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Can Good Design Unlock Engineering Potential?

August 19, 2020

By David Choe

Our belief is a resounding yes.

Having spent the majority of my career as a brand and customer experience strategist rebranding fortune 500s and small nonprofits, redesigning employee experiences for over 50,000 people, and reimagining e-commerce for DTCs and retail giants, I saw the return on design to be immediate and incredible, if done right.

When my co-founder Amanda and I began our user discovery for Staat, we uncovered a unique insight for our very unique audience: engineers, at best, don't have the time or energy to focus on design, and at worst, they think it's a waste of time.

We are building Staat to solve a universal problem: technology team disconnect. As we unpacked this problem we've unearthed a few (maybe obvious, but rampant) findings:

  1. Building any kind of technology is difficult
  2. Building technology requires immense effort, focus, and coordination
  3. Success is often fleeting

Because shipping any kind of technology product is so difficult, engineers often push design to the end or to other teams. Development methodologies often settle for "ugly yet working" as the number one priority of early product development.

Unfortunately, "ugly yet working" usually stays that way. Until there is a prioritized push for a design investment, many products end up in this "ugly yet working" state for much longer than they should be.

In fact, we've found that the very tools and products specifically built to help engineering teams better ship products are affected by this philosophy. Although design can be an impediment to faster shipping and "agile" delivery, the absence of it hurts products and their users in the long run.

Think about it like this. How many products and tools do you and your teams currently use to manage people or the development process? How many do you use everyday? Of the ones you use everyday is the experience seamless or clunky? Do you enjoy using the product or you find yourself frustrated? Do you find yourself wanting to tell others about it or make a better version yourself?

If your people and process management products are anything like the ones we've come across, it's probably the latter for all the questions.

Because of this, we are hyper-focused on design. Whether the branding, the product, or the information design, we've intentionally "slowed down" the development cycle in order to bring a product to market that delights instead of disappoints. In fact, we are designing for a "seatbelt" experience.

Karl Benz patented the world's first automobile in 1886. The universal three-point seatbelt was patented in 1955 by Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven. For 69 years, drivers drove without what is now instinctual, muscle memory. Can you remember the last time you put on your seatbelt or do all the times blend into one memory? As soon as we get in any vehicle, the first thing any of us do is put on our seatbelt, usually unconsciously. 

Our design roadmap as we're calling it follows this "seatbelt" principle. Designing based on the seatbelt principle requires an arduous rebellion against the status quo, and fresh eyes on how to approach technical development through the lens of human-centered design.  Our hope is to design Staat so that it is so seamless, frictionless, and intuitive that our user depends on our product in this automatic, habitual, and instinctual way.

How are we actually accomplishing this?

  1. Deeply understanding the user and the user's user Although our primary user is a technology team leader: Engineer Managers, Product Owners, VPs of Engineering, and beyond, we also have to design for the individual contributor. This has required us to understand what their tics, preferences, priorities, and stigmas are. We've gone to great lengths (digging into forums, reading all the engineering management literature, and interviewing high-performing engineers) to really understand them. In fact, we're working on a bit of a cheat sheet on a technical IC's "make-up". [Email me for first access]

  1. Simplifying the experience The ubiquity of the three-point seatbelt is a product of its design. Griswold and DeHaven packed in the maximum amount of security (value) into a minimal amount of complexity. It's easy to give in to "feature porn" early on in a startup – pack in as much "value" as possible at the expense of usability. As we strip down our product to engineer this kind of seatbelt value, we've come to deeply understand user needs and behavior. If we can get a "how do I sign up" type response from the simplest form of our product, we've achieved the start of seatbelt value.

We believe that design should be balanced with shipping. Bloating on either end (design vs. delivery) will ultimately lead to inferior products. By focusing on design, our vision is to help engineers and technology team leaders get to maximize their time and potential – we're flipping the script.

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