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It's the people, stupid

Interface design guru Tony Fernandes predicts dire consequences for technology companies if current development and design approaches don't receive a thorough rethinking.

Winning products come about when technology is focused on people, not because people are focused on technology.

If one thinks back on some of the big successes of the last couple of decades, a pattern emerges. Lotus 1-2-3 did away with the drudgery of recalculating tables of numbers by hand and made this time-saving functionality accessible through a menu.

Microsoft Windows built upon the work of Xerox PARC, brought real task-switching to the PC, and greatly increased the ease of learning, thereby lowering training costs. Netscape Navigator made information on a network cheap to access, easy to share, and accessible through a single click. These products fundamentally improved people's lives and were wildly successful in the market.

Too many products, and many start-ups, fail because they don't focus on a simple reality: Humans will need to use and like the product or service. Too often, technologies and products are created because they can be, not because they should be. Likewise, sound business plans that show a clear path often forget an important variable: Just because people can do something doesn't mean that they will do something. The dot com meltdown is a testament to this fact.

Billions of dollars of investment have been wasted simply because companies have ignored people and their needs. Doing usability testing late in the process only refines a bad design and won't fix the problem. What the industry needs is to sign up for product design in advance of product development. I see the unwillingness to do this as a plague that increasingly affects the market advantage the United States currently enjoys.

Some of the symptoms of this plague include solely using market research to define products. People, even experts, are often not good at articulating their needs for technology products because they lack creative vision. When asked, they also assume the best-case scenario for both quality and performance. The result is that companies often get inaccurate feedback about how people perceive a product, and that results in a product with no customers.

The solution is to actually spend time "observing" customers through people-centric product-design techniques and to apply meaningful creativity to what is learned.

Another set of problems arises from the approach itself. Many think that building something that is better is good enough for the market. It doesn't work. Market offerings can't just be better than alternatives. They need to be amazingly better--so great, in fact, that people will be motivated to change their behavior and spend money to boot.

The "chasm of change"
Although customers can be convinced intellectually that there is a superior solution available, the superiority must be so great that it will overcome what I call the "chasm of change": that lack of desire to change the status quo. Another approach is to create a technological solution first and then go looking for a problem. Initiatives often start as somebody's great idea or a business need.

Because of ego--sometimes it's fear and ignorance--nobody bothers to meaningfully check whether anybody is actually willing to pay, in terms of time or money, for end product. Middleware and infrastructure both have become code words in the technology industry for "we don't know what to do with this, but maybe you will." A robust product-design phase at the start of the product-development phase would help put the approach on track from the start.

Then there are realities that are just plain ignored. People are emotional animals. The manufactured-goods arena learned this fact 100 years ago through the evolution of industrial design. When people select which car to buy, they are conscious of the car's cost, its look, its feel, its sound, and what the car communicates about their social status. The same emotional people buy technology.

Good design resonates with people. It conveys a sense of quality and a sense of comfort. It tells the customer a story that lines of code cannot. Likewise, good product design not only improves market penetration, it also saves a tremendous amount of money and time if done early. Products that are designed well from the start reach the market faster, are less expensive to create, and have lower support costs. The savings are realized through easier documentation, easier QA testing, easier marketing and sales, reduced organization friction, and less schedule-lengthening rework.

There is a belief in technology circles that you "just need to get it out there and see what happens." Baloney! The responsible, smart business strategy is to save money by front-loading the project with high-quality product design. The '70s were about hardware, the '80s about applications, and the '90s about the network. For the U.S. to maintain a competitive advantage, this decade needs to be about the user and high-quality product design.