Founders, honor thy designers

    By Chris Myers | Small Business

    Design Flaws

    One of the most dangerous mistakes you can make in life is assuming that just because you’re good at one thing, you must be good at everything.  History is littered with examples of hubris leading to disaster.  Anyone remember Michael Jordan’s stint as a professional baseball player? How about Eddie Murphy’s brief yet incredibly bizarre music career?

    It’s easy to poke fun, but the reality is that all of us fall victim the same kind of delusions of grandeur from time to time.  The concept behind this is called illusory superiority, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses.  Entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to this dangerous cognitive bias, and more often than not it seems to rear its ugly head in the design process.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to this bias myself.  When my co-founder and I first started our company, our mission was to build the best solution for small business owners looking to make better decisions.  We were determined to do this by changing the way businesses interacted with their financial data and built a complex and impressive set of algorithms to make it possible.  When it came time to design our primary user interface, we hired a talented designer and immediately handed him a number of crudely sketched layouts with instructions to “make this look pretty

    As you can imagine, that approach didn’t work out well.  We started bickering over whose approach was better, which colors looked right, and whether or not the designs would resonate with our customers. Our development process became paralyzed as we forced our poor designer to create iteration after iteration of our half-baked ideas.  The resulting user experience was disjointed and confusing. The problem was that we were falling victim to illusory superiority. We assumed that we had better ideas and more talent than we really did.

    Finally, after countless arguments and extended timelines, we acknowledged our mistake and took action.  Pulling our team together, we admitted our fault and took steps to foster a design-based culture.  We immediately extracted ourselves from the process and turned over control to our creative team.  More importantly, we took the time to make sure that our designers didn’t operate in a vacuum.  By including them in the engineering and sales processes, they were able to understand not only what the system did but also how it worked in the hands of actual users.  This led to a complete redesign of the user experience and a dramatic improvement in our user adoption.

    It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, but it proved to be invaluable.  By addressing our cognitive biases and empowering our design team to lead we were able to deliver a better experience for our users, explore more innovative solutions to problems, and change the way we interacted with our team.

    The moral of the story:

    • Be aware of your cognitive biases and limitations.
    • Empower your creative team.  Their insights will have far-reaching impacts on your business.
    • If you’re at the peak of your career, never ever take a detour to collaborate with Rick James on a pop single. It will not end well.
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