Competitive advantage of design

The importance of design to a young-startup. In short: There isn’t any. You can’t out-compete innovative features by building a better designed product. It just doesn’t work like that in the long run. Sure it’s nice to have a sleek app, but you need more lead bullets

I came across a great post Peter Omvlee’s on Design as a differentiator and wanted to expand on that to address a more fundamental problem that startups face which is too much focus on design. I read a lot of startup blogs and very often the advice that I see floating around is along the lines of, “Design is really important, put a lot of focus into it, design trumps all”

Peter’s post points the exact problem with this approach. Basically Peter explained in his post that he had never tried Unread (an RSS-reader app) because he had been using Reeder which served his purpose just as well. His main problem with Unread was that it basically put a new theme on the same feature-set that was present in Reeder. The heart of the problem here is that design will not give you any competitive advantage if you don’t have any persuasive features. There are millions of apps out there and to stand out as a good product, there is only one way to do it: Make good features and test those on a small early-adopter set of customers.

Trying to use design for competitive advantage is an abstract topic, anyone can take either sides of the topic and argue that design is important but what does this mean for startups? Let me try to explain the importance of design with a different example, one which I hope you all can agree on:

Focusing a lot of your time on design is like writing optimized C-code. Initially when you write code, it’s not very optimized but an expert who cares about things like memory allocation and execution time can inspect the code and refactor parts of it to give it the best possible optimizations. Here’s the problem: If you are writing hello-world in C, writing it optimized or non-optimized will give you the same results. For a hello-world program, no matter how optimized it might be, it is fundamentally useless and the same goes for creating a product with different design but similar fundamental features. Design is an optimized boost that will only kick in if your program is under heavy load. When you are doing initial testing for validation, you won’t have heavy load, maybe 10-50 customers. In that time, focus on getting the product right, with the right amount of features and then you can spend all the time in the world on good design.

Too much focus on design and too little on product features and customer development.

Photo credit: Hongikat