Inventors design new products from scratch. Innovators take a product with some adoption and scale it to many others. Defenders maintain legacy products and protect them from competitors. Which type of product designer are you?
This matters because where you find yourself determines what you can influence about the product and what you work on on a day-to-day basis. There are trade offs so the idea is to find the type of design that suits you best. By the end of this, you will know what type of designer you currently are and what type of designer you want to be.
As designers we know that products are adopted in waves. At first, a product often only appeals to a small group of users. These early users are willing to try the product even when it’s a bit rough. As the product matures, it eventually manages to attract the bulk of its users – the early and late majority. And finally, adoption slows when the laggards are all who are left.
The type of designer you are depends on the maturity of the product you are working on. First a product is invented. Then it’s innovated on. Then it’s defended. As you might imagine, your experience as a designer is different at each stage.
Design Inventors are involved at the earliest stages of product development where, at its extreme, nothing has been designed yet. Inventors build products from 0 to 1, and are most often found at early-stage startups.
Design Innovators start with a product that has achieved some success, and scale it into something with more mass appeal. The emphasis at this stage is rapid growth, with a target of doubling product adoption every year. Innovators are most often found at growth-stage startups.
Design Defenders maintain legacy products and are usually found at established companies with large design teams. Since the product has already achieved a great deal of success, and is generating significant revenue for the company, the main goal is to keep existing users happy and defend its market position from competitors.
Several things follow from this. The closer you are to 0, the more influence you can have on the product. Inventors have a say in what the product does and who it is initially for, and may even come up with new product ideas themselves. Also, when you start designing from scratch you don’t inherit anything that can limit you.
The product is also relatively small and manageable for a solo designer in its early stages. This makes it possible for Inventors and Innovators to think about the product holistically, and design end-to-end experiences, rather than being assigned to a single part of a larger app.
On the flipside, as the product matures, it becomes more stable in what it does and who it is for. Legacy products that have been around for years are almost completely set in stone, and major changes to these products are often not justifiable.
Also, these products are well beyond the point that a solo designer can maintain. Products can get so large that multiple design teams are assigned to work on specific parts of them. This is why designing end-to-end experiences is less common as the product matures, because it’s difficult to coordinate across multiple stakeholders.
The next several sections go into more detail on the three design types: Inventors, Innovators and Defenders.
“The ultimate solutions to problems are rational; the process of finding them is not.” – W. H. Auden
As an Inventor, it’s not that you necessarily like the idea of one in a thousand odds. It’s that your more rational side can’t talk yourself out of taking these odds. Starting from zero represents something pure to you because you inherit nothing that can limit you. You understand that your best work may never be seen, but recognition from others is just vanity to you. You’ll endure anything for the opportunity to experience the magic of 0 to 1 invention.
Inventors are most often found at early-stage startups with a small design team, and where they might be the only designer. Also, it’s often the case that nothing has been designed or built yet. Starting from scratch like this is why Inventors have the most creative control.
Your scope is end-to-end as an Inventor, which means you’re responsible for designing everything from components, to workflows, to information architecture (and maybe even some branding and UX content). Ideally you have a deep understanding of the product category and the use-cases the product seeks to address. Knowing these things enables you to be self-directed as a designer, which is important in this fast-paced, low-resource environment.
Product formation is the main goal at this time. The team starts with a vision and succeeds once it has built a product that gets adopted by early users. If the product is not adopted, then the team loops back to fix assumptions about the initial vision, or pivots to a new idea entirely.
You face the most uncertainty as an Inventor. No one knows if a product will work or not, and almost everything starts as an assumption – even down to the core of what the product does and who it is for. There is no way around designing under this uncertainty, because nothing can substitute for building something and seeing if it gets adopted. There is always the possibility that the vision changes and makes all existing designs irrelevant. This is why Inventors must prioritize simplicity and speed over polish and perfection.
To drive this point home, what you’re doing as an Inventor is searching for a group of users who have their hair on fire (i.e. a problem) and who are willing to try anything (i.e. your product) to put the fire out.
“If your friend was standing next to you and their hair was on fire, that fire would be the only thing they really cared about in this world. It wouldn’t matter if they were hungry, just suffered a bad breakup, or were running late to a meeting—they’d prioritize putting the fire out. If you handed them a hose—the perfect product/solution—they would put the fire out immediately and go on their way. If you handed them a brick they would still grab it and try to hit themselves on the head to put out the fire. You need to find problems so dire that users are willing to try half-baked, v1, imperfect solutions.” – Michael Seibel
You are most valuable as an Inventor when you can help improve the product vision or come up with new product ideas. This probably means you need to have some knowledge about the technology the product is being built on (e.g. blockchain) or domain expertise about the problems you’re trying to solve (e.g. supply chain). This is how you truly earn the title of “inventor” because you literally come up with, and design, new products from scratch.
Here’s my experience as a Design Inventor: I joined a Web3 startup that had just closed its first round of funding ($3M). The team consisted of me, another designer, two frontend developers and the founder. The founder was building a decentralized storage network, and it was my job to launch several Web3 products on top of this backend.
The first idea was a Web3 messaging app. Since it used decentralized storage we could guarantee users better security and privacy than they had with Whatsapp or social media messengers. The main thing I learned is just how much time it takes to design an entire app from scratch.
Also, it took even longer than expected because we had to invent design patterns for handling new scenarios, like how users pay for their subscription with tokens. I don’t think I could have pulled this off if I didn’t already know a lot about Web3. The learning curve would have been too great given how fast we needed to complete the designs.
We got quite far down this road, but pivoted to something else entirely. Instead of our team building apps, we decided to have external developers build apps and charge them for using our storage backend. So instead of building individual apps, we transitioned to building a developer platform. The frontend was relatively simple as it was just a place for developers to monitor their usage and make payments. After launching, there were several hundred sign-ups and, as a consultant, I left the project around this time.
The next part goes into detail about Design Innovators.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” (Henry David Thoreau)
Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
As an Innovator, you know how to spot a diamond in the rough and polish it for others to enjoy. This is about turning good things with small effect-sizes into great things that impact the world. While Inventors push their creations out to others, your expertise is in pulling others in. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? To you, it does not. This is why you amplify harmonies until they’re heard by many.
Innovators are most often found at growth-stage startups with a small to medium-sized design team. This is where the term “hyper-growth” comes from, because the goal is to expand the product’s reach as quickly as possible. Hyper-growth is achieved when product adoption doubles year over year, which is insanely fast and not for the faint of heart.
There may be some management, but processes and team structure remain relatively lean. The fact that multiple designers are working on the same product usually indicates some division of labor.
One way I’ve seen this manifest is that the more experienced designer works on a macro-level – planning the app’s workflows and managing its information architecture; whereas, junior designers fill in details and build out components. This attention to detail is how Innovators take designs to the next level in terms of polish and user experience, which the Design Inventor does not have the luxury of doing. Also, product development is not the only thing that matters at this time. Innovators will likely need to collaborate with sales and marketing teams that are just beginning to come online within the Org.
As an Innovator, you have slightly less influence over the product than the Inventor. This is because you inherit a product that has already achieved some level of success, so you won’t be able to start back at zero with a new vision. But, having said that, you can still have great influence on the product’s roadmap and growth strategy. There are still many untested assumptions about which markets to target and how the product needs to be upgraded in order to capture new users. This is to say the product can still undergo significant transformations in appearance and functionality.
chatGPT is a great example of a product in its “innovate” phase. It sped through its “invent” phase, reaching 5M users in less than a week of its launch, and reaching 100M users about a month after that. This made chatGPT the fastest adopted product ever, yet it started with such a simple interface and feature set.
And since then, chatGPT has undergone significant changes. Just in the past several months, chatGPT has gone from a simple chat assistant to something that could disrupt several major categories. Here is what I mean…
- chatGPT can now browse the web for relevant, up-to-date information. This AI-enabled search makes Google Search look like a dinosaur.
- chatGPT now has Voice that lets you talk back and forth with the most advanced AI available, GPT-4. This experience is at least 10x better than any other assistant (e.g. Siri) on the market, which means Voice has ushered in the next-generation of voice assistants.
- Users can now customize chatGPT to handle specific use-cases, and then upload their assistant to an App Store for others to use. This is a paradigm shift because it makes chatGPT more like a platform than a standalone product.
This is what I mean by “[the product can] undergo significant transformation.” chatGPT will always be a place for users to access AI services, but there are so many different directions that OpenAI is trying to take it. So the Innovators working on chatGPT are not at all boxed in by its version 1. Instead, they get to influence how chatGPT is extended into new use-cases and how it enters new markets.
As products mature they get more rigid in what they do and who they are for. And products have less room to grow as they saturate their markets, so aggressive roadmaps are no longer needed. At this time, the focus shifts from rapidly growing the product to incrementally improving the product. This is where Design Defenders are most often found. They inherit legacy products that have already achieved a great amount of success, and their job is to keep existing users happy, while defending against competitors. Part 4 goes into detail on Design Defenders.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent Van Gogh)
As a Defender, you preserve that which is good for humanity. Once something has proven its worth, you believe it should be maintained so that people can continue benefiting from it. Instead of letting entropy slowly tear things down, you commit yourself to slowly building things up. You find joy in being part of something much larger than you, because you know that small improvements, over time, make all the difference. This is why the things you work on come closest to attaining perfection.
Defenders are most often found at established companies with legacy products and relatively large design teams. The division of design work is greatest here because there are many designers and even dedicated researchers. Also, the product is often so large that multiple design teams work across it, which makes designing end-to-end experiences difficult to coordinate. Since you will only be working on bits and pieces of a larger product, you will not be able to make broad, sweeping changes to it.
But remember, there is no impetus to make broad, sweeping changes to the product in the first place, because the product has already achieved a great deal of success. You may notice obvious things that can be improved, but you will not have the chance to make these improvements because the product is working “good enough” and still generating significant revenue for the company. And this brings us to the main job of a Defender – keep your part of the product working “good enough” so that it maintains its position in the market.
You will likely find that the product is in a crowded market full of competitors. In other words, the market is saturated and everyone is fighting to maintain their current share of it. In the best case scenario, your product temporarily takes the lead in a never-ending arms race of incremental improvements, and you steal some market share (i.e. 1 – 2%) from competitors. This is not the explosive growth that Innovators get to experience. Instead, Defenders find themselves following a conservative roadmap, that incrementally improves parts of the product, in order to keep pace with everyone else.
Altogether, this means you have the least amount of creative control as a Defender. Inventors get to influence the formation of a product. Innovators get to influence a product’s roadmap and growth strategy. And Defenders only get to influence small details about a product’s design. This doesn’t just go for junior designers. No one at this stage has that much control – not even design executives – because bureaucracy kills creative execution. See Design’s Glass Wall [LINK] to learn more about how designers are limited in this way.
Spotify reached its “defend” stage long ago. You can see how little has changed since 2014. Roughly speaking, it’s the same music streaming app then, as it is now. To be fair, there have been some key innovations along the way that made it stickier and fended off Apple, YouTube, and Amazon. I’m thinking of Discover Weekly in particular, but Spotify Wrapped also deserves a special mention!
Some might argue that there have been other major upgrades to Spotify, like the addition of podcasts and audiobooks to its library. But these additions are totally obvious and have been a long time coming. My point is, this had less to do with designers, and more to do with business and legal, in order to do such a thing.