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Design and User Experience Are the new IP

Posted October 18, 2012

I spend a lot of time thinking about experience shaping. It’s everywhere. Whenever I see a new car and all the work the manufacturers are putting into the experience niceties or the surfacing of new features, I am seeing that they are only possible if you have nailed the ability to allow them to easily be used. The best GPS or automatic cruise control is worthless if it isn’t readily accessible to the user’s mind. The zero tolerance principle lives on: no feature may add training costs to the user. And in that statement, we see how the experience of a product, feature… anything, becomes the defining factor in a world where the fundamentals of technology are becoming cheap and ubiquitous. Which brings me to the next part of this post:

Experience is the new Intellectual Property

So, there’s this guy named Ron Conway. The wikipedia entry for him starts with:

Ron Conway is an American angel investor, often described as one of the “super angels”. Conway is recognized as a strong networker and is based in Silicon Valley.

In October 2011 at the Y Combinator sponsored “Startup School”, Ron was quoted as saying:

Design and user experience is the new IP. Entrepreneurs who own their user’s mind succeed.

The next day, he tweeted the following (emphasis mine):

[…] exemplifies what i discussed yesterday, design and user experience are the new IP, not algorithms.

A lot of people have retweeted or referenced this since then. After a recent discussion with my current CEO, I wanted to explore this topic a bit.

User Experience is something with ROI

There was a time when a user experience was something that just happened. It wasn’t planned for and it wasn’t designed intentionally. Software and websites either had it, or they didn’t. Many designers and engineers just happened to stumble upon it, and their products slowly started to just “feel better” to people who were using them. As a part of that first way of “web development”, it wasn’t something that I set out to do either. I just always was focused on making something people liked to use or visit.

Part of that focus was spurred thanks to David Siegel’s landmark book “Creating Killer Websites“, published in 1996 (which is when I bought it). David Siegel was very unique for his time – he was a designer who owned and founded a very progressive and successful web development firm. Remember, this is the mid 90’s. David reiterated in this book again and again – people have to like your website, and they have to be able to get what they want out of it to like it. Which translated to “make it usable, appealing, and a good experience to keep them coming back!” Then in 2000, we were all introduced to the maxim “Don’t make me think“, the idea brought to life by Steve Krug in his book of the same name. Krug had boiled it down even further. Having to think about how to use something was no longer acceptable on the web (or in software). People are visiting your website or using your product to do something else – using your various interfaces or complicated navigation is just a means to do that, it’s never the goal.

Fast forward to the present, and User Experience and “UX”[1] are everywhere. I get random recruitment notices 4-5 times a week from people just spamming the internet looking for talented UX people. But why is this? Why all of a sudden are companies trying to hire this net-new position? Well…

It’s time to add a whole new dimension.

I think as we exit 2012 and enter 2013, we’re going to cross the tipping point of what UX and User Experience mean in the world of business. It’s not really optional anymore if you want to have a seat at the table. The buy-in is $20,000 UX bucks, and if you don’t have at least that, you can’t play. The crucial part is that the amount you need to play is set by your customers, not by you. Smart businesses are realizing that without real UX on their team, they will quickly find themselves short of the table stakes.

As I think about Conway’s tweet, I come to a conclusion that I hope more and more people are coming to: With features, functions, and capabilities reaching a homogeneous state, the experience your customer has is what gives you the competitive advantage, and once you have that advantage you then gain the adoption advantage as well.

In a world where technology is falling out of people’s pockets, it’s not that difficult to develop the core functionality you need to enter a market space. The iOS app store is probably the best example of that. Go buy “xcode for dummies” and within a few weeks, you can probably build a simple app and put it up on the store for 99 cents. And then someone else comes along with the same idea that is easier to use, more appealing, or more endearing, and you’ll instantly be pushed out of sight, and out of mind.

Companies are realizing this more and more every day. You can’t just phone-in your experience. You can’t just treat your customer’s experience as an afterthought or a bolt-on carburetor you hope will give you that 1 extra horsepower on your jetski. It’s gotta be ingrained into the whole product. And from my experience, I’ve never met a programmer who wasn’t eager and excited to have a UX practitioner take that responsibility and let them focus on code while someone else focuses on refining the experience of what the code produces.

So, there you have it. The user experience, the byproduct of UX, is so tangible now that super-angel VC inventors are looking to back and invest in the experience of a product, and not just the merit of the intellectual property, patents, or talent who created it. What is going to make you rich? Having an experience for your customers that is better than any competitor, given that the technical capabilities are equal.

Relevant links:


[1] I separate out the terms “User Experience” and “UX” with the idea that “user experience” is a noun, and UX seems to be a verb or adjective. I am not a English major though, it just feels that way [2]
[2] I’m an English minor =/
I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

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