hadn't come out yet, but home game systems were already available. The "Business Model" was the same, the difference was the technology.
posted by delmoi at 3:25 PM on April 19, 2012


Yes. You're absolutely correct. Now, its time for my Segway practice before I get sucked into someone being wrong on the interwebs. But oh wow, my first time ever of teetering on that edge.
posted by infini at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2012


(Great segway segway there infini.)
posted by pmcp at 5:35 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes. You're absolutely correct. Now, its time for my Segway practice before I get sucked into someone being wrong on the interwebs. But oh wow, my first time ever of teetering on that edge.
*shrug* You keep hinting that you disagree with some of my comments, but if you don't say what the actual reason is there isn't really anything I can do.
posted by delmoi at 7:55 PM on April 19, 2012


say what the actual reason is there isn't really anything I can do.

Its not actually any given reason and absolutely nothing you've said is incorrect in any way, shape or form.

As someone said above, we're talking past each other - you're describing the beams, the skeletal structure and the columns, I'm not talking about the paint on the wall but the impact of the whole building against the landscape in which it will reside.
posted by infini at 1:10 AM on April 20, 2012


Well, this guy isn't really worried about that either. He's arguing that people like him should get a chunk (or a bigger chunk) of the money that gets made putting up the building.
posted by delmoi at 10:48 PM on April 20, 2012


That's why I flunked him.
posted by infini at 10:50 PM on April 20, 2012


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