One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

August 15, 2016

One sure way to spice up any conversation around design or innovation is to note that Apple have never invented any device.

While it may be met with some resistance, the fact remains that they didn’t invent the PC, nor the MP3 music player. They are not responsible for the tablet computer, the smartphone or indeed the smartwatch. For all of their (deserved) reputation as innovators, Apple have yet to debut any mass market device that didn’t exist previously.

Given that one of the greatest innovators of our age has achieved this position by essentially coming to the market second or third with their offerings, how have they managed to achieve such a lofty status?

“In the land of the blind the one–eyed man is king” – Desiderius Erasmus c.1500

Apple’s greatest asset by far has been their fieldwork; relentlessly studying how people behave, discovering what they need – and why. They then do one of two things: either a) successfully define a problem, and apply existing technology to solve it in a superior manner, or b) identify inherent problems within existing technologies and successfully solve those.

In doing so they stimulated latent consumer needs which then triggered demand for their product. This is Apple’s genius, and this is innovation.

The company’s rare failures tend to be situations where they tried to solve problems that didn’t yet exist. As an example, the Apple Newton message pad was a tablet by any other name but it came too soon to an unprepared market. In retrospect the consumer PC market itself hadn’t yet been properly established; the public hadn’t yet come to value personal computing of any kind let alone tablet computing. For a modern-day comparison, one has to wonder whether Apple’s reported removal of the headphone jack from the next generation of iPhones is straying into just this territory.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, c. 1889

No matter what a business or product offers, someone else has either already tried it, or is currently doing it. To innovate, you need simply to do it better than those others. And by “better” read ‘in a more customer-centric fashion’. A surprising number of founders, businesses, organisations don’t appear to have grasped this. Investing heavily in what may be incremental improvements might not set the boardroom alight, but that’s where the gold is. As with design, innovation is a process not an event. A verb, not a noun.

Correctly defining the problem is more than half the battle in product development. Putting the customer at the centre of the solution is the rest. And to any cries of “but… what about marketing??” in response to that last point, let’s answer it with a look at the banking industry.

Banks are so far behind where they should be with their services it’s tempting to be embarrassed for them. Banks are prime examples of organisations that have tried to market their way out of problems that should have been answered by simply providing better services. This approach has led banks into the unenviable position of being some of the least customer-centric businesses in the world. Millions of RBS customers unable to withdraw money from cash machines for days on end would attest to that.

The financial sector is gradually waking up to the fact that design thinking can be applied to services every bit as much as products. Design thinking doesn’t need to be the territory of the ‘big thinker’ or genius designer. It belongs to everyone on a team – including designers.

Of course everyone wants to innovate. And innovation can be managed through a pragmatic process of observation, competitive benchmarking and incremental improvement. Just ask Apple.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

Pizza for dessert: why products fail

March 24, 2016

It turns out there is a name for that thing when you walk into a room then can’t remember what you went in for. Somewhat disappointingly it’s called the Doorway Effect.

Apparently the very act of crossing a boundary between rooms affects our memory function enough to lose the thread of our intended actions. That being the case, what name might apply to a scenario where a product team forgets what they are building the product for?

If that sounds ludicrous, consider the following. There’s a story about Sony co–founder Akio Morita and his efforts to bring into being one of the most successful consumer products of the 20th century, the Sony Walkman.

Morita originally conceived of the personal stereo idea when he visited New York in the 1970s and saw people walking around with boom–boxes on their shoulders. He realised the potential for a device that delivered a personal listening experience, but in pocket–sized form.

He returned to Japan, excitedly telling the product development team about his idea. The concept made its way across various levels of the organisation, passing through engineers, managers and product designers. When the first prototype came back to Morita, it most closely resembled… a boombox.

Somewhere, the essence of Morita’s idea had been lost. The product team had walked into a room and forgotten what they went in for.

The story serves to typify the challenge of keeping a product on track and ensuring that all involved in its development get it. We might call this ‘True North’; the course by which all other aspects of the product are calibrated.

In Valley Ranch Business Park, somewhere in Michigan, stands a building operated by GfK Custom Research North America. Inside, lines of shelves carry examples of a diverse range of products all sharing one key characteristic – they failed in the marketplace.

In there you will find, amongst other things, Clairol’s ‘A Touch of Yogurt’ shampoo right next to Gillette’s ‘For Oily Hair Only’, just down the aisle from Pepsi’s ‘Breakfast Cola’. You’ll see discontinued lines of caffeinated beer, or Colgate–branded TV dinners. For Steve Jobs aficionados, you’re also likely to see at least one Apple product in the mix.

These products, which we have to assume were subject to rigorous rounds of research, design and testing, are testament to a singular, harsh truth: most products fail.

While there are certainly obvious howlers on the shelves, there are many credible efforts also represented. Products can stumble for any number of reasons. Some suffer from untested business models, some from ill–considered marketing, others because of plain bad manufacturing. But one over–riding factor emerges as key to failure: the product was either solving the wrong problem, or more accurately, it was attempting to solve a problem that nobody had.

In product development, there can be no more effective question to focus the mind than “what problem are we solving?”. If the answer isn’t clear, the challenge can often be one of articulating purpose in a manner that the entire product team can buy into. But if the answer can’t be articulated, or simply doesn’t exist, the product may be on course for a place on the shelf in Valley Ranch, right next to Dominos’ ill-fated “Oreo Dessert Pizza”.

The process of building any product is, in true X–Factor parlance, a journey; sometimes a painful, agonising haul to achieve a vision that can become distorted and blurred. In identifying a product’s True North, it’s essence is sustained and the path to purpose becomes much more navigable.

More features, lesser product.

January 24, 2016

Before I start let’s be clear: product development is not an easy pursuit. If it was then, as they say, everyone would be doing it.

Although at times it can feel like everyone is doing it. The number of apps and online services jostling for our attention is overwhelming. When faced with precisely 100 results (at time of writing) for “to-do app” in the App Store, where do you start? And as an app producer how do you make your product standout in such a crowded market? It’s understandable if your conclusion is that the app with the most features wins.

My favourite run-tracking app changed recently (don’t worry – this isn’t a glib excuse to squeeze in what an accomplished runner I am. I’m not. I run short distances, infrequently. And slowly.). After finishing my run, instead of simply recording the details as normal, a new message popped up. “Share with friends!” it said.

For the reasons outlined above, I had no intention of sharing the details of my run with anyone. So I bypassed the invitation with a couple of taps. And now, much to my chagrin, I have those extra couple of taps to perform every time I want to record my run and get on with recovering from my exertions. So why the extra feature that I didn’t want?

The fact is that many users will want the feature, and introducing a community aspect (or in the case of the running app, a competitive aspect) can create an additional hook that takes engagement with the product to a new level. But when does “feature rich” become experience rot, and how do we stay on the right side of the line? More is better right? Therein lies a minefield for the budding product owner to negotiate.

At Fathom, we are firm proponents of a couple of frameworks that help bring objectivity to the feature-pruning process. The first is the Kano Model, dating from the 1980’s, which applies three categories to features – dissatisfiers, satisifiers and delighters. ‘Dissatisfiers’ are features that, if absent, cause frustration. These are threshold features, must-haves. ’Satisfiers’ are central to the product’s function, the core features. ‘Delighters’ are those additional elements that differentiate the product from the competition.

By categorising potential features along these lines, prioritisation follows naturally. Make sure dissatisfiers are firmly in place, that satisfiers provide excellence in user experience, then – and only then – move on to delighters. In other words, don’t shoot for delight if you’re not providing for basic needs.

So what to do when you have a whole host of delighters? What if you have feature after feature that you are convinced will take the user experience to new heights? Well, chances are you now have a bloated product.

I have a Swiss army knife at home; great little tool to have around the house. However if I need to tighten a screw, I don’t think “now where’s my Swiss army knife?”. Similarly, next time I need to gut a fish (it could happen), I’ll be looking for a specialist tool.

And this is the dilemma. Do you want your product to be a swiss army knife, not specialising in anything particular? Or, do you want it to be a scalpel – clinical, with a singular purpose, and built for the job.

Irish entrepreneur Des Traynor is doing great things with his CRM web app, Intercom. He’s also a great contributor to the thinking around product management. According to Traynor, healthy product management is the willingness to drop features as well as add them. But which ones to drop Traynor’s approach is simple. There will be a natural scale of features which runs from those used by most users, most of the time, to those used by few of the users, little of the time. It is the latter features that need pruned in order to keep a product lean and relevant.

Whenever difficult decisions need to be made (and in the world of product development, there are very few easy ones), we don’t have to resort to guesswork. Applying some rudimentary classifications to features can help you see a product through the customer’s eyes. Not everyone loves your product as much as you. Get over that fact, and you’re on the way to better decisions about its future.

Every app is competing with Facebook

October 26, 2015

Very few app producers or start–ups may recognise the fact, but far from offering a unique experience to users, their apps are vying for attention with the giants of digital – Facebook, Instagram, even Candy Crush.

Any app that manages to make its way on to a user’s device automatically becomes a direct competitor to dozens of other apps, all within a thumb’s reach and all with the potential to use up those few minutes that the user has to spare at that point in time.

Combined with research that tell us apps feature an abandonment rate of around 95% overall, and that 1 in 5 apps are used only once, this is chilling stuff for any app producer. So while the user’s decision to download an app remains a landmark moment, the battle for engagement has only just begun.

Some months ago Vibhu Norby, founder of start–up EveryMe, wore his heart on his sleeve in a blog post, letting the world in on adoption rates for the app that had to date secured $3.6m in funding. Those of a nervous disposition may want to sit down for the next part:

• From over 300,000 downloads of the EveryMe app, 200,000 people signed up to use the service.
• A requirement for a phone number or email address saw 25% abandon the app.
• A further (optional) step to sign in via a social network saw a further 25% leave the process.
• Just less than 25% didn’t create a social group within the app
• Finally, another 25% failed to add anyone to the group they created

The net result was that EveryMe retained around 5% of users through the entire on–boarding process, by all accounts a common story even with apps that have firmly established themselves over time.

The challenge for EveryMe, indeed for every other app on the market, is simply to build something that people want to use. Before app producers get close to design of any sort answers to the following questions should be clear: firstly, “What problem are we solving?”, and subsequently, “Are we building the right thing?”.

Solid research and user experience strategy goes a long way to providing answers to those questions, which should include getting a firm grasp on user motivation and intent. A lot has been made in the past of the idea of gamification and making apps and services more pleasurable to use. These principles tap directly into motivation theory, where ‘rewards’ (badges and user levels for example) are offered as extrinsic motivation for user interaction.

Stronger than this again is intrinsic motivation, where the drive to act (and interact) comes from within the individual. Take as an example the popularity of the ‘Couch to 5K’ system. The method of incrementally lengthening periods of running until a non–runner can comfortably cover a 5 kilometre distance has spawned dozens if not hundreds of apps, which consistently top the app download charts. Leveraging intrinsic motivation is one of the most effective ways to encourage engagement over the long term.

The secret to establishing motivation – extrinsic or intrinsic – and knowing which one to use, is to know your audience well enough to answer the fundamental questions: what are users trying to achieve and how are you facilitating those goals? A user’s time spent interacting with an app or a website is an investment on their part; they expect a return on that investment, whether that is in the form of a tangible return, say an item bought online, or through realised ambitions and goals achieved.

What motivations are you able to tap into for your app, website or application? What are users really trying to achieve, and how are you making it easier for them?

If these questions are not credibly answered, those thumbs will almost certainly drift towards the Facebook icon once again.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

A little UX knowledge is a dangerous thing

September 24, 2015

Picture the scene: a meeting room. A board meeting perhaps, or a presentation. Certainly something to do with commercials. Before too long the acronyms begin to fly thick and fast. Those coming out with the acronyms seem confident enough saying them, so everyone else nods along sagely, never daring to stop the flow to ask what anything means.

For most of the time, you keep up.

“’CRM’… yep, got that one. ‘ROI’? Schoolboy stuff. ‘C–suite’? Hang on hang on, I know this one… nope, I’ll just have to nod like the others and get past it.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar in any way, let’s (ahem) say it’s just me then.

You’ll forgive my sensitivity about something so close to my own heart, but ‘UX’ has now joined the buzzword bingo list. In many ways it’s understandable – it has an X in it after all, so it sounds edgy. User experience is ‘hot’ at the moment, and anything hot will inevitably get misappropriated. Some will be quick to pursue the credibility they assume will come from adopting a faux interest in customer needs.

Last year, one of the most blundering commentaries on user experience I’ve had the misfortune to read appeared on a popular professional networking platform, written by the MD of a prominent advertising agency. With a promise to explain UX to the reader, this individual went on to stumble their way through an incoherent, rambling essay in which UX was thrown haphazardly into – and I quote – “lots of different stuff” that delivers the power to steal customers from competitors.

The kind of zero sum thinking reflected in the piece smacked of the marketing and advertising of 20 or 30 years ago, where brand was the dominant force pulling the strings, and a ‘by–any–means–necessary’ approach to customer acquisition ruled the day. Any means, that is, except focusing on the goals of the customer.

I often re-read the piece, each time more convinced it was authored on the wrong side of a bottle of wine. But also because it typifies the greatest distortion of user experience thinking; that it is somehow a natural extension of traditional advertising or marketing, and pertains to “the experience that we will impose on them”. User experience is in fact anathema to that worldview.

The trouble is that simply talking about UX, dropping it into the meeting room game of buzzword bingo, suggests a fait accompli; that simply referring to it ticks the box. Beauty pageants are an archaic concept nowadays, but one version of them pops up regularly in the business world: the presentation of graphics when not one question has been asked of the end user. There is no ‘U’ in UX if the user hasn’t been represented in the outputs.

UX is primarily about solving problems, not merely the amplification of a marketing message or delivery of a brand style guide. User-centred design is not a fatuous term. It requires a process, one that starts with the user.

UX doesn’t exist within a set of graphics, or a piece of content, or navigation labels, or any single component. A user experience exists in the mind and memory of those people that have engaged with a product or service. This must be understood before it can begin to be addressed.

Of course, such simple facts have never got in the way of some people just opening their mouths (or taking to their keyboards) and letting the buzzwords flow.

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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