500 Startups’ Warmgun conference recap: we’re all designers

Nov 26, 2013
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The following is a guest post from Michael Ferranti, a marketer and product guy living and working in San Francisco, USA. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrantim where your tweets in English and français are welcome, or on his blog.

For the last three years, a highlight of my year has been a design conference called Warmgun organized by 500Startups. It’s always held in the stylish Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco’s Japantown, a venue that I’d be surprised can house next year’s conference since it was absolutely packed.  Unlike most conferences which focus on tactical how-to’s, Warmgun has consistently made attendees think about WHAT they are doing, not just HOW they are doing it.  Like all 500Startups events, the sessions are all taped and recorded, so not being there is no reason to miss out on the lessons from some of technology’s best-known speakers from startups like Uber, Github, Mailchimp, and Etsy, and established companies like Amazon, Intuit and Adobe.

UX strategy means business

Rather than Warmgun starting the way it usually does– with 500Startups founding partner Dave McClure screaming and cussing about…everything–it started with the more sober, but way funnier, Jared Spool of UIE, giving the most surprising, and insightful talk of the day.   During his talk, Spool argued the completely unsurprising and uninsightful case that all good business models are designed and that all designers should understand the business model of their company. #boring

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What made the talk so unique is that in the past, most user experience discussions have focused on either the fact that user experience is important to begin with or how tactically to make it easier for the user to use the product in question.  And many talks at this year’s conference continued on that theme (a particularly good one was responsive design guru Luke Wroblewski’s talk Designing Across Devices: The Future Media & Cross Device Web Design).

But what Spool challenged the audience to think about was if designers aren’t thinking big enough about Design.  Fundamentally, great business models are DESIGNED.   It’s not an accident that Amazon.com can sell its products at cost and still make a profit (Spool explained they can do this by turning over their inventory faster than they have to pay their suppliers, earning interest on the resulting cash).  Designers who stop at the pixel to perfect their “design” certainly aren’t stretching the limits of where their craft can lead.  Even designers who push their way into the core application functionality are not maximizing the business opportunity if they don’t understand how the user behavior they are enabling will affect business metrics like increased revenue or decreased costs.

We are all designers

If I had to sum up the theme of Warmgun 2013, it would be with the words of Paco Viñoly, Design Director, at mobile payments company Square: “We are all designers.” Viñoly was speaking more specifically about engineers being designers, but I think the concept extends well beyond “designers” vs. “engineers.” Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister during the end of World War I, famously quipped that war is too important to be left to the generals. The same can be said for design and business. Too often, especially in larger companies, we overvalue “expertise” and undervalue critical thinking.  Expertise in a domain does not equate to ability to succeed with customers, the ultimate driver of business success.  Likewise, critical thinking and creative problem solving doesn’t stop at the edges of our learned trade. When we think about creating a great company, design is clearly a huge part of that. Such a huge part that every person in the organization needs to think about how the stuff that gets “shipped” impacts customers or users and the business itself. Making good decisions purposefully is design.  And we are all designers.