“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” – Steve Jobs

mexican-wrestling 170According to Forrester, we’re now in the Age of the Customer (having, over the past century, previously gone through the Ages of Manufacturing, Distribution and Information). Customers now have far more choice, and far more power, than ever before.

And with the Age of the Customer has risen the customer experience designer, a person whose job includes defining the various types of customers that an organization has, studying their touchpoints, and using such techniques as journey maps and wireframes to create an optimal, even delightful, digital experience for them. Check out Google Trends: you’ll see that the use of terms such as “customer experience” and “user experience” has roughly doubled in the past several years.

What’s a visionary founder to do?

Many start-up founders view themselves to be in the mode of Steve Jobs, a charismatic visionary who could combine outstanding market, technology and design sense to bring forth products – like the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad — that revolutionized their categories. Products that were so obviously superior that they could command a higher price and provide Apple with higher margins.

But there aren’t many Steve Jobs in the world.

In fact, most start-ups fail, for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes they fail because the founders may be great engineers and have great technology ideas, but they don’t really have a good sense of what customers wants, or how to create an interface or user experience that would separate them from their hard-earned cash.

Early content management systems suffered from UIs created by engineer with little sense of user experience – or rather, their users suffered from them. At my former company Magic Hour, about six years ago we hired a CMS consultant to evaluate the MagicWand CMS we had created for schools and small colleges (MagicWand no longer exists; that’s another story). After studying it for several weeks, and comparing it to major CMS programs she knew, she told us that it was probably in the top quartile for usability. And that was why we often won – MagicWand didn’t always match up feature-to-feature, but it was really easy to use and demoed well.

Another  similar story played out in 2005 when Blackboard acquired its main rival, WebCT. I had the opportunity at the time to ask one of the VCs who backed Blackboard why they had won and he said, “It turns out in the education space that usability is more important than features.”

About 10 years ago I attended the 25th anniversary meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum in which they were rehashing some lessons that they had learned over the previous quarter century. One of the lessons, the leader said, was that start-ups in general did better the more founding partners they had: companies with two partners did better than ones that went solo, three was better than two, etc. (They didn’t know if that applied beyond 5 or 6.) And, he said, “One of the partners should be in marketing. Because I was in the electrical engineering program at MIT for five years and I don’t think I heard the word ‘customer’ once.”

So I kind of set up a false choice in my headline. We don’t really need to choose between the visionary and the user experience designer. The ideal start-up probably combines the two: a visionary who sees new opportunities before others and who utilizes the skills of designers – like Jonathan Ive at Apple — who can help create those products in a most delightful form. Because, in truth, Steve Jobs didn’t do it alone. He was smart enough to take advantage of the talents of many contributors.

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