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Design: Forethought or Afterthought? How to use design to increase differentiation

“Design” has the ability to differentiate your company and your product, yet few of you are investing in real design. If I were starting a software company, I would start there – with design first, then marketing. (Last year I interviewed a serial startup entrepreneur who believes his new company can even use design to avoid hiring sales people!) Even if I were inheriting a new product, I would start with win/loss analysis, then invest in design to drive differentiating product requirements.

Let me share a story that demonstrates how design can help you differentiate.

Apps for runners that can’t be used while running?

Recently my old pal Jon Ruiz told me he’d quit his high-salary job at CA, where he was head of user centric design (UxD), and was going to pursue his startup dreams by building iPhone apps. My response was a combination of admiration and dread. While I admired his courage and have deep faith in his ability to execute a product from scratch, I worried about his ability to find differentiation among the sea of 300,000 iPhone apps.

His answer: He’s focused on design, and he believes that good design can set his apps apart from the unwashed masses of feature-driven apps. Several months ago Jon told me that his target is fitness. Being an avid iPhone user and a sometimes runner, I know that there are HUNDREDS of apps that will track your progress running, and I’ve personally tried a handful of them. None of them has stuck for me, and I had reverted to my Timex Ironman as my running partner – it is a basic stopwatch without much in the way of training assistance.

Guess what? My experience with running / training apps was not unique. Not one of the RUNNING apps is usable while you are RUNNING. Seems pretty dumb, right? But how many of your products make things easy for your users? Does your team consider design as a forethought or an afterthought? I get the impression from these running apps that they thought all about sexy features like mapping, pace, distance, exporting and charting, and considered the in-run experience as a given, an afterthought, not something to specifically design for.

This is a classic insight you can get from user-centric design. The job of design is to isolate the key use cases and build the product around them.

In the case of a running app, you might think the core use case would seem obvious. Nope.  The apps out there are very good at helping you zoom into maps, track your speed over time, create pretty charts, share your runs with others, etc., etc., etc.  In other words, they work well for use while sitting down after your run, presumably when your heart rate has returned to sub-70, and you are in a Zen-like state of post-workout bliss.

But these are apps for RUNNING. And the worst part about running is that you are … running, not sitting down. You are winded, sweaty, and moving fast, and your fingers can’t navigate a flat touch screen.

I doubt the decision to ignore the running experience are made consciously. It’s not like a designer would consciously argue that charting is more important than being able to use the app while you run. But when features are the focus, design becomes an afterthought. This is true for so many of the software companies I work with.

A running app for … runners who run

Jon called me recently to discuss his app, Gazelle, which is now shipping.

So Jon’s idea is simple: His first shipping version is good at ONE THING: Tracking the run, and being usable in a running environment. His app can export to GPX too, and you can map your run after the fact. And I’m sure that Jon will build a fully-featured running app eventually. But for now, he starts with the most basic, fundamental use case, and designs the product around that. We are RUNNING, and while we are running, we can’t really see the screen at all, much less find small icons a small touch screen.

So Jon makes the whole screen a button, and the primary action is to start and stop. Other actions are similarly close at hand, such as pausing, hearing reports of your speed and total distance, and a few other things.

This approach is described in a thin little book that is now available for free as a PDF: The Simplicity Shift. I recommend it highly.

I took the app out for a run a few days ago, and he’s on to something great. It works … with the screen or the headphones as a very usable control. Sure, he lacks a lot of the features that the other apps brag about, but I know Jon will pick one or two use cases at a time, and work those into his simple design, and keep it simple.

My first request would be a “learn to run” ability. There are some “couch to 5k” running programs that help a beginner increase running intensity gradually over several weeks. The same must be true for more expert runners who want to increase their pace or distance, or both.

Design can lead to differentiation

For the software companies I work with, one of the biggest problems is differentiation. I interview buyers for a living, and most of them view your products (or at least the top two or three in a market space) as equivalent. Without differentiation, sales and marketing are more expensive and much harder, and your margins are thinner.

Design can help significantly. In my view design and product management often go hand in hand, and I recommend that design report to product management as an integrated function. If you invest in design, you will get an intimate knowledge of your users’ and buyers’ daily lives, their challenges, and be able to eliminate a lot of the noise of feature requests that comes in through the sales channel. Eventually you can re-order your product and bury swaths of advanced features so that your app focuses on a few core features that your users care most about.

This can of course be harder if you inherit a mature product. But it can be done, over time. If you are starting from scratch, start with design and differentiation.

Let me know your thoughts below, or drop me a line. (onpm@eigenworks.com)

– Alan

You can look at Gazelle, the running app for runners who run, here.

Full disclosure: Jon and I are friends and we worked together with Jeff Cobb and Carl Seglem at Wily Technology leading up to the acquisition by CA. During a huge product overhaul, we brought in Cooper to teach us about design and assist with the overhaul. In the process we became converts on user-centric design. (You can read Carl’s telling of that story here. And meet our favorite Cooper consultant, Jonathan Korman, here.)

  1. Richard

    Agreed, great design can make a real difference. Whether it’s a case of great UX design, as you mention in your article, or great visual design, that can have a larger value for users than we realize.

    In the past, I have used the concept of “design as a feature” to push the importance of getting it right.

  2. Jason Dea

    One book that influenced me greatly early on in my career was The Human Factor by Kim Vicente.

    Human factors is too often ignored by technologists. You really realize the impact of this because whenever a company does release a usable design it’s always a “why didn’t I think of that” moment

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