Design Comes First for High Tech Entrepreneurs: Quantum Computing, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, BioComputing, Machine Learning


While the design is increasingly central to the operations of established technology companies, it remains overlooked within research teams pursuing initial research of those same technologies. This is due to the lack of understanding held by high tech entrepreneurs about the role of design. They think it is decoration - when in truth - it is the fundamental process to transform abstract ideas into new realities. Design is the cornerstone to successful entrepreneurship.

In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with dozens of high tech startups that have one foot in the lab and one foot on the path to a new market. Interplanetary robotics, quantum computing, and super intelligent machines are exciting new domains described at length in business and technology magazines alike, yet these ventures struggle to overcome the leap from research in unstructured domains to generating meaningful human-product experiences and viable companies. They struggle to think and work like designers.

How Design Serves Advanced Technology Companies

Computers are everywhere. As more of our lives are inundated with computers - cars, planes, banks, security, government - the software on those computers is getting very sophisticated and difficult to test. It is also difficult to build to ensure that it is testable. Think of the complexity to manage all air flights in a country, the testing of that software is critical to everyone's safety - but with so many airplanes, airports, satellites and so on - how do you test it?

In my engagement with machine learning companies throughout Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh, I found one that has solved this problem. They build tools to help other big companies build reliable software for complex systems.  They can even predict if your company is going to create a bug before it happens. It is incredible.

The company does amazing work and is profitable. Yet they have a terrible website. They know it. Their tools do not really have a user interface that users enjoy using or easily understand. Their software is very advanced and difficult to communicate.  It is challenging to hire for this company. They see every market as possible and yet are not sure how to access them. Their work is in such high demand they are doing well... but will this always be the case?  What are the limits of their current market? How do they know?

Upon offering to help with the website, I've since had multiple conversations with the founder of this company. I understand the technical details of their software. As a researcher, I am equipped to study and understand the problems they face. I also am a designer so I am able to communicate it to people who do not understand.  Consequently, as a designer, I also have methods to rapidly TEST & LEARN from the range of possible consumers on how to tailor the language, the product, and the transaction. We do not, consequently, have to worry about marketing or even business development. With design, we can KNOW and VALIDATE our language, our image, our transaction, and our team to transform machine learning into highly needed customer solutions. With Design, we can better engineer success, not just software.

This is Different than The Current Business Models and Operations

At each startup, the conversation unfolds the same way every time.  I ask about the product and the CEO demonstrates or describes the product. I ask about the business and they display a prepared document or slide deck on the business strategy and organizational shape.  I ask about financing and they tell me about early mistakes made impacting future financing for the negative. I ask about the distinction between the market they set out to pursue vs the market opportunity they have discovered - and they start to get depressed.  I ask about new market or growth opportunities, and they say "we hope to figure that out soon... " and perhaps "if only we could hire the right person for business development."

Hire the right person for business development?

Certainly, the most important aspect of building a company is the team. Yet to assume that the success of the business - to align internal operations to market demand - is the job of a solo individual is misguided.  MBA programs tout the ability to transform graduates into such beings - and there are many times this person can hold an instrumental role - but for highly sophisticated technologies, there is no evidence that a traditional business approach will always work.  To make the assumption is high risk.

In addition, when I ask "do you have a designer?" - the CEO confuses my question, thinking I asked: "Do you have someone to make this pretty?"  They say no or "that is important, but we aren't there yet" or "we know it needs to be attractive so we outsource that, we have someone make it look good." The worst ones point to their current success and say "we don't need a designer, we are doing just fine" and months later are panicking because they had all along been meeting the needs of only one or two clients and could not actually scale their business. By their definition, to have a designer on the team is expensive and the person would sit around most the time with nothing to do. If they learn their lesson - it is often too late.

Design Driven Business is an Optimized Transaction

Every company requires some basic components - they need the product, they need an efficient way to generate the product, they need a clear path to connect to the consumers for the product, they need a very simple mechanism to exchange the product for capital, and they need the ability to do this over and over again.  If this process is well tuned, the capital acquired will outweigh the capital exhausted and the company can flourish.

Nothing in this product demands marketing, or branding, or financial planning. There is no need to hire agile coaches or communications consultants. I also mentioned nothing about aesthetic design. These things - these tasks - are simply tools to help solve the core problem: the material transaction. The material transaction is made possible by the optimized movement of information. It is possible to invest in these things to make that transaction happen, but within an unknown market for an untested product, operating on the thresholds of possibility... it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these tools. Marketing language, targetted advertising, and agile product development are all just attempts to optimize the movement of information. Yet with advanced technologies, early wins are just as likely events of luck. There is no way to know.

Design is the Process to Optimize Transactions

Designers are specialized in the art of communication. This communication may take place through graphic text, plastic form, or even through the process of a work itself (this is where the post-its come into use). Optimized communication within a team will increase efficiency, to transform a team from thinkers to doers but with less technical debt.  Optimized communication to external consumers will get the two groups together faster for the transaction to take place.

Optimized design of the transaction itself - a form of communication - will result in high satisfaction for everyone.  If transactions are fast and positive, and communication from the buyer can connect to the team (who internally is optimized to leverage it by communicating), the transaction will take place again.

You can call this stuff strategy, marketing, team building, communications, - whatever you want. But to get from lab to market - you are better off to optimize your business by starting with Design.