Monday, November 20, 2006

Mass collaboration: Silicon Valley comes to Oxford

The school again hosted Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, an intense day of panels and discussions led by (successful, and often serial) internet entepreneurs and those involved enabling infrastructure and services such as venture capital and law.

I benefitted from hearing in-depth presentations by two speakers: first, Matt Cohler, VP of strategy and business operations at Facebook, a social networking site, and Julie Hanna Farris, co-founder and director of Scalix, an Open Source based enterprise email and calendaring application provider. Matt's talk included two key ideas where design disciplines and practices have something to offer entrepreneurs: the first being the requirement to think how to "create value for end users" rather than building a business model, rather than the other way round. The second idea he emphasized was the importance of iterating the product, and learning from user behaviour and feedback. Take a flexible and iterative approach, he advised, in contrast to what's taught in business school; very small details can make a huge difference and you have to keep iterating to find out what the details that matter are.

In her talk Julie Hanna Farris discussed the principles of Open Source software (underpinning its many variants) and how they are disrupting conventional business models. In particular she emphasized community, transparency, authenticity, word of mouth, informality, and motivation. Each of these presents problems for business people and investors used to conventional businesses. Like Cohler, Farris stressed the importance of trying things out and learning: "Fail early and often" - a phrase that design company IDEO also invokes. Her seasoned advice to entrepreneurs included making customers part of the process of building a product - and of knowing customers not just markets. I don't think I heard the word "design" in either of their talks but what design theorists and practitioners would recognise as design principles - iterative processes, human-centred frameworks, co-design with end users - were already there.

The evening panel threw up another set of insights from a panel including Facebook's Matt Cohler; Allen Morgan of venture capitalists Mayfield; Reid Hoffman, CEO and founder of Linked-In; and Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google, chaired by FT journalist Jonathan Guthrie. The post-Web 2.0 future according to these speakers was seen to be: filtered by social context, more personalised, more complementary to your other ongoing activities, and more responsive to your identity. I was struck by a comment from (I think) all four speakers at different points, that they would most likely not invest in an enterprise that didn't come to them introduced by someone they knew. At first glance, this is business as usual: networks of the powerful investing in those to whom they are already connected in some way. But with the ability to design, develop, launch, run and continue to iterate digital networked products with rapid feedback from end users, internet entpreneurs can - if they succeed in instantiating a community around what they offer - perhaps join those networks. (George - if you read this - you already have done 80% of the work with Chatsum).

A question I asked about which practices, and which academic disciplines, had most insights to offer entrepreneurs and investors about end users and their behaviours generated the following suggestions: psychology, social sciences, game theory, and the need to be able to analyse and understand the vast amounts of data being generated (Chris Sacca: "We worship data."). But not, alas, design. There remains a significant gap between what designers are perceived to be able to do - or are educated to do - and what designers are asked to do - and what they can do. I wonder if Bill Moggridge's forthcoming book Designing Interactions (MIT Press) will be on Silicon Valley's reading list.

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