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Why ad tech companies have to invest in design

Posted by Chad Little on October 30th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Design is not just about a company's logo, brochure or website. It’s not limited to the interface or code architecture. Design, and more specifically good design, is all encompassing. Good design can be found in product ecosystems where technology is used to provide information to the end user and control over product functions through different interfaces. Apple won with the iPod not solely on the merits of the device but because they also made it incredibly easy to purchase music. Innovation is now fundamentally linked to good design. Many companies now recognize how crucial design is to their success and fighting off commoditization. Good design can help a company, business, or even person reach their full potential.

Phase one of even some of the worlds most important innovations have been able to get away with less than perfect design. The first browser with the minimal capabilities of left justified text and images, a mobile phone that weighed 5 lbs. or a computer that did basic addition. The luxury of time to create incremental improvements in design is dwindling.

The amount of dollars and time that it takes to create a new startup has become cheaper and faster. Open source software, the cloud and libraries of code at your fingertips are the fuel in this race. The iPad was an important innovation that came out of the blocks with a significant investment in design. Look at how quickly the market has responded and imagine what would have happened if apple hadn’t made that investment before its release. It’s the difference between fighting the commoditization wars and maintaining better margins.

The online advertising space, and the ad tech companies that support it, have maintained growth in spite of ourselves. One need only glance at the Lumascape to get an idea of how complicated our world is. It’s easy to understand why brand dollars sit on the sidelines. Good design is as much reductive as anything else. Figuring out what can be simplified and taken out is usually more important than the new feature that can be added. We have to design our way out of this.

The advent of the DSP is a prime example. Within months we saw competitors rise, each with their own spin. It wasn’t a year, but months, before you could see that the space had already reached the level of commoditization and a fierce fight has been going on for differentiation. There are examples where the winners of such battles did so on a single feature, a slightly better design to their interface or business model. Good design can be the make or break. I’ve worked with several account managers that love to complain about how complicated some of the DSP interfaces are to use. When you think about the daily decisions made by these individuals, which company do you think has a better chance of winning the war?

What’s the answer? Companies have to be design led. We must employ not only the brightest engineers but also outstanding designers that have a real voice in the company. If you think it’s difficult to find great engineering talent, the war for great designers who can have a voice in product development and business models has surpassed it. The war for these individuals in Silicon Valley area is reaching a fever pitch. This talent can’t be relegated to the lower levels of the company. They must have a voice in the C-suite and even board level. They have to have the ability to persuade those who can make the final call or ideally they have to make the call themselves.

Some of the most recent standouts have been companies that have led with design. The team behind Pinterest spent significant time on the overall design of the service before fully launching to the public. Focus on the details, such as the grid layout, 'help make the boards on Pinterest beautiful and it’s the fundamental reason why they enjoy their current success. The average person would look at the site and say ‘what design?’ They just know it looks great. It is the difference between a massive hit and ‘another ran.’ Realmac receives kudos from the press and end users for their simplistic and elegant design to some of the most basic utilitarian tools you can imagine. Great design, being applied to a to-do list?

Facebook is a product led company and one of the best. Good design is starting to have its influence but is it enough? Do they have the proper designers that are not only leading the charge on the product front, but in the current initiatives to monetize mobile? Path has one of the most elegant design solutions out there in the mobile social space. I would argue that companies like these, real design led entities, are the biggest threat to Facebook.

Microsoft is anything but a design led company, but it’s now recognizing it has to become in order to survive.  This isn’t solely about for-profit companies. Charity Water has produced one of the most sophisticated charity sites I’ve seen. Smart in the look and feel as well as the integration of producing your own charity drive.

Ad tech has to get out of our own way. We have to reach the next level by simplifying the purchase, measurement, creative production process. Individual companies have to invest heavily or risk being an also ran or worse dying off. As a whole, we have to design our way out of the Lumascape through reduction. Those that come out on top will be able to say it was by design; good design.

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