The Role for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Product Driven Startups
The first image that comes to one’s mind when they think of the successful technology companies of today such as Google, Apple or Facebook are the incredible products they make. When one thinks of what caused these companies to succeed the first answers are usually “world-class engineers”, “great vision” or “amazing execution”. In one way or another, possibly rightly so, our focus is immediately drawn to the technology and the people making the decisions; after all, they are first and foremost technology companies doing remarkable innovations in cutting edge fields such as AI.
While it is almost impossible to overstate the value of incredible engineers or visionary founders and CEOs, these people are already front and center of most startups we come across at Virtu. Most people understand their value and allocate enough attention both mentally and financially to making sure that the most valuable executives and engineers are looked after and nurtured. This article focuses on three areas where the humanities and social sciences play a critical role. These areas are ones that even the famous product companies we know and love make sure they get right. Furthermore, getting one of these wrong can often be the difference between successful and floundering product startups
An essential element of great product companies is the communication of the vision and mission to the end users. A key element of this communication is the design of the product. Design gives companies a language that can both build trust as well as simplicity in the minds of the users. A lot of companies across India and Silicon Valley have realized the importance of design and the more successful, memorable companies are able to have a unified language with which they speak to the users. In contrast, many other companies tend to use design simply as a means to get a “slick ui” or “beautiful interface”, they don’t perceive design to be a critical part of the product development cycle. When recruiting for a senior design role, people tend to focus heavily on the artistic ability of individual and while this is a critical, a very important quality is also to have empathy towards the users. The most important factor however is to ensure the company culture and executives have defined the space for creative designers to shape product. Companies such as Robinhood, (where I have a first-hand view) which have won numerous design awards approach design more holistically. At Robinhood, designers don’t just design how the app looks but how people interact with the entire Robinhood experience. Before hiring senior and influential designers, it is very important for engineers and technical members to appreciate the nuance, importance and breadth of the role that great designers play in their organization
UX Research and behavior design
Research and UX go hand in hand when developing well-made technology products. This is all the more critical if we are looking at changing behavior. Rarely seen in India but rather commonly found across top companies in Silicon Valley are product roles that seek PhD’s or researchers in psychology and behavioral economics. These people head UX research teams responsible for investigating and characterizing user patterns. All the famous product companies such as Facebook, Snapchat and Google hire such people. Many companies overlook such candidates, due to the perception that they aren’t technical enough; this is often a serious mistake on the part of companies hoping to succeed or create space for themselves in an often crowded market. Understanding the psychology of the ways users use the product is essential to position a company at the exact market intersection that is desired.
Most companies understand the importance of marketing and advertising. Brand strategy is also something companies invest in heavily and the importance of social media is evident to any startup today. Whilst people in India and across the world continue to spend heavily on marketing campaigns online they wait too long or never build teams around establishing relationships with the media. Specialists in communications are essential to building a successful press strategy. Product companies that rely heavily on coverage and public perception for organic growth are even more susceptible to the quality of their image. A good communications strategist is not only able to maintain and manage press relationships but works closely with product development to package media releases appropriately to highlight key developments. This not only maintains a healthy cadence of releases but also the quality of coverage.
These are just a few of the humanities and social sciences that play a crucial role in modern product companies of today. Successful entrepreneurs would ensure these as well as other opportunities to are not missed by overlooking the value that these conventionally ignored or underutilized fields bring.
Arpan is a technology professional who has been in Silicon Valley for the last 7 years. He has gotten his bachelors and masters at Stanford University and has worked at some well known technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, Fitbit and Tesla Motors. He currently works at a startup in Silicon Valley (where he was an early employee) called Robinhood; whose mission is to democratize access to financial markets. Over 4 years ago, he started an investment company in India with some partners based in Silicon Valley and in India with the goal to invest in interesting projects and companies In India. Most recently, they invested in Postergully which was recently acquired.