The facts don’t always speak for themselves.

Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.One of the odd little things that reminds me of my Dad currently sits in a small, unkempt frame on my desk.

It’s an obscure quote that I’ve traced to a U.S. congressional hearing on air safety, of all things. However it made its way in front of Dad, it was clearly something that resonated with him enough to frame it, and is nicely evocative of the man. It reads:

“Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.”

My father was a pragmatist, although I suspect he wouldn’t have labelled himself such. He valued honesty, plain speaking, and facts; something I hope I’ve inherited an amount of from him.

I often attempt to mirror my own profession with his, trying to convince myself that his highly practical skills (Dad trained as a joiner) are somehow mirrored in my distinctly soft skill-set. That said the principles of craftsmanship regularly feature in the challenges I find myself involved with daily.

‘Measure twice and cut once’ was one of his maxims, as it is for so many trades. The same advice is perfectly applicable to my own work, where it is imperative to question assumptions, to research, then – and only then – to begin designing a solution. Measure twice, cut once indeed.

Research can often be misconstrued as overly academic, a noble pursuit that gets in the way of practical action (if you pay close attention to some of the small print flashed on-screen in the middle of ads for hair or beauty products and you could lose faith in it altogether). But research shouldn’t hinder action. It can in fact act as a springboard to set a project off at a canter in the right direction, providing sufficient evidence that – in the words of Lean methodology – we are ‘building the right thing’.

Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup movement, purports that “there are no facts inside your building” meaning that views from internal stakeholders alone can’t be taken as reflecting reality.

The role of research in design should be to deal with facts, to uncover truth and reflect it back at the organisation. Very often truth can be uncomfortable to stomach of course. Facts around poor conversion rates, low customer satisfaction ratings, low usability test scores and more can all be swept under the carpet because they are just too painful. Regardless of what the facts might be, they must be acknowledged and understood before something better can be achieved.

All views within a business or organisation are perfectly valid. They are also just pieces of a broader puzzle, one that can only be completed when those outside the building – specifically customers – get to add their voice to the mix. Research what any organisation represents to those customers and end users, and a very different picture can emerge to that which exists internally. It is likely to be a more definitive one.

The framed quote that sits on my desk is a paean to critical thinking, an approach that has been defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence” – exactly the space that user-centred design operates in.

In any discussion around what customers or users want, or what they need, there will be plenty of arguments, lots of reasoning, and no shortage of opinion. Greater than all of those are facts.

I won’t be taking that quote off my desk any time soon.

One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

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

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.

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.

One size fits none

Who doesn’t love easy answers? Don’t we all feel good whenever the way forward comes quickly to hand?

With less effort, pain and outlay involved, the lure of easy answers is such that we tend to place undue emphasis on initial conclusions. This cognitive heuristic is called ‘anchoring’ or focalism, where we rely too heavily on the first piece of data we’re exposed to. Where the information is in line with an existing belief or preconception, confirmation bias simply compounds the issue.

Psychology aside, often the easy answers we seek are expediently classified as ‘best practice’. Indeed, when we ask “what is best practice?”, it can often be a thinly-veiled substitute for “what’s the easiest answer?”. The same question can similarly mask sentiments such as “if it’s good enough for company X, it’s good enough for us.”

Ten or twelve years ago, whenever a tricky decision point was reached on a website project, it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone chip in with: “Well, what do Microsoft do?”. The inference was that a) Microsoft had all the right answers (it didn’t) and b) that the context was the same (it almost certainly wasn’t).

‘Best practice’ can be an excuse for all manner of evils. Less than two years ago, the use of infinite scrolling – where a webpage would continuously load new content every time you reached the bottom of the page – was running rampant. It was a trend, and one that became de rigueur for any new website that wanted to appear ‘with it’. No doubt somewhere at some point it was referred to as best practice. But like any trend it is increasingly being left behind as we discover lots of sound reasons why it is bad practice. In the case of infinite scrolling, it meant that the website footer – use of which is definitely best practice – was forever just out of reach of the user.

No sooner has one best practice established itself than extrinsic factors change, and something else (albeit not necessarily better) has come along to take its place. What we call ‘best practice’ evolves in parallel with technology, user behaviour and established norms across industries. It never follows trends blindly. Sometimes trends are completely at harmony with firmly established principles. Sometimes they are not. And so it is with best practice.

There’s an old meme in the design industry that goes something like this: Good. Quick. Cheap. Pick any two. Meaning: good, quick design won’t be cheap, and so on. To paraphrase this for user research and customer insights: “Easy. Quick. Right. Pick any two.”

Whenever best practice is referenced as rationale for decision–making, the immediate follow-up should always be: “Okay. But is it best practice for our customers?”. Context is everything. Easy answers might be cheap, but they won’t necessarily be right.

Learning from others through benchmarking, both within and outside your sector, is an important element in establishing a direction of travel. However research and validation with customers are the true path to success.

Don’t let a quick and easy path to answers under the guise of ‘best practice’ either stifle your organisation’s chance to innovate and excel, or inspire outcomes which simply mirror your organisation’s in-house desires. The path to the dark side this is.