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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Product design and tech startups

The Wall Street Journal had a special section this week on the importance of product design. It’s currently available free, although (as with other stuff on their site) you can never tell what’s going to end up behind the pay wall.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of product design in both the practice and teaching of technology-based startups. In general, firms that enter a high-tech market tend to enter based on innovation (Dell being the obvious exception). And — particularly given Apple’s influence with the iPod and iPhone — good product design is increasingly important as a differentiator.

This means that startups often need good design skills to have their products noticed in the market. We tend to think of industrial design — the shape of the device, placement of buttons, etc.

But as a Mac programmer of nearly 20 years, we also got drilled into us the importance of user interface design — which Xerox got (e.g. with the Mesa, Alto and SmallTalk systems), Apple refined, but many Windows software companies long ignored. Apple has carried this over to the iPhone: the features that the iPhone has are not exceptional, but the ease of use is. And from what I’ve seen, Apple’s high standards for Macintosh UIs have carried over to 3rd parties on the iPhone.

This also carries over into education. Stanford has an acclaimed (and AFAIK unique) Design Division within its Mechanical Engineering department. SJSU locates its design department within the combined School of Art and Design. As with other SJSU programs (like EE, CS and business), the design program provides the largest share of local design workers due to our size and that majority of our graduates end up in Santa Clara County. The design students were quite prominent in our recent Silicon Valley Business Plan Competition.

My favorite story in the special section was about the new masonry field saw developed by MK Diamond. It sounded like an important breakthrough in portability and usability for a very mature product category. More interestingly, it had elements of user innovation in the story, which was interesting both because the users got involved in developing the technology — and also that the manufacturer listened.

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