Vijay Anand | The Startup Guy.

The Sacred Dance of the Trio.

Posted on: April 15, 2008

The legendary duel between a technologist and a marketer is a well known one. Most would claim that they are the extremes and one that cannot be subdued. In every company, especially one that specializes in building products, everyone has a tough time balancing the interactions that go on between these two sets of people. How well you do the balancing act will have a lot to say about the processes that you have in place, the kind of openness and interactive atmosphere that you inculcate – which all bundled together does have say as to whether your product, and inevitably your company will make it past the trials of survival or not.

There is a third angle and element to it. The Designers. If you are even daring to whisper “As if life wasn’t already complicated enough”, you seriously don’t understand what lies ahead.

Let me take a few steps back and come again.

Every time I end up somewhere for a speaking engagement, the person who is introducing me has a moment where they somewhere or the other mention how there are very few people with a deadly mix of business and technology. Considering that I do have a backdrop in technology and can also dabble in business, entrepreneurship and trends, most consider that it must be quite something. But I seriously think that its the third mix that adds to the punch – and without that third mix you don’t amount to much.

Technology. Design. Business – These are the three crucial aspects of a product company. The process flow runs along the lines from left to right and right to left a few times before the specs of the product are frozen and approved. Without the design element in between, you usually end up with a very complex technology platform which solves everything for everyone, and nothing for anyone. I will tie up this loose end in a bit.

So as I said, it is not easy to tie in a technology and a business fella together and the usual genre who compose of both are product managers. One of the very rare assets that are yet to be found here in India. Product management is a skill, an art or perhaps the only true gem in a product based company. If they are a rare breed, everything in the indian ecosystem is pretty much self- explanatory, I’d say.

That said, it is still crucial to have the third element. Unfortunately, I havent been able to meet someone who is part of a firm where all three elements come from different places. There is probably a reason for that. I have a “design report” by an NID graduate lying on my desk for the past six months and I do swear that I make an attempt to interpret it whenever I find the time, and the guts to go through that process. I still can’t for heaven’s sake comprehend what it all means. I know that designers do bring in that dash of craziness, but this one was craziness absolute. And sometimes it is very hard to distinguish the uber creative ones, from the pseudo-ones.

So what really is the answer? I’d say that there are cases to prove that if there are two founders in a firm, and atleast one of them has two of the three qualities, then there is an interesting chance at success. There are cases for a mix of business and design, and there are cases for technology and design. The missing element is always something that is fairly easy to complement.

If you still don’t believe me that Steve jobs is obsessed with design, if that ever was an argument, think of this quote by Alan kay who worked with him: “Steve Jobs understands desire”. Anyone who has understood business will quote you the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and everyone who builds products would want to position their offering from that of a “need” (commodity) to that of “want” (Premium). The secret is in the hands of a designer.

The Relevance of Design:

Source: Josh Spear

So what really is this non-sense about design being crucial? Are we talking about the User-interface? If that is the case, doesn’t hiring the snazziest graphic designer, do the task? Probably, yes and maybe not. There is a recent article [PDF] that I was pointed to, and something that might help answer this question. Listen these few lines out.

Start with the idea that people shape technologies and technologies shape society.

Then get comfortable with the idea that social relations are also always material relations.

And finally, consider agency – or the ability to act – as something within the domain of both humans and non-humans.

Credit: Anne Galloway

That’s a sample as to how designers think. I have a friend of mine Mahesh Radhakrishnan, who is possibly one of the most creative guys I’ve met. I have met with him to discuss things, all the way from how to “brand” something (he has some pretty interesting ideas on how to alternatively create a brand), to how a cultural or community building exercise could possibly be drafted. Whenever I know that my thinking is getting a bit muddled or stale, I know that its time to meet a few designers to get my thinking right. And I know that that is something I’ve learnt right out of experience.

I’ll tell you why a designer is crucial. Designers are not the guys who build those boxes or choose the colors for your layout. They are actually the architects who define how an idea conceived as an object is interacted with. A product is never a piece of technology that just caters a solution – It is something that creates a connection to the solution and “interacts” with the user. To make it even simpler: A designer is the one who defines how a product is used. And unless you define how something could be used, and the only way how it could be used, there are going to be a million ways to use it and its going to end up turning into a sandbox or a platform, but never a product.

If you were to ask me, whats the difference between MacOS and the Linux Desktop, I couldn’t care less and let the whole world spear me to the wall if they want to, but one has had a designer at its helm who has defined what all it can do and what it cannot do, and the other one is open to just about everything, which is what makes it complicated, difficult to use and stands in the way of adoption.

To Quote Anne’s own words on the matter, “We [Designers] are engaged in creating possibilities and impossibilities”

Get me a team which can play all these three roles, build a product and still prove that it doesn’t fly. Going by trends, I’d say that’s an impossibility.

Advertisements

4 Responses to "The Sacred Dance of the Trio."

Vijay,
Interesting perspective on technology, business and design. But I assume you are referring to Linux on desktop and not Linux OS. Otherwise comparison doesn’t measure up at all. Just for argument sake, if we bring Windows OS also into context, the example still falls flat as with all due respect to steve jobs and Mac OS’ elegant design, it comes nowhere close in terms of Windows adoption. Now I didn’t mean to pick on wrong example but I feel weightage to design could be lesser (atleast in software) than the other two in the trio mentioned or may be there is a fourth estate or a fifth discipline (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifth_Discipline)
When I was working for an internet telecom startup, the CEO would often say “Software should be like Windows even with all its flaws than MacOS which is known for a superior design”. Now I’m not saying he was right but just another perspective. As a side note, the startup didn’t survive the dotcom bust 😉
BTW, I’m relocating to India(Chennai) this month and someday may be I get a chance to meet you.

Nice read. Great designers align well and are driven by functional utility and user friendliness. The good ones often slip into the field of mindless prettiness – in the process, reducing themselves to mere stylists. Best example is how Toyota overtook the big three auto makers – sleek looks, great utility, reducing costs and fuel efficiency all combined. Bad one is how wardrobes malfunctioned on dance floors and cat walks (when it isn’t intentional, of course 🙂

They can also be mighty useful to the broader enterprise in a strategic sense. Sometimes a communicative brochure could do to a product what hundreds of salesmen couldn’t.

I think designers could wish for a little more control over the process they’re involved in. The attempted expansion of the territory of design as a profession is in one sense a reaction to the feeling of significant ground being lost to marketing or production departments. Even in a social setting, they can be social spark plugs that can get the engines of social movements going, spark the interest of everyone around them and give an otherwise mundane project a little bit of life and excitement.

Venkat: I get your point. I was referring to the Linux Desktop.

Krish: I couldn’t agree with you more.

[…] Vijay Anand | The Startup Guy. The Perspectives of a Passionate Indian Entrepreneur in the Evolving Indian Ecosystem. AboutIn the Media « The Sacred Dance of the Trio. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: