Moving Past Digital Schizophrenia

The biggest dilemma we face today building products is not whether we have an identity without our devices, but rather can we have an identity with our devices?

Our identities are fragmented across dozens of websites, mobile applications and databases. Every day, these programs simultaneously squawk at us with push notifications and email updates, disorganizing and splitting our mental focus. It’s not simply that we’ve lost control of our identities. It’s that we have multiple identities based on whatever platform we happen to be on. And that is hindering our ability to accomplish even the most mundane tasks without friction.

This digital schizophrenia is harming users who want a well-designed and cogent experience built for their own work patterns. Schizophrenia, as understood today, is a “disintegration of personality” that leads to the inability to properly process thoughts. That is precisely why founders should be focused on building products that allow each of our identities to coalesce across applications.

Digital schizophrenia is harming users who want a well-designed and cogent experience built for their own work patterns.

There are three principles that should guide how we build companies around identity today:

  1. Create products that are properly targeting the right kinds of devices.
  2. Companies need to democratize their platforms, because products benefit each other when data is shared.
  3. Products should be built around frictionless workflows, both between users and devices, and between users themselves.

The Right Kind Of Device

Targeting the right kind of device is trickier than it seems. It is hardly a shock to anyone that users are interacting with more devices than ever. The popularity of smartphones and tablets has been among the most exciting developments in technology investing in the last five years. Yet, that doesn’t mean that every app should be mobile-only, or even mobile-first. Rather, founders need to focus on what they want their users to accomplish and what platforms make sense for that function.

Take Uber. The company takes advantage of smartphones by using your location to hail a taxi. As a workflow, it is among the best experiences of any product on the market today because it focuses on the sole platform relevant to its goals. It’s a great example of a mobile-only company. For Square, though, its product is best used on tablets, because that form factor is ideal for point-of-sale systems. Both of these examples are different from computer-aided design programs, which should probably still be on the desktop given a designer’s need for precision.

Platform Democratization

To ensure a great user experience, companies must also think about democratization of the platform. Today, too many companies are siloing away data, hoping to build revenue models instead of great products. There may be benefits to that strategy in the short term, but this siloing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, and we need to be aware of the loss to the user every time we consider adding another store of data to their lives. As I have written before, the great companies of the future will take advantage of economies of unscale and allow for decentralized workflows to work across their application.

Frictionless Workflows

With more of our identity information openly available, founders finally can build products with frictionless workflows.  Products should be built to take advantage of the different data stores that a user has under their control – whether that be communications on a social network like Facebook or contacts stored in a CRM. These integrations are certainly hard, but products built around each other will create the superior experiences desired by users. The best example of this sort of future is Google Now, which actively tries to combine different data sources together into one integrated experience.

These three principles aren’t just good for consumers, but will help enterprises, as well. If we do this right, our focus on identity will create the first quantitative view of an enterprise that can assess productivity in a data-driven way. Who does too many meetings? Who is engaging enough with customers? By giving a human view of the enterprise, we can create a better functioning workforce and ultimately increase our productivity.

Projects and companies that focus on identity and overcome this digital schizophrenia are of strong interest to me at General Catalyst. In some cases it’s right in our sweet spot – entrepreneurs at their inception, wishing to partner with us in building companies from a germ of an idea. Ultimately, these smart systems – based on our identities – will not only sweep away the idea that there is a consumer or an enterprise, but do something much more valuable: give us back control of our identity.

Editor’s note: Hemant Taneja is a partner at General Catalyst. His investments include Stripe, Snapchat, TuneIn and Highfive. You can follow him on Twitter @htaneja.

Images: Shutterstock, Flickr