How Investors Can Use UX to Identify Better Startups

This article is based on a presentation by Erik Wingren and Petra Wennberg Cesario

by Julian Scaff

Startups are cool and exciting, and the opportunity to innovate and build a profitable business (or get bought by a big company for a lot of money) is tantalizing for both the founders and investors. But the stark truth is that about 90% of startups fail. Some of the reasons for this are beyond the control of the people involved in the startup, but many of the reasons for failure are absolutely in their control. It’s critical for founders and investors alike to know what those controllable factors are as early as possible. A large majority of those factors have to do with User Experience, and so below I’m going to look at each one of those factors to see how good UX design done early can help a startup avoid common pitfalls, and help investors better evaluate their chances of success.

20-Reasons-Startups-Fail

CB Insights compiled a list of startup post-mortem failures. Not all the reasons for failure have to do with UX, but most of them are either entirely UX or UX-related. This means that UX is by far the number one reason that startups fail. Let’s examine the top factors along with the percentage of failed startups that cite each as a reason for their failure:

1. No Market Need – 42%

This was by far the number one factor of why startups failed. It’s pretty simple: if nobody wants your product, then you have no business. So how can you find out if there’s a market need for your product or service? User research and user testing are the best methods to find this out, and you should know this before you start building anything. A startup that hires a UX designer (or has a UX designer as a founder) before they hire an engineer is already off to a good start.

If you’re an investor, make sure that a startup has done their UX research before they started building anything.

2. Ran Out of Cash – 29%

Typically a lot of engineering time and money is spent fixing bad features, or re-doing work that wasn’t done right the first time. User research, lean prototyping and testing helps ensure that you’re building the right product with the right features before you start building it. In fact, UX has been shown to reduce development time by 30%-50%. That adds up to a lot of money!

If you’re an investor, you want to look for startups that are using UX to build the right product in the right way and not just wasting development money.

3. Get Outcompeted – 19% / Poor Product – 17%

Getting outcompeted and making a poor product are closely related. Most companies don’t have a unique product or service and have to compete in a crowded marketplace. The factors that give products an edge over their competition are typically superior functionality, ease of use, and a positive emotional experience with customers. Factors that kill a product’s competitive edge are poor functionality, complexity, and customer frustration. A study by Gartner revealed that 90% of companies believed customer experience to be their primary differentiator.

Making a really good product is hard, and nobody gets it right the first time. UX design follows an iterative design process, meaning products are developed in lean cycles of researching, testing and improvement, leading to incremental, data-driven design solutions. If a product has flaws (and all do) it’s very difficult to identify those flaws and how to fix them without using the UX design process.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who are leveraging UX design to ensure high quality and gain a competitive advantage.

4. Poor Marketing – 14%

Knowing who your customer is and what they need leads to a deeper understanding of how to market your product to them. Further, UX design helps to create a differentiated brand and product proposition. The best marketing in the world can’t cover up a poor user experience.

In you’re an investor, look for startups that leverage their user experience as an integral part of their branding and marketing experience.

5. Ignore Customers – 14%

This is a no-brainer from a UX standpoint. The UX design process is also called ‘human-centered design’ because the focus from start to finish is on the people who use the product. If a startup isn’t doing UX research and testing, they’re flying blind.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who pay attention to their customers with UX research and testing.

6. Lose Focus – 13% / Pivot Gone Bad – 10% / Burnout – 8% / Failure to Pivot – 7%

Managing a product and a business through iterations and growth cycles is tricky, and it’s very easy to lose focus on the core customers and/or core business model. With it’s user-centered iterative methodology, UX design helps startups to stay focused on core business objectives, the most important features, and to know when to pivot and how. Keeping good focus and getting positive results prevent burnout because teams won’t waste time building the wrong product or features.

If you’re an investor, look for startups who leverage UX to stay focused and respond intelligently to change.

How do you know if a startup has done “good” UX?

Here is a checklist of key indicators that a startup has done good UX and not just thrown around some buzz words:

  • Have they done User Research? When pressed for time, it’s common for research to be the first thing cut, but this can lead to catastrophic wastes of time and money, and ultimately business failure.
  • Do they understand the entire Customer Journey? The user experience doesn’t just begin and end with the customer using your product. To really understand the user, they need to know their entire journey through deep user research.
  • Do they Prototype and Test before development? The most common mistakes that startups make are building products nobody wants, not being able to compete, and building poor quality products. The only way to know they’re building the right product with the right features is if they prototype and test. This also helps ensure they won’t run out of money building the wrong thing.
  • Do they have Senior Design Leadership? It’s critical that design thinking and usability are core company values. This only occurs when design experts are at the leadership table, in the form of a founder, a Chief Design Officer or VP of Design, or a company that keeps a UX design agency on retainer to serve that same role. Senior Design Leadership is so important that some Silicon Valley investment firms will only invest in startups that have designer founders, and many VC firms are hiring designers to help evaluate opportunities.

If you’re a tech entrepreneur, investing in UX design is the most effective way to boost your chances of success. If you’re an investor, it should be the number one thing you look for in a startup investment. Research definitely shows that UX is the key.

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On Visioning

Why Purpose and Ethos Lead to a Stronger Vision

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” ~Malcolm Gladwell

visioningIn his 2009 TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek famously asserted “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” This is true for customers of a product or service, but is equally true for an organization’s employees. The consulting firm Imperative published a study in 2016 that revealed that the most important factor in employee job satisfaction is having a sense of purpose. Thus, it is essential for businesses to have a vision and a mission that is effective internally and externally.

Many business schools and online guides advise approaching the vision or mission statement by looking into the future, dreaming big, and expressing ideas with emotion but not too much specificity. (Some organizations have both a vision and a mission statement, the former typically looking more inward and the latter looking outward.) Unfortunately, this has lead to a lot of vague and meaningless mission statements, i.e. “It is our mission to enthusiastically leverage efficiency while generating value for our customers.” That doesn’t inspire employees or customers because it doesn’t really say anything. On the flip side, getting too specific is also counterproductive: “We manufacture the best widgets in the industry at the lowest cost to consumers.” We know exactly what you do, but we don’t really know why you do it.

In this article I’ll analyze some vision and mission statements, and then look at why purpose and ethos are more important and powerful than vision or mission.

Let’s start by looking at some real-world examples for comparison:

Apple’s mission statement under Steve Jobs:

To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.

This statement isn’t about a particular product or even computers or operating systems. It’s about why they do what they do. Apple is a technology company, but this broad statement gives their design not only a functional and aesthetic goal but also an ethos, thereby creating a community of shared values. That’s why Apple customers are so loyal.

The downside to this statement is that it’s too broad and overly grandiose. Can a computer, smart phone or operating system really “advance humankind”? Maybe. But the hyperbole runs the risk of making it ring false with customers and employees.

Apple’s mission statement now:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

This isn’t really a mission statement, it’s just a list of products, some of which are obsolete. It’s also backwards-looking. You shouldn’t have to update your mission statement just because you release a new product or phase out an old one. The mission statement should have a vision that operates at a much higher level than any particular product. If Apple is only a list of products, even if those products are well designed and of good quality, then it lacks an ethos, and it lacks a vision of why they do what they do.

Patagonia:

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Patagonia’s mission statement concisely expresses both the values that have made their business successful as well as the values that drive them to help improve the world. They make and sell products by and for people who love the outdoors. As such, engaging in philanthropic efforts to help the environment is exactly aligned with their ethos of why they make the products they make.

IDEO:

We believe…

  • Everyone is creative. IDEO builds learning platforms and tools to unlock creativity.
  • Creative organizations are more agile. IDEO helps organizations innovate by empowering the people who drive them.
  • Complex problems are solved collaboratively. IDEO brings together networks to act on systemic challenges in education, sustainable food, mobility, aging and death.
  • Innovation in public life starts with people. IDEO creates human centered products, services, spaces, and organizations that empower communities, cities and even countries.
  • Technology moves fast, human needs change slowly. IDEO connects emerging technology to everyday needs and aspirations in fields such as biodesign, life science, health, and data.
  • Venturing is R&D. IDEO helps large organizations move quickly and small companies scale by putting people’s needs at the center.

This is very long winded, but IDEO is also a company that does a lot of things and so they may be justified in going into more detail. Really what this boils down to is that IDEO has six points in its design philosophy. In other words, they have a strong ethos and a strong culture. And it’s that ethos and culture that enabled them to essentially invent design thinking. Perhaps a more concise way to encapsulate this would be:

“At IDEO we believe that innovative solutions for technology, business and public life require human-centered collaborative thinking.”

It doesn’t capture everything, but it expresses enough of the ethos to be a guiding principle and communicate to the outside world why they do what they do.

Purpose rather than a mission

A pattern that emerges is that mission/vision statements are empty if they don’t also have purpose. The branding agency Siegel+Gale published a brilliant manifesto on this titled “It’s time to bury the mission and vision.” In it, David Srere rejects the empty and generic mission statements that many companies feel compelled to publish and instead focuses on their purpose:

“Purpose is a definitive statement of the difference an organization seeks to make in the world. It is a clear, credible, compelling response to a fundamental question: “Why do we do what we do?”” -David Srere, co-president, CEO and chief strategy officer @ Siegel+Gale

The key aspects of a purpose statement is that it articulates the what and why of a company in a way that is both high level and specific. Consider Google’s mission statement:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In one concise sentence Google tells us that they are not just a search engine or a cloud services company and they’re not just another tech product company. Their purpose is the “organize the world’s information” meaning they’re a big data company, “and make it universally accessible and useful” meaning they’re a UX-centric company. That provides a lens through which to assess every product or service they create, and tells us why they do everything they do.

Ethos

To find your organization’s purpose, start with some simple sentences and keywords. What is your organization’s ethos? What is the characteristic spirit of your organization’s culture that grows from your shared values? And as you explore your organization’s ethos, keep working towards the why. Why do you do what you do? Look inside to find what drives you, and look outside to see where you want to go.

Designing Resiliency

Climate Change, AI, Cyberesecurity, and Experience Design

We are living during a period of history defined by uncertainty. Global climate change, political and social upheavals, demographic shifts and other large scale changes mean that past trends do not necessarily predict future ones. But this is also a period when design as a field is more prominent than ever, giving us tools to innovate in the face of challenges with uncertain outcomes. A primary design goal with these really big challenges should be resiliency.

Resiliency is a kind of strength. It allows objects to hold their shape, and people and organizations to remain intact under duress. To design resiliency we cannot just devise solutions to current challenges; we must also anticipate future challenges, and this requires futurecasting.

Futurecasting is not about predicting the future. This is a fool’s errand, yielding results that are almost certainly inaccurate. When I was growing up, magazines like Popular Science promised flying cars and personal robots in the 21st century. (I’m still waiting for mine!) Instead, futurecasting is about sketching possible future scenarios based on current trends across a wide range of disciplines including science, technology, social sciences, economics, environmental and energy trends, etc. Instead of viewing the future as a single linear pathway, it uses systems-based thinking to envision multiple possible scenarios from best-case to worst-case possibilities.

For this article, I want to focus on four specific and interrelated trends that will affect organizational resiliency in the next decade:

  1. Climate Disruption
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Cybersecurity
  4. Experience Design

Climate Disruption

Climate change is already happening, and the latest data suggest that it started earlier than previously thought. Many scientists also believe that the recent Paris accord is too little, too late to stop human-caused climate change. While there is promise of technology-based solutions to the problem, these will take time to both come on line and begin to take effect. So we can say with a high level of probability that many of the predicted effects of climate change are inevitable, and some— such as sea level rise, drought in some areas, flooding in others, and increased storm activity— are now unavoidable. Designing resiliency to climate disruption thus becomes of paramount importance.

What this means is that organizations need to be aware of all the possible effects of climate change, and what parts of their business are most vulnerable. For some organizations that means there are value chain risks to physical property, energy supplies or price volatility with raw materials or commodities. There may also be risks of products becoming unpopular due to shifts in the needs or attitudes of consumers, or regulatory risks due to governments taking action to mitigate climate disruption effects. These need to be factors in an organization’s design strategy to improve resilience. (Kem-Laurin Kramer has an excellent book on design strategy and sustainability called User Experience in the Age of Sustainability.)

Artificial Intelligence

Before proceeding on this topic, it’s important to define what AI means. There are different types of AI, and the differences are enormous:

  • Weak (or Narrow) AI is non-sentient and focused on specific tasks
  • AGI or Artificial General Intelligence is sentient and of equal intelligence to humans
  • ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence is sentient and exponentially more intelligent than humans

To be clear, what we are talking about here is weak AI. We are a long way off from building a self-thinking, self-aware, sentient AI, and we really don’t know how long it will take or if it’s even possible. We are held back less by computing power and more by the fact that we don’t have a clear understanding of the inner workings of consciousness or sentience. It’s pretty hard to build something when you don’t know what you’re building.

However, weak AIs are going to have an enormous impact in wealthy countries in the next decade. A new development that is coming quickly is the personal AI avatar, a weak AI that acts as a personal assistant. It will filter information for you, customize your news feed, manage your personal and professional communications, and predict your needs and desires. These personal AI avatars will be gateways to access consumers. Some companies will design and customize the avatars. Others will negotiate with the avatars to deliver ads and marketing materials. Organizations need to understand how this technology works.

Objects with embedded computers and wireless connectivity, the ‘Internet of Things,’ will proliferate, and increasingly these objects will interface with weak AIs that live in the cloud. These will also interact with personal AI avatars. For instance, your avatar will know when you wake up and will tell your coffeemaker to start making coffee. Your printer will tell your avatar that your ink levels are low and then your avatar can order new ink from Amazon without bothering you. Rather than just designing individual products, organizations will be designing product ecosystems, and there will be no difference from a design standpoint between digital and analog experiences.

Another area that is seeing revolutionary change is transportation design. Enabled by weak AI, autonomous self-driving cars will become the norm in the next decade. That doesn’t mean everyone will drive one, but we will all share the road with them. Just like with the Internet of Things, experience design will be critical in how we interact with transportation, from cars to buses, trains and aircraft. Already, companies like Tesla, Hyperloop, SpaceX, Toyota, Honda and others are hiring UX designers to do the design work that used to only be done by ergonomics engineers. This is because people don’t just interact with their car or other vehicle, but are interacting with multiple hardwares and softwares both inside and outside the vehicles. Organizations working with transportation will need to think of their products and services more like digital devices and software-as-a-service rather than traditional transport.

Cybersecurity

We are in a cyberwar. Right now. The recent hacks of government email servers and the DDoS attacks that brought down sections of the internet in October, 2016 were skirmishes in this war. This war is very complex because some of the players are governments and some are private parties, but it’s often very hard to tell the difference. This war will affect everyone using the internet and connected devices, so organizations need to know what’s going on and have a strategic plan.

The recent DDoS attacks were especially significant because instead of using desktop or laptop computers to launch the attacks, they used other devices, like home internet routers and webcams. All of those Internet-of-Things devices are actually computers with wireless connectivity, and they are all vulnerable to cyberattack.

For decades cybersecurity and anti-virus efforts have always been a step behind hackers. Humans are a bottleneck in these efforts, and so the only way to be able to respond and defend against these attacks quickly enough to be effective is to use defensive Weak AIs. On the flip side, AIs can also be weaponized and used to launch attacks. Again, because AIs have an enormous speed advantage over humans, such an attack could be very damaging.

Hackers know this, and so an attack with a weaponized AI is almost certainly inevitable. Organizations need to have a cybersecurity strategy, and AI needs to be a part of that strategy. For individuals, personal AI avatars will not only be our assistants but also our bodyguards against hacking and identity theft.

With AIs being the new defensive and offensive weapons in the cyberwar, experience design is critical to being able to effectively utilize them and to understand what is happening.

Experience Design

Experience Design (XD), UX, and Design Thinking are becoming the biggest forces in all fields of design and business. This is because they work as effective methods for solving big, complex problems with human-centered solutions. XD/UX combines the creative ideation and sideways thinking of design, critical for coming up with innovative solutions, with the empirical rigor of science, critical to validating whether a solutions works or not and why. Studies indicate that startup businesses fail 80-90% of the time due to XD/UX failures, which include things like lack of a market need, being beaten by competition, poor product design, ignoring customers, etc. XD/UX is critical for business.

Some of the areas that XD/UX is expanding into include:

  • Industrial design
  • Product design
  • Transportation design
  • Fashion tech
  • Medical tech

Increasingly, XD/UX is designing not just single products but product-service ecosystems. The empirical iterative process of XD/UX is particularly well suited for tackling big complex problems using design thinking and systems thinking.

Conclusion

In this time of uncertainty, there are unique opportunities for innovation. The organizations that are best prepared and well positioned will have a distinct advantage in those opportunities. By leveraging design thinking and XD/UX, organizations will have the critical elements to design solutions to climate disruption, AI, and cybersecurity. Futurecasting may at first sound more mystical than meticulous, but only by putting in place a proactive forward-thinking strategy can organizations design resiliency.

The Feminist Tech Company: Ways and Reasons to Build a Culture of Equality and Inclusion

by Julian Scaff / edited by Crystal Scaff

This article is based on my keynote talk at the Wonder Women Tech Conference in Long Beach, California on July 17, 2016.

The tech industry has a problem. For all its progressive leanings and inherent coolness, the industry has a big problem with diversity. This problem is multi-faceted, with sexism affecting women, racism affecting people of non-white and non-Asian ethnicities, and ageism affecting people over the age of thirty. For this article, I want to specifically focus on the issue of sexism.

Women represent nearly 60 percent of the labor force in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But according to a study by CNET that polled some of the largest tech companies in the world, women only make up a very disproportionate 30 percent of the tech industry labor force. And if you look specifically at technical positions like programmers, engineers and data scientists, the numbers get even more abysmal. The industry giants have some of the worst numbers: at Apple Computer, 20 percent of technical positions are held by women; at Google it’s 17 percent, and at Twitter it’s only 10 percent.

women_in_tech_positions

Why is this the case? Are men innately better suited to technical jobs? Let’s look at the evidence.

Computer programming was invented in 1842 by a woman named Ada Lovelace, who was highly skilled in mathematical thinking and developed the analytical engine that was the basis for all electronic computing in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1960’s, Margaret Hamilton was one of the world’s first software engineers. In addition to helping develop the essential principles of modern computer programming, Hamilton wrote the software that made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. Recent data on women in tech includes a study by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and North Carolina University that found that women coders made fewer mistakes than their male counterparts.

Ada Lovelace and Margaret Hamilton
Ada Lovelace (left) and Margaret Hamilton (right), inventors and pioneers of computer programming.

So isn’t it odd that a field that was invented by women and where women seem to outperform men is so male-dominated? Well, that study of women coders points to the reason for this disparity. The study specifically looked acceptance rates of code on the popular developers’ site GitHub. A low-acceptance rate indicated that code was not accepted due to errors, and the study found that women’s acceptance rates were higher than men’s, but only if the women’s gender was not known. If you take the same female coders and reveal their gender, then the acceptance rates of their code plummets. So there’s a strong and prevalent perception in the tech community that women are worse coders than men, even though the exact opposite is true.

These attitudes indicate that the problem in the tech industry is one of culture. There is a prevalent culture that sees women as inferior, and that culture is so prevalent that it discourages and prevents women from participating in this employment sector.

A study by the American Association of University Women showed that the number of women in computer-related fields has dropped in recent years, even though we know that women excel in these fields and there are jobs available.

Women have gotten the message that the tech industry is not friendly to them. This is a real problem for companies, especially in an economy where innovation is a driving force and access to talent is critical for success. Companies are losing out on critical talent and the attendant opportunities for greater innovation. Multiple studies directly link diversity with innovation, so tech companies are leaving a lot on the table by not hiring more women and minorities, particularly in roles of leadership, ideation, design and engineering.

All of this information is public knowledge. It’s published in sources like Wired, CNET, Fast Company, and the other publications tech insiders read. But entrenched culture doesn’t change unless direct and intentional action is taken to change it.

There are three things companies can do to fix this problem.

1. Change the internal culture.

Most people familiar with the tech industry know the terms “bro culture” and “brogrammer.” All-male technical teams tend to become self-perpetuating bro culture machines, so that even when a woman is hired, she has to either tolerate the hyper masculine, sexist culture or leave. We know from low retention rates of women in these jobs that many women choose the latter.

Companies need to talk about gender issues and gender-discrimination patterns with their employees. Frank and open communication is key to changing the culture. Every employee should be asked to show responsibility and leadership in affecting that change.

Over the course of my 22-year career, I’ve witnessed overt and subtle forms of sexism and discrimination in various forms. Overt sexism and sexual harassment are easy-to-spot legal issues, and while these are serious problems in some organizations, subtle sexism is much more widespread. Many men don’t realize they’re engaging in subtle sexism, so conversations about what it is and how to not do it need to happen.

I’ll give an example. I used to have a male colleague who spoke in markedly different ways to male and female colleagues. He might say to a female colleague in a higher-pitched voice “Good morning, Sally. That’s a very nice dress!” and then turn to me and say in a lower-pitched voice “Hey, Julian, how is that project going?” The more he did it, the more glaring it became. It was clear that on some level he clearly did not respect female colleagues on the same level as male colleagues. At a certain point, I brought this up to him and asked if he was aware of it, and he completely denied that this was the case. He also didn’t change his behavior. It was so ingrained that he didn’t see it, and nobody wanted to talk about it publicly because it was uncomfortable. This is the culture we are up against.

2. Promote women.

Organizations should aim for a gender balance (and diversity in general, defined in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity) in positions of management and leadership.

Some people will criticize this as a form of affirmative action that goes against the meritocracy model championed in Silicon Valley. But we know from studies like the gender bias against women coders that this “meritocracy” doesn’t apply to women and minorities.

Having more women and minorities in positions of management and leadership helps to change the bro culture in the tech industry, and it’s good for business. As we discussed before, diversity is a critical contributor to a culture of innovation. Therefore, aiming for gender parity and diversity in management and leadership roles isn’t just a nice thing to do; it should be an integral component of an organization’s business strategy.

Industries should also consider changing their policies to support work-life balance. The Harvard Business Review identified work-life balance as one of a number of major obstacles to women advancing in leadership positions. (There are other significant barriers, as well, so I encourage you to read the study linked above.) Organizations need to remove this obstacle and explicitly support employees—both women and men—in not having to choose between personal/family life and work life.

Because the truth is that working more hours per week does not equal more work getting done. A study at Stanford University found that employees working 60 hours per week achieved two thirds of the work completed compared to employees working 40 hours per week. Another study, by the Microsoft Personal Productivity Challenge, found that employees are only really productive about 29 hours per week. Incidentally, that same study found that women were slightly more productive than men.

So promoting work-life balance, and specifically limiting the number of hours employees are allowed to work per week, can not only help boost diversity in leadership positions but also boost productivity for the entire organization.

3. Recruit and communicate externally.

A common complaint from organizations is that they just don’t get enough job applicants who are women and minorities. As a hiring manager I’ve seen this happen: you advertise a job opening, and most or all of the applicants are white men. So what do you do?

If diversity is a key component of your business strategy, this has to be communicated externally. Companies need to communicate not just that they are an “equal opportunity employer” but that they have a gender-equal work environment. This should be front and center on the public employment page of the organization’s website, with an explanation of HOW they are gender inclusive.

Further, companies can demonstrate this dedication by sponsoring organizations that are working for change in the industry. Organizations like Wonder Women Tech, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girl Develop It, Tech Girlz, and many others.

No, this is not my boyfriend's computer.
Source: http://www.mcrockcapital.com/blog/tickle-girls-with-tech

Conclusion

It should be part of a company’s business strategy and strategic vision to cultivate an internal culture of inclusion and equality both because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives companies a competitive advantage. A lack of diversity has a trickle up negative effect that spreads from individual organizations to the entire industry to the world economy. The Harvard Business Review put it in blunt terms: having more women in the workforce could boost the GDP of the entire economy by 5 percent, which equals almost a trillion dollars. The tech industry needs to become truly progressive by getting serious about creating diversity. The feminist organization is more effective and more innovative than what we currently see in the tech marketplace, and our collective path toward the workplace of the future is stilted until the feminist company is the norm.

The Myth of Youth in Design Innovation

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.
Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.

There is a brutal culture of ageism in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, and this ageism that worships youth above all else spills over into the design sector as well. When tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg declare that “Young people are just smarter” people take it as truth carved in stone. It must be true. After all, look at all the tech billionaires in their twenties.

Yet empirical evidence, common sense and personal experience tell me this is a fallacy. Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs did some of their best work when they were over the age of 40, and Ive is still one of the best designers on the planet at the age of 47. Burt Rutan was 41 years old when he designed and launched the Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping, and he was 62 when he launched SpaceShipOne, the first private space plane.

The following is the top ten list of FastCoDesign Magazine’s “Most Creative People in Business of 2013”:

  1. Nate Silver, sports and political elections number-cruncher and big data innovator – 36 years old.
  2. Dong-Hoon Chang, Executive Vice President and Head of Design Strategy for Samsung – 52 years old.
  3. Hilary Mason, data scientist and hacker – 32 years old.
  4. Leslie Bradshaw, entrepreneur and social scientist – 32 years old.
  5. Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer – 81 years old.
  6. Kirthiga Reddy, Director of FaceBook India – 40 years old.
  7. Daniel Graf, Director of Google Maps for Mobile – 40 years old.
  8. Max Levchin, computer scientist and founder of PayPal – 38 years old.
  9. Jill Applebaum, Creative Director at JWT – 43 years old.
  10. Megan Sheehan, Art Director at JWT – I couldn’t find her age, but based on her experience and accomplishments I’m guessing she’s in her early 30’s.

The youngest on the list are 32 years old and the oldest is 81. And unless I’m off about Megan Sheehan (who is a terrific designer, check out her work here: http://megansheehan.info/), there’s not a single person in their 20’s.

In my personal experience I didn’t start to do my most innovative work until I was in my mid-30’s. A combination of experience, perspective, and a deeper understanding of the conditions that foster innovation made me a more innovative designer and thinker.

And this is why the conditions of innovation, and building a balanced team, are more important than youth. I hit my stride in my mid-30’s for a confluence of reasons. First was that after a decade working as a designer at the cutting edge of dot com startups, I moved to Europe and enrolled in an MFA program in Art. Suddenly my time and my mental space were set free to experiment, but at the same time I had far more experience, knowledge and technical ability than most graduate students that I could apply to my work. On top of that, I had thrown myself into a completely different culture, started learning a new language and looking at the world from a different perspective, all conditions conducive to sideways thinking. Upon completing my MFA, I immediately started working as a professor at a university. Teaching students about design and media innovation taught me new perspectives, and being in academia further freed me to experiment, to do research, and continue to work as a consultant in industry. After several years I was appointed head of my department and charged with rebuilding the department and driving student enrollment, and I took the same approach to team building that I had taken as a Creative Director. I ran my academic department like I would a creative agency, creating conditions that encouraged my faculty to innovate with their curriculum and mentoring students to become innovative media makers.

The conditions for innovation rely on several factors, and here I’m adapting ideas in part from the management guru Peter Drucker, as well as from my own experience as a designer, leader and teacher. The first is that innovation is work that requires knowledge, ingenuity, risk-taking, and sideways thinking. In organizations this means building teams with complimentary strengths, respecting both the sideways thinking and risk taking of youth with the knowledge and expertise of experience, and rewarding experimentation, even when it fails. The second is to cultivate an acceptable level of chaos as space for ideation, balanced against order for getting work done. Brilliant ideas rarely happen when you’re staring at your computer screen, but on the flip side work doesn’t get done when you’re playing ping-pong with your coworkers. And a third factor is an inherent acceptance of change. Peter Drucker calls innovation “an effect of economy and society” (check out Drucker’s book Innovation and Entrepreneurship) that at it’s core changes people’s behaviors and/or conceptual paradigms. It’s surprising how many organizations say they want innovation, but are change averse. You can’t have one without the other.

Benjamin F. Jones, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, did a study last year on age and innovation. He found that the average age that inventors and Nobel Prize winners make their greatest achievements is 39. This is because innovation usually doesn’t come out of left field with no foundation. Innovation is built from an iterative process, learning from past mistakes, building on successes, and then drawing unexpected connections. This takes time, hard work, risk taking, experience, and knowledge. In organizations, this means it takes teams constructed of people with complimentary diversities.

UX Design and Social Entrepreneurship

“The human-centered focus, and the rigor and creativity required to maintain that focus over the entire course of the work, sets design thinking apart from other methods of problem solving.” ~Sarah A. Soule

Design thinking has been adapted as an effective methodology not only for product design and business models but also for social entrepreneurship. Design thinking for social good, a methodology utilized in product design, involves the designer engaging with social and environmental issues from the perspective of the individual people directly affected by the problems that the designers are trying to address. Solutions are brainstormed directly from the “users” perspective (the users being the affected people), rapid prototyping allows for empirical field testing, and solutions are synthesized. With social entrepreneurship the solution may be a product, but it may also be a new paradigm of behaviors or ways of doing things. User-Experience (UX) Design thinking provides a model for expanding design thinking to broader behavioral and social aspects in order to tackle increasingly complex and interconnected social-political-environmental challenges.

A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.
A solar cooker made from easily obtainable recycled trash materials. Appropriate design and technology that addresses a wide range of social and environmental problems.

An example of this is a project that a non-profit organization I work with engaged in a project of social entrepreneurship in Nepal. They wanted to engage with a number of problems that turned out to be interrelated, including overpopulation, deforestation, access to education particularly for girls, and access to clean water. By traveling to Nepal, talking to local people and community leaders and spending time living amongst normal people, who designers would call their “typical users”. The project they decided on was a design for a solar cooker made from local trash including cardboard boxes, aluminum foil or tin, old glass window panes, etc. They taught women and girls how to make the solar cookers themselves and how to cook with them. The primary use of the solar cookers was for boiling and sterilizing water, thereby removing the need for collecting firewood, which contributes to deforestation. Due to the scarcity of wood, girls would spend hours every day collecting wood. The solar cookers freed up time for the girls to instead attend to their school studies. Girls who receive a basic education tend to have smaller families, be more economically prosperous, and ensure that their children also receive an education.

UX design thinking was critical to tying together all these different threads, in designing not just a product but a new way of doing, teaching and thinking about interconnected social and environmental challenges. Design thinking, often described as utilizing the designer’s creative methodologies to connect the needs of people with what is technologically feasible, becomes a greatly expanded concept when the “UX” is added in front of it. Although UX design historically grew out of the techno-centric field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), it now extends to all aspects of a person’s interaction within a given system, encompassing interface, graphics, physical interaction, as well as social, political and environmental systems. Engaging effectively with the complex challenges that social entrepreneurship attempts to take on requires UX design thinking.

Creative Leadership for Innovation and Agility

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” -Erich Fromm

Peter Hayes, Director of the Visual Arts Network South Africa, and Julian Scaff, creative professional and ux expert, discuss building creative cultures at a conference in sustainability in Brussels, Belgium.
Julian Scaff, creative and ux expert, and Peter Hayes, Director of the Visual Arts Network in South Africa, at a creative meeting in Brussels, Belgium.

The field of design is undergoing a period of rapid change, with disciplines broadening and overlapping and designers taking a more active role in leadership and innovation. There are more designers serving as executive of companies than at any time in history, and the reason why is because innovation and creative thinking are keys to the success of companies. Studies by the Boston Consulting Group, amongst others, show that companies that ranked as more innovative enjoy significantly higher rates of success and higher profits than companies that are not. Innovation is key to success. Companies such as Pepsico, Sony Music Entertainment and Burberry have a Chief Creative Officer, and the company J. Crew has two presidents: Libby Wadle, president of J. Crew Brand, and Jenna Lyons, president and executive creative director.

Designers have been professionally trained in the creative process, the process through which the designer finds solutions to communicate ideas and solve the creative challenges of a particular project or endeavor. Increasingly designers are not simply serving clients, but driving new ideas, new products, new services, and new paradigms. The designer-as-leader is an innovation expert. But for a designer to be an effective leader, she must learn several key skills and concepts.

Good Leadership is Good Design

When it comes to leading people, let’s throw out the word “management”.  Management is for projects, for assets, for time lines. Good leadership is about pulling (not pushing) everyone on your team towards a common goal, and trusting each of them to do what they do best.  Trust is key. To convince your followers of a vision you must first convince yourself. Convince and inspire yourself, and you can convince and inspire others. Communicate to the team, collectively and individually, what the vision and goals are and how you’re going to achieve them.  Listen, ask for and welcome input, and respect everyone’s contributions. Being a good leader is like being in a good relationship: trust and communication are key. And being a good leader is like being a good designer. You’re designing a creative culture.

Embrace a Balance of Chaos and Reward Failure

How many times have you had a brilliant idea sitting at your desk staring at a blank document? How about in a coffee shop? At a botanical garden? Laying on a sofa listening to music? Chaining your team members to their desks, demanding precise schedules and forcing people to work the way you work is a creativity and innovation killer. Embrace a bit of chaos and distraction in the office. Things like a foosball game, a lounge with music, a garden, etc. aren’t distractions from work, they’re potential drivers of creativity and boosters of productivity.  But balance is key: too much chaos and nobody gets their work done; too little, and ideas don’t flourish and people burn out.

Having a crazy new idea that doesn’t work isn’t a failure, it’s a stepping stone to success. A recent article on BBC News outlined how the Google X Labs, the company’s experimental innovation laboratory, encourages and rewards it’s employees for trying new ideas, no matter how crazy. Google expects a 99% failure rate.  This might seem steep, but without trying out all those “failed” ideas, Google never would have innovated new products such as Google Maps, Translate, and Google Glass. In a culture where people are afraid to fail because they’ll look stupid or be penalized for having a “bad idea”, few people will take risks needed for creative breakthroughs. Encourage the members of your team to pitch and try out crazy new ideas, big ideas, and applaud them when these ideas fail.

Create an Agile Culture

Agile Management and Scrum Method are big buzzwords in the field of management and leadership right now, and for good reason. The world is changing rapidly, and being too slow kills creativity and innovation. Agile management is an iterative form of project management wherein small teams deliver results in stages, building the project up rapidly in modular stages. Larger, more complex projects may be broken up into parts and distributed to smaller teams, each rapidly prototyping, testing, and delivering their modular portion of the project. Scrum Method takes Agile Management further by embracing the notion that not all problems can be fully defined from the start, allowing for project requirements to evolve and change based on empirical results during the development and testing phases of the project. I won’t get into all the details of Agile and Scrum, but some of the key things are how meetings are conducted: projects begin with a Sprint Planning Meeting that may last no longer than 8 hours to detail and plan the entire project; daily Scrum meetings update all team members on progress and are limited to 15 minutes; project cycles are typically 7-30 days, and if a project is much bigger than that, it is broken town into 7 to 30 day modules. These limitations keep things moving quickly and minimize miscommunication.

This seems a bit chaotic, and it is. That bit of chaos empowers members of your team to rapidly try out new ideas and respond to change strategically. If you have a brilliant brainstorm and nobody listens, or the idea gets bogged down in committee meetings, or it takes too long to bring it to fruition because of burdensome bureaucratic processes, it not only kills the idea but it dampens the spirit of the person who had the idea, discouraging them from having more ideas in the future.

An agile culture is a culture that embraces change, delivers projects rapidly, and continuously appraises and improves upon ideas based on new empirical information that emerges during the lifecycle of the project. Teams that can go from brainstorm to prototype in less than 30 days will not only be more creative and innovative, but inspirational.