Software company founders face a range of paradoxes in scaling their company. One of them is thinking for the long term in product design. How should a founder design for the long term with a temporary material? It’s like asking an architect to build a classic landmark out of papier-mache. How is this possible?
An economics teacher of mine used to quote Keynes’s famous line, “in the long run we are all dead.” With sufficient time resolution, all products fail. Behaviors change, hierarchies evolve, cultures shift… This is not to say there aren’t constants that can be leaned on, but that the way these constants are used by individuals changes over time.
I visited our team in Saville a few years ago. The town is stunning. The architecture seems trapped in time and the walled gardens seem straight out of a Shakespearean play. Of particular interest is the Catedral de Sevilla (aka Cathedral of St Mary and the See or the Seville Cathedral) which towers across the street from the Puerta del Leon (the more modern entrance to the Royal Alcazar of Seville).
As the seat of power during Spain’s time of world dominance, Seville images the wealth of a bygone era. No buildings more represent this than the Seville Cathedral. Towering 138 feet above the street and covering 124K square feet, the Cathedral supplanted the Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world when completed in 1528.
The architects, Alonso Martinez et al, clearly had legacy in mind when building this behemoth. It is breathtaking in size, scale, and beauty. They were designing it for the long term. But for what function?
Cathedrals served several functions. In Christian practice, a cathedral is meant to hold and shelter a congregation for corporate worship. In political practice, however, the cathedral imaged political power and wealth. I some cases it served as a center of commerce for a region.
But despite these varied functions, the Seville Cathedral now serves as a tourist location. It no longer performs its designed purpose. A visitor might notice a pious observant in prayer or two, but the lion share of the visitors are there to behold what used to be; what was.
The rigidity of the design and the materials used, as well as the incredible cost, all serve as anchors to prevent the Seville Cathedral from morphing into what the culture around it needed. The Spanish economic might waned over time, the monarchy lost power, the church lost power, and the congregation dwindled. The culture shifted; the building stayed the same.
Thinking long term in design is mostly about flexibility. Software products are short lived creatures. When designed right, the human interface – the way the product enhances and stimulates human potential – should far outlive the digital manifestation of the interface. So, what is necessary for designing long term software solutions?
Principles of software design
Well-designed software should be as small as possible to achieve the proper human benefit. This can be expanded into the following design points:
- Small as possible
- Efficient with resources
- Collaborative / comprehensive (i.e., it works across all workflows)
- Value oriented
This list is esoteric and philosophical; and not as small as possible (ironic!).
Small as possible
Software cost is a function of size. Not only the initial build, but the ongoing maintenance. This is not a strict rule. It can cost more to build a highly efficient product, but in the longer term the efficient product will have less maintenance load than the larger product.
The maintenance liability tail isn’t the only reason to make software products as small as possible. It is a waste to build a product bigger than it needs to be. Furthermore, the qualifier “possible” suggests that it is built to the appropriate size, not larger. One benefit of this is it makes the psychological cost of walking away from the manifestation of the product easier.
Sunk cost fallacy is real. It is cognitive friction that costs energy to overcome. It isn’t easy. Smaller products are easier to drop and replace. And sometimes’ that is necessary. After all, the actual ‘product’ is the human interface, not the way it manifests on screen in this version.
Efficient with resources
Well-designed products are efficient with resources. Software products require and consume resources. From computing resources to energy to mindshare, magnifying human potential is resource intensive. Good products are efficient. They use the minimal amount of resources to achieve the desired result.
Here is a subset of the resources that a good product will use efficiently:
- Computing power
- Data storage
- User attention
- User clicks
- User’s memory
- User capacity for focus
There are more resources to add and more that will be added over time.
Good products are unique products. Uniqueness isn’t just a requirement for competitive advantage, but it is also a requirement for efficiency. Repetitive human interfaces serving the same culture is a waste of time and talent. Good products aren’t duplicative, they aren’t copycats, they are unique.
Good products are designed within context. The design recognizes the context of a culture: how it moves and operates. It meets the culture where it is with the added power of automation. This mix of new and old is delicate, hence the need for context.
Good design is inclusive. This isn’t about politics or ‘feel-good’ niceties. Inclusivity means that it is designed with the users. For further clarity, designing with the users doesn’t mean bouncing ideas off them or inviting them to sit next to your fiddle leaf fig tree and scrawl a screed on to a whiteboard.
Instead, inclusivity means the nuances of how people operate within a culture are considered and reflected. Software exists to magnify human output. This magnification requires buy-in from humans. If the product is not inclusive, it won’t get buy-in.
Collaborative and comprehensive
Good design is collaborative. This is tightly linked to inclusivity, but with a few distinct differences. Collaborative design means the product doesn’t just reflect one person’s ideas of how a culture operates, but that it reflects the culture at large. And the product works across workflows.
Cultures have many workflows, not just one. Collaborative products recognize the input processes and the output, post-product, processes, and work in synchrony with those processes. Good products collaborate across workflows so that the user doesn’t have to force a macro workflow.
Collaborative also means that the product operates well within the ecosystem of other solutions that serve the same culture. This is difficult. Often companies want to grow into other workflows instead of bloom in the workflow they own. This compulsion is not collaborative and results in tension and angst with the user. This tension kills buy-in and, hence, is not part of good design.
People adopt software because it makes an impact for them. This impact is value. In most business contexts, this impact can be quantified and promised. Good software products are value oriented. They recognize, track, report on, and deliver value.
In a value-oriented design process, the designer works with the understanding of how that value will impact the user, the company, and the ecosystem. The designer ensures that the value is clearly connected to the product and that the users can see, feel, and experience the value.
Good products are designed with a foundation that can be built upon. This design principle is in tension with the principle of “small as possible.” This tension means that a product should be built to be built upon, but not built upon unless necessary. Extensibility also refers to the product’s ability to stretch. In context, this means its ability to stretch into another workflow, but not at the expense of another participant in the ecosystem. This allows the user to stretch the use of the product to the point that another workflow starts. It ensures that there is coverage and comfort in the intersection of two workflows.
Long term design
Product spend is a primary area we see founders fail. The insecurities that propel them to greatness are short-circuited and bastardized by the rigid nature of product construction. The only antidote is viewing the real product as something greater than the ones and zeros on the page. The real product is the human interface; the way that automation can magnify human potential in the chosen workflow within the chosen culture. That is the real product. And when that product is manifested with the design principles here-in laid, it gets staying power and flexibility. That flexibility means it can influence the culture, flex with the culture, and find permanence despite being built on the sandy foundation of ever-changing technology platforms and frameworks.
This article is an extract from a case study we published recently published titled “A Founder’s Journey Through Building a B2B SaaS Company“, written by Dougal Cameron that shares some of our experiences building startups and journeying towards meaningful exits.