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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).
This 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.
NumberFour 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.
As 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).