There is a herd mentality shift that “consumer is dead” and “enterprise is in.” I believe that this mentality is an overreaction, oversimplification, and a lagging indicator of the real important trends.
There is some merit to the argument that “consumer is dead.” I believe that there are too many me-too startups trying to raise venture funding that aim to build products that solve incremental problems. This is normal because I believe that we are at the end of a cycle of diffusion of innovation; therefore, many consumer products these days have a marginal improvement over what exists. I just don’t think they can generate the venture-magnitude returns to need investment from large VC funds.
Also, the next big thing in consumer is not going to look like anything that already exists, and it is not going to look like a breakout success when it first arrives. We will be confused by it because we lack the appropriate mindset and metrics to define the success of the next big thing. As Chris Dixon said, the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.
Similarly, I’m skeptical that enterprise should be as hot as it is today. Investing in enterprise because it is the hot space to invest in is the wrong approach, because you will be in a rude awakening in the near-term future when the temperamental market shifts again. If you invest only based on what is hot, you will always be a follower.
Instead, it is important to focus on the fundamentals of the business. An enterprise business has longer sales cycles, a different target customer profile, a different set of valuation metrics and multiples, etc. Invest in enterprise because you like the pros and cons of what an enterprise business brings, not because of what other people think.
So, what to do in the face of a schizophrenic market?
I believe it’s always about the product. Build something radical that a lot of people want, regardless of whether it’s consumer or enterprise.
I see enterprise startup founders who get a whiff of traction of BigCo’s test budget, and they’re off to the races like a horse with blinders, getting sucked into the sales cycle, only to come up for air 12 months in, realizing that they actually haven’t hit their targets for their next fundraising round.
I’m biased because of my product background, but I believe enterprise startups are still all about the quality of the product. The reason why BigCo was interested in your product in the first place was because you had a good product.
Sales without a good product is useless. So as a CEO, ramp up your sales process to a good point, hire someone to delegate to manage it, and then focus on what you’re good at, building a great product.
As an investor or entrepreneur, it is important to be cognizant of the hype cycles; if you can’t fight the sentiment, you have to play the game.
But at the end of the day, all that matters is that you build an awesome product that people want.
The arrival of a new technology brings with it a rising tide of benefits. These picks and shovels create step functions of platforms that enable new innovations:
Applications are built on top of these platforms with decreasing marginal innovation, until a new disruptive platform arrives and creates a new innovation curve.
However, there is always a concern that new technologies create more harm than good. For example, the “Slow Web” Movement is a reaction to the claim that the flood of information1 inundates us with transient, fleeting, and ultimately meaningless information.
This concern has parallels with the rise of the alphabet and writing, that we would become so reliant on this sudden new availability of information that we would ultimately lose the ability to remember things.
Plato, on writing:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory… You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.
This sounds to me a lot like the criticism that we’re no longer “smart” anymore because we can Google everything.
We are dealing with a flood of information both on the creation and consumption standpoint. From a 40,000 foot perspective, writing created a flood of information from the creation side, as a medium for documenting information, and digitalization + the internet created a flood of information from the consumption side as a medium for the distribution of that information.
Because we now have unparalleled 1) access, 2) portability, and 3) persistence of data, I think the next level of innovation is being built on the parsing of that flood of information - what are the different ways you can slice and dice that information to be more valuable? This could be what people call “big data,” but I believe this is actually a higher level macro trend of how we organize the information to be more useful to us. This could be:
Where I’m looking for the next big disruption is in the emergence of new information floods, and the opportunity is in the parsing and application of that new data in interesting ways.
I believe that these new ways of parsing the flood of information will become the new platforms on which we understand the information available to us, and that will enable us to do things that we can’t yet imagine today.
The Design Stack: A Framework for Effective Design
“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”
– Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs had an innate instinct for creating and identifying effective design. One of the most common reasons why Apple users love their Apple products is because of the “design,” that “fundamental soul” of the product that makes them “just work.”
However, “effective design” is not just design that is visually appealing.
Effective design can be pretty, but a pretty design does not guarantee that it is effective design.
If you were to deconstruct what Steve Jobs meant when he referred to the “fundamental soul” of the product, I think qualities of effective design, these “successive outer layers of the product or service,” would follow what I call the “Design Stack.”
Much like how there is a tech stack that has layers of components that power an app, there is an analogous “Design Stack” with individual components that powers the way someone experiences your product.
I believe that the structure of a Design Stack will give you clarity around your goals for why something in the design should be the case, rather than just designing something because that’s the way it’s always been done before, or that your “gut” tells you to.
Here is a high level outline of the successive layers of the Design Stack:
These components are all tied to each other - they drive decisions in each of the other components.
1) Business Goals
Define what you want to accomplish as a business and the success metrics associated with success. This could be something like:
It is important to keep your business goals in mind as you design so that all of your design decisions help accomplish your business goals.
This might not seem like “design,” but it is an important part of design thinking.
2) User Goals and Psychology
We are all psychologists when designing.
In addition to the business goals (#1), it’s important to understand the mindset of your target user. What are the different personas of your users, and what do they want to accomplish with your product?
When forming these user goals, draw from your own personal experience, but also do user studies on the problem you are trying to solve to form a full picture of how people will interact with your product.
Understanding the psychology of your users is at the core of user experience design.
3) User Flows
Next, based on the user goals and psychology (#2), what decisions and steps do the users take in your product?
Map out these user flows like a tree with branches.
It is very important to start here before going to the wireframes because you can visualize the context in which each view exists.
You can answer questions like:
There are many tools out there, but recently I’ve been excited about this new tool called POP. It lets you wireframe on paper, take photos of them with your iPhone, and simulate user flows without actually building the product.
Also, UX Archive is a good resource for a collection of popular iPhone apps’ user flows.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The wireframe is what is often seen as the natural starting point for a “design.”
A wireframe is a schematic or other low-fidelity rendering of a computer interface, intended to primarily demonstrate functionality, features, content, and user flow without explicitly specifying the visual design of a product.
The goal of the wireframe is to determine the information architecture of the product, to best accomplish the user flows (#3).
Don’t try to design how the product will look in your wireframe. You want to focus on the interaction design, not the visual design.
This is what you should accomplish in your wireframe:
Finally, after accomplishing the previous layers of the Design Stack, we are ready to tackle the mockup, which focuses on the visual design of your product, how it looks, how visually appealing it is it is.
Whether something is visually appealing is highly subjective, so I won’t go into great detail on what this looks like.
The general guideline that I would recommend here is to keep with the theme of this post: make sure that your visual design accomplishes your goals in all of the previous steps of the Design Stack: your business goals (#1), user goals (#2), user flows (#3), and wireframes (#4).
I’ll add on to the Design Stack the prototype of your product because the translation of a product’s essence from a static mockup to a functional product is just as important to the user experience design.
Here are some examples of how building a prototype can add more nuance to your product’s user experience. These are all design decisions that you need to take into account.
Depending on the situation, some designers like to skip the mockup stage directly to the prototyping stage and come back to the visual design later.
Throughout this whole stack, you should be measuring and (in)validating your assumptions. I’ll cover this in a separate post.
The Design Stack creates valuable dialogue around design decisions that without this framework can many times seem superficial or not concrete.
By framing your design decisions this way, you can not only be a better holistic designer, but also help convince non-designers (and even other designers) of the value of your design and process.
There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western.
The Eastern style is like the one practised in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends.
Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues. This form of laziness lies in our failure to choose worthwhile applications for our energy.― Sogyal Rinpoche
I took this photo from my apartment window in Williamsburg. I live in one of the newer buildings with windows that have child safety locks that stop them from opening much more than a few inches. I tried to take the photo from indoors, but the dirty window obscured the brilliant sunset, so I squeezed my arm out the window to get a better shot. This reflection is what it yielded.