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Need a Technical Co-founder? Hire a Product Design Lead First

Every business person with a dollar and a dream these days thinks they’re a technical co-founder away from interweb stardom.  It’s great if you can find one—but even if you can, I’m not sure it’s always the best move.  That’s counter to what I used to think before, but I’ve done some more thinking about it.

The reality is, a lot of the stuff being built now isn’t rocket science.  If you read Marco from Instapaper, you see that what makes Instapaper great isn’t the technology and his ability to write code, but his thoughtfulness around design.  He has spent a lot of time thinking about what users really want to do to solve information overload problems.  He thinks about how he can offer solutions, not create more problems like RSS readers did.  Good design is winning all over the web--at sites like Mint, Twitter,and Quora.   User centric design is creating a real sustainable advantage in the same way technology used to.

On top of that, if youhave an application whose initial build isn't that much of a technical challenge, you may find yourself unable to attract a top tier technical lead.  In my experience, top technical talents want to work on interesting technical challenges—and for a lot of apps, scaling and advanced functionality is interesting, but early, putting together simple prototypes may not be.

A CTO will also want to ensure that the businesspeople on their team will understand important product and technical decisions.  They want to work in an environment where their opinions are respected and they also feel like they can have intelligent discussions about product.  If you’re the founder and you’re a top salesperson, but don’t have a native understanding about the web and product builds, you have to face the fact that you might make for a very frustrating partner for a tech lead.

This is where product and design leads come into play.  Remember the joke on Office Space where you can’t have the engineers talking to the customers?  That the one guy’s job was just to interpret what the customers wanted for the engineers.  That’s not entirely far off.  Great tech talent will build what you spec out for them in the best way possible, but it’s not their job to necessarily push back on product-market fit, feature priorities, etc.  Are you even building the right thing in the first place?  Is it more important to build the marketplace function of your app or launch on mobile?   That’s something that a business founder might have some ideas about, but it really takes a product manager to weigh resource constraints, internal input, customer demands, etc. to put together a product plan. 

I find that a lot of business founders don't really understand what a design focused product lead actually does--or why the user experience function is so important.  Jared Spool really nailed at the Warm Gun Conference when he said that great design is invisible--you never really notice it unless something goes wrong.  I think that's why a lot of business founders really don't appreciate it--because they don't see it in the most successful services.  It just works.

With a good user experience designer, a business founder can wind up with a complete spec--one that has been thoroughly tested in front of users and is well thought out in terms of what it aims to get users to do.  Hand this to a competant outsourced development shop and what you've got is a great start.  Contrast that with finding the best developer you can find, but giving that person a poorly designed and conceived product to build and you're not going to wind up anywhere. 

In his presentation, Jared outlined some of the critical functions of what a user experience team or person does:

Usability practices - Making sure the service is understandable and users can accomplish what they set out to with minimal confusion, time wasted, etc.

information architecture - Does the layout, categorizations, data input, etc correspond with the way users think about dealing with this kind of service or content?

information design - What kinds of feedback, statistics, statuses are you showing them and how are you showing it to them? 

copywriting - What does your service say?  Are instructions and descriptions clear?  To the point?

design process management - When changes are made, who keeps track of what other aspects of the site they my influence?  Who makes sure that proper versioning is maintained?

editing and curation - Making qualitative judgements about what the user should see and be able to consume

interaction design - What are the functional mechanisms by which users enter or consume information and services, the layout, etc

visual design - Colors, logos, spacing, fonts, layout

These are all aspects that involve serious training and study, a multi-disciplinary approach, and a deep understanding of user behavior and testing practices.  They're not the kind of thing that a business founder can usually just wing it on--nor are they the kinds of things that a hardcore web developer usually has an expertise in.  They're the kind of things that cause a user to give up on your site over, even when technically, there's nothing actually broken.  They also go much deeper than just "making a site pretty".  A lot of people can choose a color for a box, but should that box even go there in the first place is a question for a design focused product or user experience lead.  People will these kinds of skills will also know a little bit about the technology as well--at least enought to know when all the data you're entering in a lightbox might be a bit heavy for the Javascript to process easily. 

After you come up with a well designed spec and design that you're confident will get your users to do what you want them to do (and what they want to do), then you've got something worth building and a  better shot at attracting top technical talent. 

 

 

 

Usability practices
informnation architecture
information design
copywriting
design process management
editing and curation
interaction design
visual design

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