I spent many years as a product designer, in various fields. I even had some cool inventions for consumer tools and medical devices that sadly got hung up in former employer bureaucracies. It’s been so long though since I was heavily immersed in the world of design that I had forgotten some key principles.
Reading Juhani Risku’s clear and well-considered thoughts on Nokia’s survival brought it all back to me. On page three of the online Register article, he makes the following point:
“There is a philosophy called Contextual Design, every designer at Nokia has been trained in it by the guru Karen Holtzblatt. Everybody has attended her courses and got her very expensive book signed. The idea is that you ask the users what they are doing, then design something. If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody. The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe!
“It’s only relevant to evolutionary products, it’s not relevant to blue-sky products. When you have a blue-sky product, there are no users, and so there are no users’ opinions. We have to rely on what the desires of users are and trust the designers.”
He’s absolutely correct, and I’m embarassed to admit that this had slipped from my thinking. You see, I’ve been so deep in recent efforts to improve the user input and feedback experience on mobile devices that my judgment has been biased that way.
But you don’t want users directing your initial efforts. The average customer of your products will lean toward playing within known, safe boundaries. They may not even be cued in to what’s possible and practical. Your best designers, however, are keenly aware.
The opinions of users are valuable for correction and refinement. This is especially important in usability. This is not to say that focus groups and the like are useless for front-end exploration. Far from it. The caveat is, however, that lead designers and engineers often need to have veto authority over user-driven marketing input.
I’ll offer an anecdote involving one of the inventions I mentioned. Without sharing too much detail, it was a multipurpose hand tool using a mechanism I designed several years ago that no one else on the market had. Our lead engineer was very excited by the prospect and pushed it heavily to Marketing. I was asked to put together a presentation and was confident in the potential success.
But the marketing manager wore blinders into the meeting. He said he knew there was a place for my new idea but feared it could cannibalize existing product. When I pointed out that it opened up markets we weren’t even in at the time, and could therefore avoid cannibalization, he just blinked. He was too focused on serving existing users, and couldn’t get into revolutionary mode.
Flash forward a few months. We were falling behind on development of intellectual property. So we held a roundtable discussion with our research and development operations around the world to brainstorm product ideas. At one point a new marketing manager declared he wanted to buy a device known from infomercials, and apply our brand to it. Most of us were engineers and designers and realized the product in question was so poorly-constructed that it would drag our brand down.
The engineering manager had a suggestion though. He reminded the group of my invention, which performed the same function as the cheap suggested product but was designed to higher standards. The marketing guy wouldn’t budge. He already had users who knew about the inferior device. All we had to do was license it, slap a logo on it… and avoid the risk of being revolutionary.
Thomas Edison was a huge failure. He said so himself. But then, he wouldn’t have been the success he became without being willing to fail… often.
Apple decided with the iPhone not to play it safe, and they’ve been reaping the reward of high risk ever since. They’re even doing it by telling customers what they want rather than waiting to hear it and then create.
Those who succeed in markets create them rather than waiting for someone else to define and then own them. After all, at one time no one knew they needed a radio in their car, and now you can’t sell a car without one. Viva la revolution.