When Airbnb started to expand, its owners needed investors, however, many venture capitalists shut the door on them. One such investor was Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures. Years later, Wilson admitted that he couldn’t trust a start-up whose founders, or at least two of them, were designers. Indeed, Gebbia and Chesky, who had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, realized that it would be hard to challenge the popular stereotype of design as a way of just making things look pretty.
In today’s IT, however, design has little to do with making interfaces look nice. The designer’s role is to adopt the user’s perspective on the solution or product being developed. It is the design team that studies and analyses current and potential users’ behaviours and needs, prototyping features that have not yet been created, in order to validate whether or not they should be introduced. Based on that, members of design teams gather feedback in order to dig deeper into the problem and understand the unique value their solution provides.
It’s no coincidence that there are designers behind many of the success stories in the start-up and IT sector, for instance, Stewart Butterfield, whose first business was Flickr, an image hosting site. Soon, Buttetfield doubled the success of his business ventures with a revolutionary, though ridiculously easy office communicator called Slack. What do those two solutions have in common, apart from having been invented by a designer? The fact that, for Butterfield, both projects were a kind of experiment with real users and that the majority of the knowledge he gained was the result of testing and rejecting his own hypotheses.
Flickr was supposed to be an online game. The development costs were high, and the competition strong, so the future of the project was easily predictable. Fortunately, Butterfield realized that users appreciated the photo-sharing feature available to beta testers much more than the ability to play the game.
He came to a similar conclusion when developing a music site. He faced communication problems within the project team and having analysed his teammates’ behaviour, he was able to understand the mechanisms people working in the office environment are driven by. Butterfield didn’t invent Slack as a tool to foster effectiveness. Instead, he re-invented it so that users really want to use it.