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Good design is becoming a must-have in the enterprise, too

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Over the past few years, a wave of consumer web startups focused on design have been making their mark on shopping, fashion, communications and social networking. But, as these startups — from Pinterest to Instagram — become billion-dollar players influencing how consumers use the web and mobile apps, the trend of design as a major tech differentiator has started to infiltrate the world of the enterprise, too.

I found the latest example of this phenomenon in a quiet neighborhood of West London, about a block away from the Turnham Green tube stop, in the office of server monitoring and visualization startup Server Density. Server Density founder David Mytton tells me that the startup, which has 12 employees including two full-time designers, takes as much as it can from design giant Apple (s AAPL).

Server DensityThis is a company that manages data about servers and is selling its service to the folks that are supposed to make sure their company’s servers stay up and running and work efficiently. Not exactly the stuff of iPhones and smart watches. But Server Density is using layouts like heat maps (see image above) to figure out the best way to show the data to the people who need to see it.

As a small upstart in an industry dominated by a couple of big well-funded competitors, Mytton tells me that design is a major way they can compete. It’s much harder for a small startup to compete on the sheer number of features, as features can easily be copied, Mytton explains. But their design, in terms of how those features are implemented, is much harder to copy.

Design for big and small businesses

Server Density is just the most recent company I’ve met with that’s been emphasizing a more consumer-style design for enterprise services. German serial entrepreneur Marco Boerries has been amassing venture capital funds for his startup NumberFour, which he’s hoping will be able to use design to create a platform and game-changing apps — that manage sales, reservation, deliveries, communications — for small businesses.

NumberFourNumberFour counts Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, computing pioneer Andy Bechtolsheim, Index Ventures’s Mike Volpi and other big shots as investors. NumberFour plans to launch its business apps soon.

But it’s not just well-designed apps that are emerging businesses. Apple-style hardware is becoming more commonplace, too. Mobile payments startup Square has designed payment systems for mobile phones and, more recently, point of sale gadgets in stores. If it’s possible to build a sexy cash register, Square seems like they’ve done it.

SquareStand_Swipe_300dpiAs Designer Fund partner Ben Blumenfeld said during our interview with him last month, design is starting to make its way into many new aspects of society, including the traditional realm of big businesses and companies. Influenced by the strong design practices of tech industry leaders like Apple, and accustomed to using new design-friendly services in their personal lives, company employees now expect the same level of usability that they get with their iPhone or with Instagram.

It’s not easy to get the user experience right for company services but, as Mytton told me, it’s more about making it as easy for the customer to use as possible. We’re holding our annual RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco, which will focus on experience design for the tech industry (tickets will go on sale shortly).

2 Responses to “Good design is becoming a must-have in the enterprise, too”

  1. Matthew Toback

    Glad to see this getting coverage.

    This is chatted about a lot on my team, and it feels like the software design revolution started the moment the internet/software/phones/etc became truly integrated into our daily lives. Thinking about the broader life cycle of any product category, raw functionality is often enough to build you early adopter base, and once you’ve proven the value, the audience grows. The demographic of that bigger audience then includes designers & UX folks, who want to elevate the product in their way, because now they are actually using it.

    We see the analog to physical products that went through industrial design revolutions themselves (like Braun), taking solid, functional products and making them beautiful, permanently changing expectations going forward.

    The challenge then becomes building both a beautiful & functional product, and not letting the design alone drive things. There are plenty of examples in the physical world of well designed, garbage products.

    Director UX at Internap

  2. Nicholas Paredes

    Square is always an excellent example of applying design to a commercial space, although that is not exactly the enterprise. Selling design in the enterprise is not easy from my personal experience. Management still prefers features over effectiveness and incremental extension and improvement.

    Secondly, I take issue with the following statement. “It’s much harder for a small startup to compete on the sheer number of features, as features can easily be copied.” Features are generally a result of design and architecture decisions and therefore difficult to change, but design is actually quite expensive. A good designer, particularly in mobile, is very difficult to find.

    With the appropriate Lean design process, I have found development to be more efficient. This can go a long way in a start-up environment. Having developers that appreciate design truly helps as well. But, simplicity is neither easy nor cheap.