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Monday, 16 March, 2009

You want your product to succeed? Tell the user what it is, clearly.


Successful products have many notable attributes. One, however, is most significant - the ability to clearly say to the user what it is.

A productivity tool needs to be recognizable as one. A social networking site has to say that it is so. A forum has to look like a forum.

Ambiguity is the first step towards failure. A product that doesn't speak for itself and say what it is, will confuse users about its purpose and end up being neglected.

Most product owners seem to want too much and yet play safe. Mostly unclear as to what they really want to provide to their users, and under pressure to face up to competition and not be left behind, they end up creating multiple objectives without a central focus. The result is a salad of ideas, each with independent objectives, none of which add to the objective of the whole.

Focusing on a central idea and saying what it is, seems risky - it seems easier to bet on a bag of ideas and hope that some of them will work out rather than having to put your money on one. Ambiguity seems to be a guise for lack of confidence. The end result is a mediocre product and the probable path to eventual failure.

It must be realized by all product owners, that product development is a risky business. Here taking risk is the only way to be safe, and playing safe the riskiest and the surest path to failure.

(Photo Credit: Tall Chris, Flickr)

Friday, 13 March, 2009

Successful Products have Life - an Energy Theory

Robin's first hello

Do successful products have "life" ?

I know this might sound crazy but let's explore the possibilities.

Life can be defined by an "energy" that enables an object to have the unique capacity to act on its surroundings, react to it, connect to-and-between other objects around it and facilitate and enable that environment, besides of course the ability to grow and reproduce. Some attribute this life-energy to a higher spirit, others to a God, many others to ambivalence and still others to nothing.

Successful products do all of the above, either in a positive or a negative sense.

Starting with the guys who germinate the product idea, to the ones who incubate it, to its eventual audience/users and its environment - all of them contribute to this "life" in the product. It is all these people and the environment who bring into it this energy.

Bringing this energy into a product is not easy. Each contributor needs to channelize a lot of their own energy into the product before it can spring into life. That is why only a handful of products succeed.

Why Products Fail?

Too many people get into building a product without this energy, concentrating on putting the superficial building blocks (features) together, without focusing on the energy within. The result is similar to an anatomical construction of the human body without life in it. Inevitably, an energy-less construction and then a post-construction effort to blow life into the product doesn't do much to bring it to life.

The Success Formula (Duh !!)

Investors will tell you that they don't just evaluate a product, they evaluate the people behind it, before they invest in it. And, they do so very rightly. Right from ideation to construction, release and beyond, the people behind and then around the product conjure together their cumulative energies to bring it to life. You need the idea generators and germinators to bring in their vision and passion, the constructors to work out the details, the magical "conductor-like" product manager to orchestrate this incubation and bring it to release. Finally, you need the audience/users to bless the new-born into acknowledgment, existence and growth. Once grown, the mature product will use the energy of its environment to spawn and encourage other ideas and products to grow from it and reproduce beyond.

Does this theory that successful products have life, matter?

This construct brings out the importance of the vision, passion and persistent energy required to bring a product to life and make it successful.

Life, as always, is a metaphor. It can also be the truth.

Look around and you will see successful products around that live successfully. The tech industry is abound with examples like Google, Amazon, eBay and now Twitter which have sprung to life and are successful.

(Photo Credit: pleasantpointinn, Flickr)

Tuesday, 10 March, 2009

Crowdsourcing with CAUTION !!

A Crowd at the Market

A lot is being said about "crowdsourcing" almost everyday, and more and more entrepreneurs are jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon. There is however, need for caution.

Just as the banking and financial services industry in the US jumped on the sub-prime lending bandwagon leading to the crisis we face in the world economy today, any "fad" needs to be taken up with caution. This moment of economic crisis should teach us not to evaluate options based on short-term gain, but do a careful evaluation of its long-term implications before taking it up.

I have been evaluating crowdsourcing with respect to the design of software products, which is my area of work, and I would welcome suggestions and more thoughts on this.

Design broadly consists of four major phases:

1. An initial understanding phase, where a designer employs various tools at her disposal to understand the needs of users of the product and society in general,

2. A second divergent ideation phase, where ideas are generated,

3. A third convergent phase where the final solution is chosen, and

4. A final implementation phase.

One can package this in many different ways, but the essential activities in design will typically conform to these four phases.

It is the second phase of ideation, that typically holds the potential of being crowdsourced. If you are creating a product or service and need ideas, it does make sense to crowdsource. The ideation phase is afterall a divergent phase and you need to explore. You can hire a consultant and pay money to do this exploration or use the crowd for free to do the same - either way you will need to explore ideas. There is just one small glitch - you will end up getting a lot of ideas that are grounded in different contexts and not in the context your business might be oriented towards. This will happen, because the crowd will typically not have done the first phase of understanding your users. You will therefore need to sieve through the ideas and take those that fit your context, when you move to the next converging phase of arriving at a solution.

Therefore, in the third phase of converging towards a solution, you will need expert advice. A deluge of ideas from the crowd can be overwhelming, if you don't know how to sieve through them and you might end up losing your way, and even going away on a tangent that is detrimental to your business model. Therefore, for the third phase of arriving at a solution, you will need an expert designer to bring all the ideas together and connect the dots, using tools and experience at her disposal. Crowdsourcing will provide you with "opinion", but you will need "informed opinion" to make decisions.

Similarly, in the first phase of understanding user needs and studying it in the context of society and the business, you will need an expert who can use the necessary tools at his disposal to capture these needs with the right amount of empathy and understanding, both of which take years to imbibe.

Again, in the final implementation phase, you will need an expert to plan and implement this design - it is a fine balancing act of all the constraints at hand, and comes only with training and experience.

Crowdsourcing enthusiasts, whom I have read so far, seem to be so gung-ho about cost savings in the short-term, that they seem to have ignored all these aspects in their espousal, and this can be dangerous. Traditionally, not having done enough home-work upfront has meant doing multiples of that work down the line - cost savings upfront is a myth that results in more expensive rework later with much pain and hardship as well.

As I see more and more entrepreneurs and enterprises jumping onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon to get design done, I am concerned. I worry that this mad rush will leave most entrepreneurs with burnt fingers and products with lost opportunities that can affect society adversely in the long run. Creating and supporting the creation of good products is not an obligation, but it is necessary for the well-being of each and every one of us. We don't need an economic recession to tell us, that we were wrong - we just need to be positively careful about the choices we make.

Since the fundamentals of product design, apply to all other forms of design - organizational and social - I am of the opinion that the application of crowdsourcing needs to be done with a lot of thought.

(Photo Credit: Christopher Augapfel, Flickr)

Monday, 2 March, 2009

Why design?

I was thinking about the scenario we are in, especially with the economic recession, and how designers need to work in this scenario.

On the one hand, the recession has meant more focus and prioritization, and the same has obviously reflected in the designs we do, and yet, designers still have the responsibility of seeing that this "focus" is not so short-sighted that we put the longer term at stake, both for our clients as well as to the users of our products.

While lurking on the internet, looking for advice on this thought, I chanced upon this interesting talk from Philippe Starck, which provides interesting insights: