Is UX Going to be Commoditized Next?

Over the past month with Tempo AI (formerly called Fifo Labs), we’ve been trying to recruit a full-time UX person. As much as I hear the difficulty of recruiting awesome technical talent, our challenge has been recruiting the right user experience (UX) team member. For most, the UX role has become so lucrative, that considering a full-time role just doesn’t make sense anymore.

What’s fascinating is I distinctly remember when this wasn’t the case. When I was working with Kodak Mobile in 2004, the situation was quite different. Not in any negative way, but we had almost a surplus of strong UX talent with multiple people interviewing for UX opportunities. In today’s economy, strong UX team members (rightfully so!) earn similar compensation as relative technical talent!

This got me wondering – how did this happen? And then it occurred to me that user experience is the next layer in the stack. In the 70s, 80s, hardware was the juggernaut. As seen in Pirates of Silicon Valley or other, IBM and other hardware vendors did not expect software to ever reign. Hardware was the premium and where the money was made but as I was reminded earlier today when I was considering taking my Apple Monitor in for warranty, a 42 inch TV is now $400 – hardware has absolutely become commoditized and the premium moved to software.

But within software, there are multiple layers to the onion. Initial software development was a pain in the butt. We didn’t have the benefit of EC2 and other frameworks and platforms to leverage. I remember while in college in ’99, it took real Computer Science chops to simply build a web application and it cost $500+ per month to just host a simple server and website. Now software can be readily developed and thus why you are seeing multiple movements like CodeAcademy and the Kahn Academy attempting to teach software development to children – this makes perfect sense, building software is a lot easier (and affordable) now than it was in the past! Let’s be honest, who is a Software Engineer that hasn’t at least dabbled in building an iPhone app? It’s simply gotten too easy to write software.

As a result of this, the differentiation has moved upstream. Instead of maintaining a 2:1 engineering to QA ratio within an organization, the QA ratio has vastly shrunk with real-time “live” user-testing and more importantly software frameworks and approaches that better handle user data and security. Whereas the QA ratio is gone down, the engineering to UX ratio has vastly increased which makes perfect sense. The next layer in the onion is UX; there is certainly a growing repository of guidelines and approaches in dealing with UX and we are of-course limited to what is possible with the hardware and software but we are definitely nowhere near a point where UX is commoditized.

So my question is whether UX can become commoditized? And I know most would argue that would never happen just like the hardware in the 70s/80s (eg IBM) and the software in the 90/00s (eg Microsoft) but the reality is that software, just like hardware has been getting cheaper year over year.

On a seperate note, if you haven’t read Steve Jobs biography, I strongly recommend it – it’s incredible to see that someone was paranoid about design in a time when being paranoid about design wasn’t sexy.

The Social Network

Yesterday, after much delay, I finally watched The Social Network and it was fantastic. The level of focus exuded by Mark and his team demonstrated probably the single most important attribute to a company’s success: focus and drive. Ironically, it’s Facebook and other social media services that is driving the Attention Deficit Economy. Whereas the last decade brought us to an always-connected, always-on lifestyle, I would speculate that the next ten years will be focused on task management and prioritization – and unfortunately it’s a skill that I haven’t even begun to master.

In any case, most intriguing for me with The Social Network was the psychology of team dynamics. As many successful entrepreneurs will echo, starting companies with friends can be difficult. It’s hard to tell your friend that he isn’t performing, let alone negotiate salaries and equity. Although The Social Network is significant fiction, watching Eduarado’s situation unfold is something I’ve experienced personally (but that’s for another story).

I haven’t normally used this blog to tell tales of the past but in undergrad, I and 4 of my friends (roommates and top Computer Science students), skipped our summer internships to work together to build a company. The challenge as college students is that you know how to code but you don’t really know much of anything else. Today, there are enormous resources online that can help you navigate and understand the rest of what is involved in launching a successful startup but as an engineering student in 1999 (with little real work experience), you are totally oblivious. Mark, fortunately had Sean to help him navigate the business landscape, we had some advisors from a local San Luis Obispo incubator but unfortunately only a minimum amount of their attention. We were fortunate to also meet some other business luminaries having won the business plan competition with our idea but now I realize that business plan competitions are more of a game than reality (and just not how things work).

In any case, that summer was a lesson in team dynamics that I will never forget. Working with friends is not easy and coupled with 20 year old egos, everything starts to break-down:

– Why is he working less than me?
– He has a part-time job?
– His coding sucks?
– He’s supposed to do the business stuff but what does he do?

And the list goes on – you quickly realize as you gain more experience that understanding team dynamics is key and not something you can learn from a book, you have to experience it. You also tame that ego which absolutely helps!

Long story short, we had built the industry’s first meta-file-sharing network, called Terazima (searches Napster, Scour, Gnutella) all at the same time but the team in-fighting and our lack of business acumen and resources caused us to fail (and of course the fear of the RIAA) – it is amazing how your confidence to push the legal boundaries grows as you understand how they work; knowing that you might go bankrupt as a student is quite scary…

Eventually, the company’s assets were acquired by a small San Luis Obispo startup called Vidomi but the lessons learned have been invaluable!