@andrewchen

Get the newsletter · 2018 essays (PDF) · Featured · Recent

Designing for other people versus designing for yourself

I had lunch with a very smart and capable friend of mine, Max, today. Max, myself, and a couple other friends co-founded a student group back in college, SEBA (formerly SBE) which we grew from scratch to over 500 students.

Anyway, we had a conversation about starting companies and the difficulty of designing for customers that are dissimilar to you. In particular, Max was against it :) He said he’d much rather stick to hobbies and activities where he had direct intuition to make decisions.

It’s a very valid point, and a huge hurdle for entrepreneurs that are targeting contrarian demographics. For example, a bunch of 30-year olds targeting the seniors market, or Americans trying to target overseas audiences. I imagine many folks are building social networks that are exploring these different markets, with some level of difficulty.

On a personal level, I’d say that the projects I’ve worked on to target audiences other than myself have also led to the most humbling outcomes. After thinking you "grok" a target customer audience, when you show them a prototype of your product and ask them what they think, be prepared! In my case, I got a bunch of very humbling feedback that indicated I had a long way to go. Better to get this information early than later, of course.

Accelerating user risk
In fact, you could argue that as you get more and more removed from the user, the risk you are taking that your intuition won’t match the target audience accelerates. Here’s the range of possible scenarios, from best to worst:

  • Being the customer
  • Having a business partner who’s a customer
  • Having a good friend/significant other who is the customer
  • Talking to the customer intermittently
  • Knowing of the customer and learning indirectly
  • Don’t talk to the customer

I think as you remove yourself from daily, in-person contact with the target audience, you take on a ton of risk. Mitigating this risk is a big problem, and you’d have to talk to companies like IDEO and such to figure out how to handle this. Most likely, there’s a lot of effort that would have to go into interacting with customers that you could generally skip by building tools for yourself.

A rule of thumb on user risk?

As a corollary to this, I’ve speculated with my friend Dave about how you’d go about funding pre-launch Web 2.0 startups. Ultimately, we agreed that the co-founders would need to represent the target audience for the company – that’s the only way you can reduce some of the risk from initial user behavior.

In fact, I wonder if the personality of an entrepreneur inherently makes it harder to be empathetic to different types of users. After all, part of doing a startup requires a bull-headed exercise in reality-distortion where you ignore a lot of social convention. The ability to do that may be inversely proportional to actually listening to people :)

Anyway, I’d certainly like to work on applications outside of my direct audience, but clearly I will have to think more about how to regularly listen to and incorporate feedback from a multitude of different people.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

Views expressed in “content” (including posts, podcasts, videos) linked on this website or posted in social media and other platforms (collectively, “content distribution outlets”) are my own and are not the views of AH Capital Management, L.L.C. (“a16z”) or its respective affiliates. AH Capital Management is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Registration as an investment adviser does not imply any special skill or training. The posts are not directed to any investors or potential investors, and do not constitute an offer to sell -- or a solicitation of an offer to buy -- any securities, and may not be used or relied upon in evaluating the merits of any investment.

The content should not be construed as or relied upon in any manner as investment, legal, tax, or other advice. You should consult your own advisers as to legal, business, tax, and other related matters concerning any investment. Any projections, estimates, forecasts, targets, prospects and/or opinions expressed in these materials are subject to change without notice and may differ or be contrary to opinions expressed by others. Any charts provided here are for informational purposes only, and should not be relied upon when making any investment decision. Certain information contained in here has been obtained from third-party sources. While taken from sources believed to be reliable, I have not independently verified such information and makes no representations about the enduring accuracy of the information or its appropriateness for a given situation. The content speaks only as of the date indicated.

Under no circumstances should any posts or other information provided on this website -- or on associated content distribution outlets -- be construed as an offer soliciting the purchase or sale of any security or interest in any pooled investment vehicle sponsored, discussed, or mentioned by a16z personnel. Nor should it be construed as an offer to provide investment advisory services; an offer to invest in an a16z-managed pooled investment vehicle will be made separately and only by means of the confidential offering documents of the specific pooled investment vehicles -- which should be read in their entirety, and only to those who, among other requirements, meet certain qualifications under federal securities laws. Such investors, defined as accredited investors and qualified purchasers, are generally deemed capable of evaluating the merits and risks of prospective investments and financial matters. There can be no assurances that a16z’s investment objectives will be achieved or investment strategies will be successful. Any investment in a vehicle managed by a16z involves a high degree of risk including the risk that the entire amount invested is lost. Any investments or portfolio companies mentioned, referred to, or described are not representative of all investments in vehicles managed by a16z and there can be no assurance that the investments will be profitable or that other investments made in the future will have similar characteristics or results. A list of investments made by funds managed by a16z is available at https://a16z.com/investments/. Excluded from this list are investments for which the issuer has not provided permission for a16z to disclose publicly as well as unannounced investments in publicly traded digital assets. Past results of Andreessen Horowitz’s investments, pooled investment vehicles, or investment strategies are not necessarily indicative of future results. Please see https://a16z.com/disclosures for additional important information.