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Is Bad Design Wrecking Your Great Business? 3 Tips

This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog. Follow Ryan on LinkedIn:

It’s time to get serious about design. For startups especially, this is one factor that can make or break the business.

Up until about five years ago or so, there were still old-timers who insisted that engineering was the backbone of any venture. Find the brightest programmers, the argument went, and everything else would fall into place.

But these days, with important exceptions like search engines and security software, the technology behind most startups is fairly straightforward. With code libraries, new programming languages and open-source launchpads, engineering has in many respects gotten easier and more accessible. And exactly for that reason, one way to stand out from the crowd is with an intuitive interface that users love and that lends itself to quick adoption. Design is more important than ever.

A case-in-point? The amazing success story of Nest, who took the most mundane of household appliances—the thermostat—and turned it into one of the year’s hottest new gadgets (as Google’s $3.2-billion acquisition back in January attests).

Nest didn’t introduce any radically new technology. Instead, the company took a product most of us already have in our homes and made it ultra modern, intuitive and even sexy. While this example largely concerns hardware, the same insights can be applied to startups today doing everything from developing apps to providing SaaS: Engineering, no matter how brilliant, means little without great design.

Here are some key lessons today’s new businesses should keep in mind when it comes to design:

Design First, Engineer Later

It’s far easier to design first and engineer later. Early in my career, I was involved with engineer-led projects, where designers came in late in the game and were expected to put lipstick on an existing code base. This almost never works. Workflow and usability are not afterthoughts—they impact the core of any project and dictate how it should be engineered. Deeper still, a successful tech startup is almost always an iterative process. You’re going to go through several rounds of changes—or outright pivots—before finding something that sticks. Refactoring code, over and over again, to accommodate these changes is ridiculously inefficient and labor-intensive.

I learned the hard way that it’s infinitely easier to change napkin sketches than to change engineering. When my current company was getting off the ground five years ago, we had designers and engineers working collaboratively from stage one—a kind of head-and-heart approach that has served us well since. Before building anything, we started with simple wireframes—hammering down the look and feel of our social media tool, workflows that made sense, where to put buttons to facilitate use and encourage virality, etc—before getting down to the messy business of actually writing code.

Less is More

Of course, a commitment to design is no assurance of success. There’s good design and bad design. I’m a firm adherent to the less-is-more approach. In fact, I think one of the primary failings of many new apps and tools is that they tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the user. Sticking to a limited feature set—even when there’s pressure to include more and more bells and whistles and please everyone—is critical. Steve Jobs knew this better than anyone. In fact, Apple’s very first marketing brochure from back in 1977 boasted “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This principle is as evident in the original 1984 Macintosh as it is in the iPhone 5.

Listen to the Data, Trust Your Gut

Another critical design question is data vs. gut. In other words, how heavily do you lean on A/B testing, focus groups, analysts and user metrics when designing a product and how much do you trust your own instinct? Among the great virtues of working in a digital space is that data is cheap and conclusions are easy to tease out. When Hootsuite was getting off the ground as a social media management tool, we’d tweak the design and immediately turn to tools like Google Analytics to measure our effectiveness. Changes that led to more signups or longer time on site we kept. Otherwise, it was back to the drawing board.

Data and user feedback can be empowering, but individual inspiration and passion still have to play a significant role in design. Having a clear vision of what you want—and, just as important, what you don’t want—can mean the difference between an unfocused, middle-of-the-road offering and something exceptional. After all, Jobs, after unveiling the radically redesigned iMac in 1998, famously quipped, “A lot of times, people don’t really know what they want until you show it to them.”

For more social media insight and to learn more about my company, follow Hootsuite on LinkedIn.