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One of the greatest fallacies in software development circles is that great products must be made with cutting edge technologies.
This belief is not coincidental, as most of the people who work in high tech maintain a passionate love affair with technology. If you ask most of us about our willingness to work long hours on risky and challenging projects, the answer is likely to sound something like: “I love technology, it’s fun,” or “I enjoy playing with technology; I can’t believe that someone is actually willing to pay me to do this job.”
Hardcore techies aren’t the only ones who are enamored, It seems that since the ushering in of the industrial revolution, we all have come to embrace the utopian belief that technology will one day solve all of humanity’s problems.
Believing this, many seasoned business and development managers fall into a trap and tend to package unnecessary technology into their applications. Unfortunately, this is most often done to the detriment of the product and its users who fail to leverage or appreciate the complexity it brings.
I have witnessed numerous product launches where the entire company stood in awe at the sight of their own technical achievements. Managers and developers alike were congratulating each other on overcoming what early on seemed to be impossible development roadblocks. All without any regards for the sketchy implementation and clear sight of the purpose that such functionality might serve.
At the risk of sounding like a Neo luddite, I would argue that our infatuation with technology doesn’t always lead us to develop the products our customers need.
When you were interviewing for your last gig, you likely stated that the ability to work with new technology and learn new tricks was a significant factor in your decision to apply for the position. You may have also been told by your interviewer that his company prides itself on maintaining a fun work environment and that you would get the opportunity to work on some very cool and cutting edge projects.
I believe that personal and company success hinges on establishing a creative, unpretentious, and challenging work environment. But that’s not the whole recipe for success. Any organization that hires expensive technical staff cannot afford to do it for fun’s sake only. A company can only sustain a playful atmosphere if an increasing number of paying customers embrace and consider its product useful.
The reason for this is simple. Contrary to the common misconception, it’s not angel funding, seed money, or bridge loans that pay for your operation. Rather, your end users end up picking up the tab for all of your company’s salaries as well as for the espresso machine, the new Wii\Xbox station, and the billiards table. In light of this, every activity you engage in (e.g. design, coding, or testing) must directly benefit your costumers and end user.
How granular are the effects of product usability on your daily work? Each line of code you write, every bug you find, every new feature you consider must help the user improve his productivity in some quantifiable way. No matter how obscure or indirect your current project is, streamlining the user interface, improving application stability, or optimizing performance, all must directly benefit your customer. If you can’t clearly see how your work improves the user experience, consider investing your time on some other activity. The more frequently you think about your work in terms of end-user productivity, the more impact you will have on creating a profitable product.
The Beauty of Simplicity
The greatest engineering feats are the ones we don’t notice. The hallmark of a great designer is his ability to translate complexity into simplicity. The automatic transmission in a car represents significantly more engineering effort than a manual transmission, but it dramatically transforms the average user experience. The best engineering, architectural, and consumer products always focus on improving user experience and hiding complexity, not showcasing it.
The most effective approach to adding value to products is to add power and ease of use while reducing the learning curve. When you are developing a new feature, ask yourself, is there some way to add it without changing the user interface? (users hate learning new interfaces) Can we solve a problem by re-designing workflow or consolidating instead of adding more screens and menus? Or is there some other feature we can modify to include new and improved functionality? Think of car manufactures and how they add major new features with minimal user impact. The dashboard almost never changes, rear anti-collision video monitoring is integrated into the GPS display, anti-lock brakes are added to the standard brake pedal UI, and power steering is added to the steering wheel UI. Minimal training is required on the part of the user to reap the benefits of these new features. This kind of design approach—where complex functionality appears simple to the user—helps create great products.
There are countless opportunities throughout your application to provide a great user experience. Watch your customers usage of your top features and ask yourself how they compares to the level of service you’d get in a 5 star establishment. Is the product fast, intuitive and easy to use? Is efficient help always available promptly? Is it easy to get information out of it? And most importantly, does your product enhance the user’s productivity and business process flow?
Regardless of the technology you adopt, the closer your application’s usability matches the levels of service people get in their daily physical experiences, the closer you’ll be to having a great and useful product.
© Copyright 2010 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.
3 thoughts on “Developers Just Wanna Have Fun”
Great article. I used to work for Xbox and they seemed hell bent on turning their web portal into the new facebook…simply forgetting that they should service gamers and the needs of gamers first and foremost. If people want 50 levels of social networking and privacy, then let them use the applications that already do that well. Don’t lose sight of your core audience and their needs by cramming in every Web 2.0 thing you can lay your hands on just for the sake of it. Sigh.
Thanks for the feedback. I like your Xbox analogy! It is tempting to add as many bells and whistles to your product in order to level out the battle field. This is especially true for large software vendors who have no shortage of in-house talent and technology. But in the long run, users don’t care about feature lists; they only look for efficient core functionality.
A good example that illustrates this is Internet searching. Both Google and Bing support image searches. When I search for my name in Google it returns 3 pages of closely related images. Bing on the other hand, only returns 4 marginal images. MS has the feature, but it’s totally sub-standard.
I’ve always wondered how MS came up with any Office feature lists ;-)