What’s the most important appointment a tech startup will make?
A Chief Finance Officer? A Chief Technology Officer? Or perhaps young, talented developers?
Here's my take — a tech founder should give the same precedence to hiring a Chief Design Officer as a CFO or CTO if they want to build a lasting business. Yet time and time again startups overlook design, and this dooms them for failure.
Tech firms aren’t often associated with design. The tech ecosystem is often reduced to how companies can develop the best tech. Or how they can best leverage emerging technologies such as machine learning or artificial intelligence.
But here’s the thing. Tech companies with good design have a genuine competitive advantage. It gives startups ammunition that many others simply don’t have.
Because tech startups are often dominated by developers, and developers are developer-first. To put it bluntly, they develop products that they think the user should want to use. The user should wrap themselves around the product, because the product is great.
Designers are user-first. They design a product for the user. The product should wrap itself around the user, because the user is great.
It’s a subtle but crucial difference. Take a healthtech firm, for example. It develops software that enables radiographers to quickly identify irregularities in a CT scan. The technology is ground-breaking – first of its kind. A developer-first approach prioritises the patient’s bones and internal organs. A design-first approach prioritises the radiographer. And it’s the radiographer who ultimately decides whether the NHS will invest in 500 new machines.
It could be any type of tech. Fintech. Climatetech. Deeptech. SaaS.
Design fosters innovation
Design also fosters a culture of innovation. And yes, tech firms are already world-renowned hubs for problem-solving. World-famous for finding ingenious solutions to the most complex of problems. But they are often solving distinctly technology-related problems. Like how to develop artificial intelligence that identifies a road hazard around a blind corner.
But a technologist, software developer, or coder might not be as good at solving human-related problems. Like how to ensure the very algorithm is embedded into the dashboard of a car in a way that’s practical, functional, safe, and stylish.
Design is also the key to building a brand. A strong, recognisable brand that people want to identify with.
Some of the world’s most-loved and well-renowned brands are born from companies that consciously made design a core part of their identity. And from there, that culture of design flows the whole way through the company – from the boardroom, to the executives, to the management teams, to the workforce, all the way through to the shop and factory floor.
Porsche, Dyson, Sony, LG are all good examples. The Air Jordan brand is literally based on the product itself.
Late to the party
But here’s the problem — companies are too often late to the party when it comes to design.
They treat design as a last-minute tag-on to ensure a product is functional. Or they try to implement a culture of design artificially or retrospectively. Both these approaches are as foolhardy as they are short-sighted.
You need someone with design expertise and experience to drive design thinking from the very day a company is founded. And you need to put that person in a position of genuine leadership so they can help build a cohesive business and brand in the long term. This is the only way to ensure design thinking permeates through all functions of a business. Through its culture. Through its staff. Through its very identity.
My prediction is that the next generation of successful tech startups in the next decade will be inspired by design.