writes: "Most of the companies would call themselves innovative and would claim they're delivering an above-average service to their customers. Yet, if you ask their customers, their views would strongly contradict. If you drill the companies on their innovation practices, they would mention two approaches they probably employ:
- Their research department meets with target groups, compiles presentations for the upper management, which then occasionally hands those reports over to the development department.
- Their research or marketing department comes up with competitive matrix of the products available from competition. In a meeting then, executives see that their product is missing a feature, and hence the development department is assigned the task of adding "an Internet-enabled installer" to the product, since everybody else offers them, thereby creating market expectations.
Subject to Change is a book, written by four Adaptive Path veterans describing new approaches to product development and innovation. Who are they to have the authority over the subject? Adaptive Path is a consulting shop helping large and small companies with product design, Web design and industrial design. They're perhaps mostly known to the general public for coining the term AJAX, and articulating the idea of building dynamic Web sites with asynchronous data retrieval, but they certainly didn't invent the technology. Their design experience is behind many products we use today, but due to licensing agreements they're not always at liberty to disclose their customers.
So what do Adaptive Path designers advocate?
- Making the design emotional. While the idea itself is not new, this is something that product manufacturers have to face sooner or later. Early Kodak cameras did not succeed because of superior technical qualities or ease of film development — they managed to cross this emotional barrier, where people who previously thought "This is too complicated" after getting a glimpse of the ad or product demo thought "Even I might be able to enjoy this."
- Understand people's needs outside of your company-approved usability testing guides. Two great examples provided by the book are Adaptive Path's own usability study of Epinions.com — product review and comparison shopping site. When a woman showed up for usability test with her newborn baby, she was frequently distracted by baby's needs during the test. Bad test candidate? Vice versa. Adaptive Path learned how confusing it could be for someone who needs to get away from the comparison shopping process to come back and quickly realize where they were in the process. Another example has to deal with babies as well — after watching new mothers use the diaper wipes at their homes, Kimberly-Clark researchers redesigned their diaper wipe container to be easily accessible with just one hand.
- Make the whole system coherent, not just patch new interfaces throughout product holes. Financial companies and banks certainly suffer from a desire by single group to innovate the others out. My own example — I go to Fidelity Web site, and upon login offered to also check my NetBenefits(SM) or check out the FullView(R). Now, there might be customers who think in those terms, but I surely did not log in to check NetBenefits(SM) or do FullView(R) or check out mySmart Cash Account (SM), I just wanted to find out how my investments were doing. A simple graph would do. Yet my options from Fidelity are either downloading quarterly PDF account statements, and then punching the numbers to create a graph, or going to Account Positions page, where I can view the graphs for every single stock and bond I own for any time value except the time span that I need — from the day I bought the security to today. This is not a rant on Fidelity Investments in general, this is just another example of different groups within the company handling such things as stocks, bonds, retirement planning, cash investments, quarterly account reports, and Web site design. Each group probably doesn't think highly of the existing user interface, and hence the desire to introduce that new simple interface, call it a different name, and expect the customers to get on with a program and use it.
Authors provide a lot of good case studies for design successes and failures to support their point. Case studies are borrowed from outside literature or told in first person — Adaptive Path's customer names are changed to be KeyboardCo or FinanceCo to protect the innocent. The book explores several different permutations of design and relevance:
- When design is great, and product is relevant, market success is a given. The example is Apple iPod series. Somewhat less known example is Google Calendar, that outgrew Yahoo! Calendar and MSN Calendar, even though all 3 calendars are tied into Web-based e-mails, and Yahoo! and Hotmail both have market shares multiple of Gmail's.
- When design is great, but product is not relevant, market success will be extremely hard to achieve. Segway scooter and Apple G4 Cube come to mind.
- When design is bad, but product is relevant, market success will quickly turn into failure as competitors copy the product and invest in design. Diamond Rio, the pioneer of digital music player industry, learned a hard lesson that way.
- When design is bad, and the product is irrelevant, it's possible it will never even come out in the market. Adaptive Path's own example of KeyboardCo wanting to implement a downloadable music service right on the keyboard is a good example of this.
Overall the book is informative and inspirational, albeit a bit dry. Chapter 7, dedicated to describing agile approach in software development, seems to be out of place. Maybe it's because I am a software engineer, and have familiarized myself on various development methodologies, the chapter was old news to me, or maybe it's the idea that you're being sold one specific methodology, instead of implementing dozens of small improvements within the product development process, that threw me off.
On page 162 the authors claim "Google and Yahoo!, once technology companies, are now media players, and their advertising-based business models mean they compete more with Los Angeles and New York than their Silicon Valley brethren." Now, I don't see how being a media company leads one to compete with a US municipality. Maybe they meant "New York [Times|Post] and Los Angeles [Times]", in which case it's time to look for another proofreader. But to be fair, I haven't noticed any glaring errors or omissions in the title.
"Subject to Change" is a good book to read if you're into product development or design. If you're staying abreast of the industry trends, most of it is probably not going to be big news to you, nevertheless, it's a good collection of case studies and a summary of rules relevant for modern-day product development."