Designers vs. Developers in Startups – You Need Both!

02/16/2010

Dave McClure at Business Week recently published an article about the value of design to startups, in which I thought he made some good points about how important designers and marketers are to the success of startups and applications. Predictably, this didn’t sit so well with developers like Steve at Big Dumb Dev, whose sarcastic response mockingly fails to think of a single startup where design trumped development. As is so often the case, I think the answer lies somewhere in between.

I disagree with Steve that the success of many/all startups was due to stunning technical achievement. While that’s important, and indeed at the heart of many startups, I think design is too often taken for granted. Perhaps I’m a bit bias being a designer myself, but nobody would want to use your awesome new app if there wasn’t a designer on the front end designing a quality UI. In the case where developers are left to their own devices, usually the app is ugly and unusable. Google as the example of a company that doesn’t need designers or marketers is disingenuous. Google is really a case where they are successful despite poor UI/UX design simply because they are reliable and free. Google Analytics, for example, has serious usability problems and a pretty steep learning curve, but it’s popular because it’s free. If it were not free, it would have a big vulnerability from a competitor who invested in a good UX designer, and it’s one of the reasons John P over at Woopra has a business that can compete with free.

Lets look at Flickr as another example. There’s nothing technically amazing about a photo sharing site (I’m sure there are some achievements in there for scaling and performance, but those apply to any large app), and Flickr wasn’t the first. What made Flickr work was design and marketing. It was EASY, you could make friends and comment on photos, and the result was a social network around a hobby. You wouldn’t need a team of MIT grads to build Flickr, but you would need a team of designers driving product development, making careful decisions about whats needed and whats not, where everything on the site goes, what the interface elements are, etc. Those are key advantages Flickr has over other photo sharing sites, and it’s why Flickr actually makes money while other sites struggle to attract members for a free service.

I’m currently working on a startup myself, 1FTP, where we’re rethinking how we can use FTP connections. FTP has been around forever, and has become a commodity, but it has a tender soft underbelly when it comes to usability because the only people who have been working on FTP products to date are developers. We have an awesome developer on our team, but technical achievement isn’t what’s needed to make a better FTP service. What’s needed is to make FTP simpler, easier, and idiot proof. It should be something that is natural to use, not something we loathe to use. Anyone who’s tried to walk an FTP newbie through the process of connecting to a server over the phone will understand where the difficulty is. The 1FTP team is 1 developer, 2 designers, and that ratio reflects the needs of the product.

I think it’s only natural for everyone on a team to view themselves as indispensable, and that is often the case. Design and marketing alone won’t take 1FTP anywhere without a developer. But in today’s market the inverse is also true – development alone is not enough to make a product people want to use, and designers are a critical part of a product’s success. If you’re building a startup for consumers it’s essential to make an investment in a good UI designer, and the earlier you bring them into the process the better.