Remember back in the day when MP3 players had features like voice recorders, cell phones touted GPS, and no one really thought much about whether their laptop was pretty? In many industries things have changed, insists Jason Putorti, former lead designer at the successful personal finance software company Mint.com and current co-founder of Votizen.
Thanks in large part to the influence of Apple, "what you're seeing now is a whole class of companies that is emerging that their core differentiator is not about an algorithm or some particular feat of engineering," he explained to Inc.com. Instead, what sets companies such as Airbnb or Pinterest apart is their intuitive and user-friendly design.
"If you're looking at a marketplace where just making it possible is a big deal then people will use [a product] regardless of the user experience," he says, but "when you get into more mature markets—eCommerce is obviously a good example—all the innovations have been around design, around experience, around how can we make users more excited." Need another example? Just look at Mint, which created $170 million in value in about two years. "A lot of people believed that Mint was by and large just a good looking skin on top of Yodlee, which was the aggregation software running in the back end," says Putorti, who calls user-friendly design the "magic pixie dust that made Mint so successful."
This shift towards an experience market and the dominance of design, Putorti insists, is something entrepreneurs in many sectors need to get their heads around. "A lot of CEOs out there, they have an idea in the shower and then they go in the office and are like, 'yeah, let's build that!' That's wrong on so many levels to a designer," says Putorti.
"There are three roles that need to be filled within the startup: the hustler, the designer and the engineer. A decade ago, five years ago you only really had the engineer. Then you started to get the hustler because you had to have the guy that was willing to execute everything down the road," he said. "Now you're seeing the designer have a seat at the table because, in order for consumer Internet plays really to be successful today, the user experience has to be baked into the product. It can't just be added on top."
"You can't make a really technical, amazing product and then try to figure out how the design and the entire UX fits it. I think that's really important for founders starting out," he said. "They have to realize that design is just as important if not more than the technology that makes it actually happen."
So if you're convinced, as Putorti puts it, that these days "design is not putting a coat of paint onto an interface" and that empathy with the customer trumps an entrepreneur's eureka moment, but you yourself don't have any design training, how do you proceed?
"Any founder can really learn about this stuff. Design is about understanding human needs, having empathy with their problems, starting from that perspective and believing that's the right way to build products. That's something that anybody can learn," says Putorti, suggesting a number of books for entrepreneurs looking to brush up on the basics of design.
But, be warned, hiring someone to design your product may not be as simple. "Someone who handles the full stack of design—they're often called unicorns—they're scarce and usually employed and busy, so it takes being pitched like an investor and seeing something that captivates them to get their attention," says Putorti. What sort of pitch will nab you the best design talent? Shaun Lind, visual designer at Giftiki and founder of design firm Public School, explains:
"We want to have a seat at the table. Especially with these interactive companies and these new products, design is something that really takes a creative mind to dig into and figure out how the user is going to use it, how you can make it unique and something that's beautiful but also effective and just fun for people," he says. "Things like that gets designers really pumped up."