Why most South African tech startups don’t hire designers

It seems like everyone was looking for developers at this year’s Tech4Africa conference. We heard some fantastic startup ideas, and each pitch was usually punctuated with something like, “And if you know any good developers, please let me know.” Cennydd Bowles made the following observation after the first day of the conference:

Cennydd Tech4Africa

I understand and support the rush to find good developers because I love all the local ideas entering the market (much of my own talk at Tech4Africa was dedicated to improving developer environments). But I’m concerned about tech startups[1] going on the hunt for developers without also looking for quality User Experience Design skills at the same time[2]. In Tart Up Your Startup! Erika Hall explains the dangers of ignoring UX in startups:

You are making UX design decisions as soon as you specify anything you expect another human to interact with, as soon as you specify anything that has implications for how a human might interact with it. Of course, you are are also making system design decisions, but we assume you are comfortable with that sort of thing.

So don’t pretend like you aren’t making design decisions already. And don’t make them by omission. You cannot NOT design something. The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with the crumbling husks of great ideas””useful products and services that died in the shell before they hatched out of their impenetrable engineering-specified interfaces.

So if this is so important, why are most South African tech startups (and large companies, for that matter) not looking for UX designers? In this article I’d like to explore what I believe the three main, interconnected explanations are, and how this is actually an opportunity for the design community to prove the value we can add to product development. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic as well. If you think I’m missing the boat, please let me know.

Experience design as craft

Peter Merholz describes Instapaper creator Marco Arment‘s approach to design in Craft in Interaction and Service Design:

Instapaper shows the power of approaching experience design as a craft, as opposed to some kind of massive organizational process. Too often companies launch something and then move on to whatever’s next. Instapaper shows what happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. Unlike Microsoft or Adobe, who simply tack on features with every new release, Marco, instead, refines the design, honing it, polishing it, like his app is some jewel. I’d love to see companies approach service design the way Marco has. It would require a fundamental shift in how they work, but the results could be quite beautiful.

How often do you hear the words “We’ll get to that in Phase 2”? And how often do you actually get to do “Phase 2”? It’s a running joke in the software industry that calling something a “Phase 2 feature” is another way of saying it will never happen. There are just too many squirrel projects, too many Shiny Things that need to get done.

It doesn’t have to work like that, though. Small, dedicated teams who have autonomy and a clear decision maker can focus on one area of an experience for an extended period of time. This can work even in large organizations, but it requires trust and a long-term vision, both of which can be hard to find in big companies. It is the only way to bring craft and care to a design cycle that’s often treated too much like a conveyor belt.

Solving information overload: the role of manual content curation

There’s an information overload just on articles about information overload, so you might be reluctant to spend time reading another one. However, Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance by Maria Popova is the best commentary I’ve seen on the topic in a long time.

The article starts off by explaining the root cause for the problem we find ourselves in: the concept of “rare” largely goes away if all information is available digitally:

W’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information “” not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

The consequence is that it’s now so much harder to know what pieces of information are worth our time. Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean we should access it. Maria goes on to explain why editors (or content curators) are so crucial if we want to solve this problem:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

Information curators are that necessary cross-pollinator between accessibility and access, between availability and actionability, guiding people to smart, interesting, culturally relevant content that “rots away” in some digital archive, just like its analog versions used to in basement of some library or museum or university.

I do want to add a thought on the idea of “automated curation” – what sites like are trying to do (you know, those tweets proclaiming that “The [clever name] Daily is Out!”). I simply don’t think effective automated curation will ever be possible. I agree with Angie King on

My experience with just proves the importance of curation over aggregation. Without an editorial eye overseeing the publication of my page, the content loses value. I actually prefer just paging through my Twitter stream over trying to make sense of the no-context, automatically generated list of junk that displays on my page.

In a great piece called The language of data: fear + words, Randall Snare explains why automated curation is so difficult:

Emails ““ and other written things ““ aren’t just filled with semantic meaning, but with subtext. Algorithms treat words like the basic components of language, while the actual basic components are often hidden ““ elements like association, nuance, emotion and humour.

Which brings us back to the need for humans – call them editors, call them people who read a lot, call them whatever you want – to help guide us to the information that might interest us. I’d go so far as to say that our ability to grow and learn depends on it.

Tech4Africa slides: Breaking down silos

I was privileged to speak at Tech4Africa 2011 about a topic that I care about a great deal: how our environments and the way we work impact the quality of the software we produce. The talk came out of a question I keep asking myself over and over: why, despite our best efforts, do we still too often produce low quality software? Here’s the talk summary:

Why do we see so many web applications with inferior user experiences? Why do UX designers often get stuck being asked to “make the design pop a little more,” with no room or incentive to innovate? Why do some web developers feel demotivated and unable to break out of doing things the way they’ve always been done?

In this talk I explore some of the main causes of ineffective software development, and discuss practical recommendations on how to improve team structures and development processes to build high quality software that users care about, want to use, and that therefore makes more money for the business.

I discuss how designers and developers can work better together, how to ensure everyone gets input into the roadmap without it becoming chaos, and how to make sure that the business benefits are clearly articulated and communicated.

So here are the slides from my talk – I hope you find it useful. If you’d like to read more about this topic, you can check out a two-part series of articles that I wrote for Smashing Magazine.


Siri and the digital economy underneath everything

W. Brian Arthur wrote a very interesting article for McKinsey Quarterly called The second economy (h/t to @justinspratt for the link). Registration is required to view the article but it’s worth it.

Much has been written about digitization and technology’s impact on society, but Arthur takes a fresh approach by looking at the digital economy as an unseen layer underneath the physical economy. He starts by defining communication for this (second) economy:

[Processes] are “speaking to” other processes in the digital economy, in a constant conversation among multiple servers and multiple semi-intelligent nodes that are updating things, querying things, checking things off, readjusting things, and eventually connecting back with processes and humans in the physical economy.

You know, like Siri does. In fact, notice how perfectly Siri fits into Arthur’s central thesis about the second economy:

If I were to look for adjectives to describe this second economy, I’d say it is vast, silent, connected, unseen, and autonomous (meaning that human beings may design it but are not directly involved in running it). It is remotely executing and global, always on, and endlessly configurable. It is concurrent””a great computer expression””which means that everything happens in parallel. It is self-configuring, meaning it constantly reconfigures itself on the fly, and increasingly it is also self-organizing, self-architecting, and self-healing.

These last descriptors sound biological””and they are. In fact, I’m beginning to think of this second economy, which is under the surface of the physical economy, as a huge interconnected root system, very much like the root system for aspen trees. For every acre of aspen trees above the ground, ther’s about ten miles of roots underneath, all interconnected with one another, “communicating” with each other.

Arthur makes it clear that he’s not interested in the realm of Sci-Fi and AI. He’s not sharing a completely improbable vision of the future (well, with the exception of driverless cars, depending on how much of a Google believer you are). And even though nothing he describes is brand new, this idea of a silent, interconnected layer underneath the physical one gives us a new lens through which to view the digitization of our lives.

I don’t want to get all “The End Is Near!” on you, but I’m currently reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and Arthur’s article reminded me of her words of caution:

Now demarcations blur as technology accompanies us everywhere, all the time. We are too quick to celebrate the continual presence of a technology that knows no respect for traditional and helpful lines in the sand.

[A] stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection. In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding.

Hopefully there will still be places to hide once the second economy has fully established itself.

The welcome shift to context-based e-commerce

Des Traynor wrote an excellent article for .net Magazine called The death and rebirth of customer experience:

Customer service online has been relegated to “handling complaints”. Sites like to boast about how quick they can respond, but it’s rare you’ll hear any boast about what a great shopping experience they had online.

Online businesses are obsessed with user experience, optimisations, page rankings and much more. Yet a thousand of their customers could walk past their offices every morning, and they wouldn’t even recognise them.

In our quest towards total commerce automation, we’ve failed to bring the most important part of commerce with us. The customer experience.

The personal contact and connection that is needed to bring customer experience back to online retail reminds me of Dan Frommer’s thoughts on the intersection of commerce and editorial content. In Commerce as content, shopping through art he writes:

[T]he best wave of new e-commerce companies may also be the ones that are great content producers. That means: Clear writing, attractive photography, and good design. I haven’t done the math, but it seems to me that great content with devoted readers could be a heck of a lot more effective at generating sales than just buying banner ads on random websites.

He goes on to give some great examples of quality editorial content. Both these articles are indicative of a welcome shift away from product-based to context-based e-commerce.

Product-based e-commerce sees the product as the unit of measure, and the user experience is built around presenting products in the best possible light to convince a customer to buy them.

Context-based e-commerce sees the a customer’s unique situation as the unit of measure, and the user experience is built around delighting them based on who they are and how technology can help improve their lives. Quality, personal, context-based content serves as the bridge between product and customer.

Horace Dediu recently wrote about iCloud and, among other things, discussed what happens when “value moves from selling things to ‘getting to know you'”. That phrase is a perfect way to summarize this shift. In getting to know us, e-commerce sites can move away from just selling us stuff, and instead sell us ways to become better people.

Apple’s quarterly results and its focus on long-term strategy

Dan Frommer has a nice graphical overview of Apple’s September quarter results. As he points out in a follow-up post:

Weaker than anticipated iPhone sales last quarter forced Apple to miss earnings expectations tonight “” a rare showing for the company. As a result, Apple shares are getting whacked right now, down about 7% in after-hours trading.

Here’s the thing about those “weaker” iPhone sales. If Apple released the iPhone 4S in September like most people expected, the 4 million units they sold last weekend would have happened in time to beat analyst expectations (note that Apple still beat its own guidance).

Instead of releasing something sub-standard to keep the analysts happy, Apple decided to wait until the hardware and software were both ready and up their own quality standards. That’s what long-term strategy looks like.

Want to build great software? Get your culture right first.

I love the Automattic Creed that all their employees have to sign before they join the company:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know ther’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything.

I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.

I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

(h/t to @SwimGeek for the link)

This is going to sound like such a lame “management guru” thing to say, but it’s true: the cultural fit of the people you hire is more important than their past experience or absolute skill level. I’ve seen this time and time again. If I have a choice between hiring someone who is highly skilled in their work but doesn’t display humility and a genuine drive to learn more, and someone who knows enough to know that there is much to learn and they’re hungry to get there, I’ll choose the latter every time.

We recently went through an exercise to define our team values, and in many ways it’s similar to Automattic’s creed. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here are the main points. This is how we want other people to describe our team:

  • We are zealots about quality
  • We have autonomy to do what’s best for the product, its users, and our business
  • We have a high fix:complain ratio
  • We have a healthy work/life perspective
  • We are empathetic to the core

The relationship between a healthy culture and doing great work is causal, not simply correlation. Good culture is the prerequisite for great work to happen, and actually causes it. Alan Cooper recently address this issue in a great article called The pipeline to your corporate soul:

If you want to improve the quality of your website, app, or software, you need to also improve the quality of your organization. You need to ferret out the people who play politics but don’t get things done. You need to squash bureaucracy that stops innovation with doubt and red tape. You need to eliminate the energy drains, systemic distortions, and toxic people that force others to act like corporate drones instead of like entrepreneurs with a vested interest in success.

If you put a bunch of talented, energetic, ambitious people together and make it easy for them to collaborate and do great things, they will. I haven’t seen a single example of great work preceding a clearly defined and healthy culture – even if it’s just an unspoken understanding between two startup founders. Spending time on getting your culture right is worth the effort.


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