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Visual design will not fix your broken business (micrypt.com)
92 points by kazey on May 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

Love the headline, but a bit more needs to be explained.

As a designer, I get tons of requests to work with startups only to later find out that they want an aesthetic layer slapped on top. Is this possible? Certainly. But it doesn't address major problems with your experience, content structure, or the most important thing: the message you're trying to convey.

The thing missing in this article is that, for a good designer, it's quite the thinking man's game. For example, I'm working on a design now where the original menu system wasn't 100% clear and by trying a couple of different approaches, we came to something great. This is key: hire someone who thinks about the problems, not the aesthetics. A solid designer will address the problems and then devise an aesthetic strategy.

Most importantly: show respect for designers. The good ones can help you immensely.

Namedropping Google, Facebook, Apple (Microsoft, Oracle, Rovio, Netgear, OMGPOP, Path, Foursquare, Twitter, ad nauseam) as a supporting argument for/against the right designer/developer mix in your theoretical generic startup is lazy, and ultimately pointless.

What type of startup? Is it a native app-focused endeavor or will it be browser-based? What if it requires NO developers and can run on some out of the box solution or SaaS/PaaS? What if you use Twitter bootstrap and outsource/contract your minimal design needs??

There is no secret sauce, people -- success is a highly-variable mix of hard work and luck. Period. You could do everything right and still fail. And vice versa. Just look around a your local brick and mortars. How many establishments have been making a go of it for years, even decades, with subpar products and services?

This has been, is, and will be the case for every type of business for a long time.

Get over yourself, get out there, and fucking do it anyway.

A good design on a bad product or business probably won't help in the long run.

Conversely, a bad design on a good product can hinder a project in the long run.

Designers are an important part of the mix, but you'd be a fool to concentrate on design alone. In my own experience, we successfully bootstrapped a startup with no designer, winging it based on user feedback and our own intuition. But when we got funding, the first person we hired was a designer - and the popularity of the product rose accordingly.

> "Note: if you are a designer and you are at the point where you wish to get better at programming, read a book. Heck, read two. Now, you know more than enough to cope with most decisions you will encounter."

See how silly that sounds when you turn it around? Author seems to think that all it takes it a couple of books a bit of practice to become competent at design.

Sadly typical for engineers to hand-wave everything that isn't engineering away as a job easy enough for monkeys.

Just to be the devil's advocate here:

A designer who reads a couple books about programming is somewhat less likely to generate a lot of value for customers than a developer who reads a couple books about design. Success or failure in many (maybe most?) markets is much more sensitive to engineering talent than design talent.

"is somewhat less likely to generate a lot of value for customers" - based on what exactly? This sounds very arbitrary and you don't cite any reasons for this belief.

"success...is much more sensitive to engineering talent" - again, is that a fact? what is that assertion based on?

Part of it is common sense. Plenty of ugly working apps do fine in the market. Apps that don't work at all don't ever do fine.

Part of it is long-term experience. My field is dominated by products that sell to businesses; they have universally terrible UIs, many of which wouldn't have passed muster in 1999.

Part of it is direct, current, ongoing experience: we sell security engineering services to application providers, and so my working weeks consist of looking at other people's applications --- in fact, of looking at successful applications, because nobody spends 5 figures on security assessment if their app isn't doing well. Most of the applications we see look worse and are less useable than Themeforest templates.

Part of it is friends, who have launched products on templates instead of professional designs, who have done fine and not observed any objection to their application's lack of a vertical baseline typographic grid or the correct noise texture in the background or the color-theoretic implications of their button colors. Again: launched on templates, did fine.

HN overvalues design expertise. For most of the businesses started by people on HN, from weather tracking to fraud prediction to appointment reminding to credit card processing, a unique design tailored to the company's exact business is not a real requirement. In many cases, custom designs are mostly about vanity.

I'm not bagging on designers. My sense is that for the subset of designers who are actually both talented and competent consultants, there is too much work, not too little. I admire and can geek out about graphic design and UX. I wish designers the best.

But: design is one of those things that keeps people from shipping their apps, or sometimes even from starting on it. The belief that a poorly designed rev1 app will destroy the prospects of a new business has harmed more startups than inadequate design ever will. Unrealistic and frankly pointless expectations about bespoke design are a mental obstacle to getting shit done. So I think it's worth pointing out how overvalued design is, repeatedly and at length.

So true. We (engineers) most of the time miss the point in design, and think of it as a technical field which is so not true. It takes practice, a keen eye and lots of theory in order to be able to craft serious designs.

It's almost like saying "Buy a bunch of books, learn Autocad and you'll be an architect in no time"

Exactly. It always amazes me that so many engineers dismiss attempting to learn about design. It amazes me because, in so many ways, engineering IS design. You can't really untangle the two. A well engineered application is a well designed one. They both inform and guide each other.

This is an extremely important point to understand.

Visual aesthetics is about optimizing not about fundamentally solving business problems.

Of course you need something that is not completely impossible to look at but obviously the world is filled with less than pleasing visual solutions on very successful businesses.

If you are dealing with designers as customers you obviously need to prioritize the visual aspect. And visual design can be used in saturated markets to become the preffered choice but it can also work against you.

All businesses must figure out to what extent design is important for their success not just assume that it will help.

The point about visual aesthetics may be true, but that's only a part of what a graphic designer does: a good graphic designer will solve communication problems, and that is definitely a business problem worth solving well.

Yes but communication problems are primarily existing pre-sales and some people are very good at that.

Designing the actual interface/service/functionality/product is a different problem all together.

Maybe the term "communication problem" isn't the best. A better one might be usability, or interaction design. Good design has heaps of it. And it's not aesthetics alone. A designer should go a lot further - scope includes accesibility and (if you're unlucky enough to work with me) information architecture/design.

Knowing how a colour wheel works doesn't solve problems like a custom-designed, ticked-out über-awesome CSS -based drop-down list that doesn't respond to keypresses.

Knowing when to use search, and when to use tags, or how to group search results in a way that makes sense to the use context is worth paying a lot more for than just coming up with a cool UI concept.

TLDR - this blog post is bang on the bucks.

Yeah I think we agree.

The only point I am trying to make is that there are many many great webdesigners out there that can make beautiful websites that communicate well. But it it's often the same guys that design something like an interface or a mobile app.

The creative agency world is filled with people able to do artistically stunning websites but they are approaching it from a communication/advertising point of view where you might be exposed to the site once or twice. This is very different than doing something like say hipmunk.

This article offers little in the way of useful advice and seems to be a bit prejudicial toward designers in general.

A more useful topic would have been that design alone will not guarantee the success of your business.

The reality of the matter is that both design and engineering are critical aspects of your business in different ways.

Design IS important. Like it or not, the design of your website and your product screen-caps are the first thing any potential customer is going to see. A well designed brand does influence buying decisions, that's a fact.

Furthermore, users don't care about how well your code is written. The only contact they have with your code is through your UI. If the experience is not well designed, you're not really doing your job. Everything else being equal, a consumer is always going to choose software that is pleasant to use over software that is merely "functional".

That being said, once you entice users to try your product, the engineering better be solid.

So there you go, two important skills- both of which add to the value that you're (hopefully) offering to your customers.

"Designer" is underspecified.

Engineers are, in general, bad at two things:

- Designing a product that people want to use. By this I mean focusing the idea, cutting off the extra bits, refining the workflow, making it simple enough for people to understand, pivoting it slightly to solve a different need, and designing the basic methods of interaction.

- Making it look pretty.

"Designer" could mean either (or both! or neither!) of these tasks. The first is what a co-founder should be. The second is someone you hire.

Good design is a strong component for your startup's success today. unlike some 10-15 years ago, users now have high expectations for your product design- thanks to the likes of Apple- and I see this is where inexperienced people get stuck- After it looks like Apple's, What next?

It took Apple a couple of decades to really get serious about design aesthetics - e.g. the first iMacs. Earlier designs were primarily driven by function - nobody would describe an Apple II as "just gorgeous" or the first Macs as expressing much other than functional considerations.

Industrial design always matters, but your startup doesn't need a Dreyfuss or a Loewy.

Even the first Mac was pretty gorgeous compared to something like an IBM PC or clone.

A period where they did lose their elegance was when Jobs was in exile, they started looking like pretty ordinary (though still decent) PC systems.


>> Esslinger convinced Jobs that zero-draft tooling was essential. As well as gaining a subtle but powerful precision to the shape of Apple's cases, it decreased their actual size. A zero-draft enclosure could fit more tightly around the components within, and, despite the tooling expense, the resulting decrease in plastic could eventually decrease costs. Moreover, zero-draft molding, being an unusual, complex and expensive technology, helped prevent a growing problem for Apple: unauthorized clones.


That's not aesthetics.

>Even the first Mac was pretty gorgeous"

It was the same beige as everything else and had the same square corners. It was aesthetically equivalent to a C64 or a PET 16 or any one of a large number of name brands.

That's not to say it wasn't sound industrial design, only that it's aesthetics didn't differentiate it in the way the first iMac's aesthetics differentiated it.

Yep. Launching something today that looks like the original Craigslist or even Google now is a waste of time. Expectations have changed.

I think that design is just as important as how it functions. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In a day and age where there are so many options which can do similar things, the better looking one often gets chosen. So to say that if you read a book or two about design that magically you'll know what you need to in order to be an effective designer lacks any and all logic in thinking. That would be like me saying, well I finished my ruby course at codeacademy, now I'm an engineer with the ability to build apps.

Design, like coding, takes absolute determination and vigilance in perfecting. It not something you just 'learn to do' over a night or even a few months. The quote by Dieter (a design hero of mine) was also taken out of context. Everyone in the company needs to be adept in their role, and have a bit of say as to how the product should be. He didn't say you only need engineers who can read design books.

So how about you focus on doing what you do best, and let the designers continue focusing on what they do best. Perhaps start a company with 3 instead of two. A designer, an engineer, and a business minded individual. Imagine that.

A product needs the right balance between visual appeal and technical elegance. There is no single recipe to get that. It can be achieved in several ways.

These articles are written in a situation where the balance is not right and depending on the situation, the author recommends the other side.

I am in a situation where the design is too much in lead and technical aspects are forgotten. The psd's are often all worked out in detail without considering if it is technically possible or there are far more better approaches to solve the problems then in the visual designs. Also the visual designs are inconsistent and cause confusion because there is not a idea how it really should work.

But this doesn't mean I'll have to preach that development is more important. The right balance needs to be found. But this advice is to nuanced to get any attention.

> Visual aesthetics are rarely enough. Getting a product into the hands of potential customers is important.

The problem here is that 6 or 8 years ago, building a basic product was a lot harder than it is today. I'm a designer and I used to spend a huge amount of time coding a product I wanted to build and less time designing it. Back then the differentiator was essentially launching a product.

These days you can get hold of a decent framework that does most of what you need so the rest of the time can be spent on design (or whatever else is important to you). As a result, launching a product is no longer impressive and good styling / usability are important differentiators.

Out-of-the-box software is getting so good / complete that products need to look elsewhere to stand out.

A startup founder is a designer.

The entire purpose of a startup is to redesign some aspect of the user's life. A startup takes some experience in the world that has low usability, and makes that aspect of your life more usable. Having a founder with a design background, meaning someone who actually understands usability and how to simplify experiences CAN fix your broken business, assuming that the purpose of your business is to simplify some experience and make it more usable, which is what pretty much all businesses are. Additionally, the UI is not "just pixels" any more than a song is just "a C and a D chord" or a table is "just wood". The interface is the means through which the user problem is solved. From the user's perspective, the interface is the app -- the entirety of the app -- nothing other than the interface exists. And the user's perspective is the only one that matters.

Now, does this mean you can have a founding team without a developer? No, of course not. You need a technical founder. You should have a designer, a developer, and a hustler/biz person, but those don't need to be three separate people; one person can embody several of those qualities.

> If a reader is aware of a study that quantifies the influence of “good” design (however that is defined) on startup success, I would be interested in having a read.

This is not exactly what you're looking for, but here are two studies concerned with the aesthetic-usability effect. The summary is that aesthetically-pleasing interfaces are judged by users to be easier to use, regardless of their actual usability.

"Apparent Usability vs. Inherent Usability Experimental analysis on the determinants of the apparent usability" - CHI '95 Proceedings - http://www.sigchi.org/chi95/proceedings/shortppr/mk_bdy.htm

"Aesthetics and Apparent Usability: Empirically Assessing Cultural and Methodological Issues" - CHI '97 Proceedings - http://www.sigchi.org/chi97/proceedings/paper/nt.htm

You could also test this yourself on your own software with an A/B test. Use two designs with the same feature set. Use a plain interface for one and a nice interface on the other. Whichever one brings better results according to your business needs is the one you should use.

Personally, I believe context is just as important as beauty in design. If an interface is plain but helps me get the job done faster because my brain is able to concentrate better, I would consider that better design.

But in general, given two designs of equal features, I prefer the one that looks better, however that is defined. I'm not a social psychologist, but one would probably tell you most people have the same preference.

In the second study listed above, the reference section lists this 1980 study: "Defendant's Attractiveness as a Factor in the Outcome of Criminal Trials". Search the web for an abstract. As you might guess from the title, the study found "the more attractive the defendant, the less severe the sentence imposed."

Also, design of emotion things by has don norman has affirmed what you said. People will prefer find visual/aesthetically beautiful things to be more "usable" than its non visual/aesthetically pleasing counterpart.

Universal Principle Design calls this "aesthetic-usability" effect.

> I am concerned that “I am looking for a design co-founder” will become the new “I am looking for a technical co-founder.”

This is essentially what the article boils down to and I think the fear is unfounded. Even the greenest wantrepreneur realizes that you need an engineer to build their awesome idea. The fact that some might focus on designer as well is just one of a million suboptimal decisions a founder might make.

At the end of the day, it's just like everything else in early-stage life: you need to make the most of the resources you have. If you can get an amazing designer on board then by all means go for it, if not grab a copy of bootstrap, try to develop a modicum of taste and take a look at archive.org to remind yourself that successful startups that had bangin visuals off the gate are the exception not the rule.

I think it really depends on what you are doing. Making it look good is the easy part, making it work is something completely different.

There are plenty of designer who can design beautifully illustrated landing pages but that can't design a product to save their lives.

If treated without some sort of caution all you will increase the risk of producing beautiful products that don't work.

As long as we're shooting down strawmen, why don't I write a similar article entitled "technology will not fix your broken business", where I explain why upgrading your app to the latest version of Rails is not enough to make it an overnight viral sensation?

That might make a good post. I can think of several folks I wish would read something like that.

Updating for security or real bug fixes is one thing. Running the treadmill of always trying to have the "latest and greatest" of everything wastes a lot of time.

I agree with the author's central point, although I don't know if I would de-emphasize the importance of the visual designer to such an extent. I think a couple of the examples he links to (Google, Facebook) are outliers. They succeeded in spite of their lack of visual design because their products weren't just executed well; they were executed extremely well. Generally speaking though it takes a bit more finesse in order to make your users feel at home using your product.

With that said, I agree that if the core product isn't well engineered then no amount of lipstick on the pig is going to make it usable. You can paint rust any color you like but it's still rust.

You could add eBay, Amazon, Craig's List, Yahoo, etc. I don't really think they are outliers - if you offer a product with real value, lack of design may have an impact, but the value you provide to customers will vastly outweigh it.

Not that I think design should be ignored, but sadly some of the giants have ignored it and done remarkably well regardless.

Yahoo IMO survived based on sheer inertia and likely based on its one-time command of at least a large portion of the online advertising market, and email. Certain site segments were pretty innovative (Yahoo Finance was a great resource for a while).

In 1997, Yahoo offered real value (it made sense of the Web). Even in the early 2000s, ditto. The problem with the real value proposition is that if someone succeeds in providing realer value, so to speak, you're sunk.

CL is a very interesting exceptional case. I'll note that they've had a designer position open recently.

What I think many programmers miss with "visual design" is that the mere "pixels" are the user interface. They are one the most important parts of an app. Done right they should make an app both easier to learn and more efficient to use. Conversely, it is true that design that over focuses on form at the expense of function can make for a bad user experience indeed. I'm neither a designer or programmer, but I rely on software to make my living, and the difference in quality between apps that have apparent feature parity is vast base on their UI.

I agree. The problem with some design these days is when it focuses too much on form and not enough on function. Great design by definition is form meets function. For apps, a great design means that the visuals don't come in the way of intuitive interactions. The visuals need to support and enhance the user interaction with inputs and outputs. Then you have great design.

I do agree to an extent, I believe that the biggest boost a start-up will see is from a first reaction/visual experience. If you can nail that on day one, I believe it will do more benefit than using a second rate/typical UI with brilliant code.

However it really depends on WHAT your product is, before you decide on how important the designers role will be.

Is this article focused on in-house/high end designer partner VS hiring a designer? Or is the other option sourcing to a design firm/agency?

One could extend this idea to all "execution" related practices: design, engineering, etc.

"Good execution will not fix your broken business".

If you are solving the wrong problem, targeting the wrong market or building the wrong product, good execution will not save your business. Both the strategy ('what') and the execution ('how') have to be right for the business to succeed.

A certain app I'm familiar with launched with a pixel-perfect UI and a steaming pile of code that did its best to hide errors (which were numerous).

People loved it. Today, the design is unchanged, but the engineering has been entirely redone.

Good design can buy you time.

Visual design might not fix your broken business, but if done right it can turn your good business into a great business. Which is the goal of almost every startup.

I can guarantee that visual design will not fix anyone's broken business, if someone can guarantee me that:

- Nobody cares how anything looks - any two things that are functionally equivalent are guaranteed to have equivalent conversions

- Looks have no impact on usability - anything that is functionally equivalent is guaranteed to be equally usable

- Usability does not translate to users - no correlation with whether a user has a preference for some look and feel with the number of such users you will get

In short, if visual design has no correlation with any part of the business, and, notably, people are as likely to pay, and will pay the same amount, for any two things that are functionally equivalent, then I can guarantee you that visual design will not fix anyone's broken business. If any of the above are not true - well, all bets are off.

I didn't read the piece as arguing that design is irrelevant, or that good design doesn't add to things like conversion, usability, or usage.

Fair enough. If you can guarantee that adding to conversion, usability, usage, etc, can't fix a broken business, then I'll accept that visual design can't fix your broken business.

Basically, I'm saying "it just might."

> In my experience

Only a fool would pretend to be blissfully unaware of what he's talking about and then offer you advice on the very subject of his ignorance.

I'm not sure "In my experience" suggests the OP is unaware of what he's talking about, in fact, quite the opposite.

The mere fact that OP is still wasting time debating the merits of investing in engineering over design is a dead giveaway that he has not a clue. The debate has been dead for quite some time now.

Let me clarify this for those not in the know:

Unless you're in the business of selling design services, under no circumstances should you ever hire a full-time staff designer, never mind considering them for an equity-sharing position at the outset of your enterprise.

If one doesn't know what should and shouldn't be hired for in the early stage startup, one shouldn't be wasting their time pontificating about it. OP is a moron.

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