Product vision and roadmaps

Jared Spool in The Value of Appl’s Knowledge Navigator: Gruber Has It Partially Right:

When teams don’t have a vision [“¦], each person is walking around with a different understanding of what the end of the journey should look like. When ther’s no common understanding on what that end point looks like, each decisions is evaluated on a different criteria and the resulting products end up looking like crap.

This is why I believe that product roadmaps are not evil. As I’ve written before, at our company we are very clear that the product roadmap is a flexible guideline that can (and must) change frequently as needed. But it gives the teams (and the management team) something to work towards. It’s a common vision, a sense of direction that’s more than just fluffy language – it’s concrete evidence that w’re headed somewhere good, and we know how to get there.

The future of voice control: good for information, bad for creating things

Bret Victor wrote a very interesting rant a few days ago on the the problem with touch interfaces and the future of Interaction Design. The piece got a lot of attention, so today he followed up with some responses to the questions and comments he received.

I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on the limits of voice control. His argument is that voice is a good way to get information or issue commands (yes, like Siri), but that it’s not very good for creating and understanding:

I have a hard time imagining Monet saying to his canvas, “Give me some water lilies. Make ’em impressionistic.” Or designing a building by telling all the walls where to go. Most artistic and engineering projects (at least, non-language-based ones) can’t just be described. They exist in space, and we manipulate space with our hands.

It’s obvious, yes, but I think we need to remind ourselves of this. Creating things requires “manipulating space with our hands”, even if that means manipulating words onto a page when they’re stubbornly stuck in space somewhere.[1]


  1. Sure, some people (like John Siracusa) are able to dictate the first drafts of stuff they write, but I’m pretty sure they’re not editing their work through voice control. Editing (which is the hardest part of writing) requires a keyboard and lots of banging your head on it.  â†©

“Something that’s perfect just feels much, much better than something that’s almost right.”

Aaron Swartz in a great piece called Steve Jobs and the Founder’s Pain:

Something that’s perfect just feels much, much better than something that’s almost right. When I’m doing something myself, I can just sit there and work at it until it’s exactly right. It’s embarrassing to launch a product with a bug in it! It physically hurts when I realize that’s what I’ve done. But as projects and companies grow, there are more and more people in between me and those tiny details. And then I face a choice: do I keep complaining until something’s perfect or do I just let go and consider it somebody els’s problem?

The people who are not content to make it somebody else’s problem are the ones who end up changing the world.

(link via @vhata)

The difference between Apple and Microsoft: product before profit

I’m a little late to this article that made the rounds last week, but I finally read The inside story of how Microsoft killed its Courier tablet. It’s a bit scattered and sometimes hard to follow the narrative (probably because it was split into two pieces), but it’s still a very interesting story and worth reading. For one, if Microsoft found a way to keep J Allard around, things might have turned out differently for them. He seems like exactly the kind of person they needed to deliver real product innovation in the mobile computing space.

The most interesting part for me is how the article shines a light on the differences between Microsoft and Apple’s approaches to product development. Here’s Jay Green in the CNET article about the Courier tablet:

Courier’s death also offers a detailed look into Microsoft’s Darwinian approach to product development and the balancing act between protecting its old product franchises and creating new ones. The company, with 90,000 employees, has plenty of brilliant minds that can come up with revolutionary approaches to computing. But sometimes, their creativity is stalled by process, subsumed in other products, or even sacrificed to protect the company’s Windows and Office empires.

Microsoft has a fear of not doing anything that could cannibalize their cash cows (Windows and Office), even if that means they have to do things that don’t create value for users. It’s an organization that’s optimized for profit, not product. Contrast that with Apple’s approach:

Apple hasn’t optimized its organization to maximize profit. Instead, it has made the creation of value for customers its priority. When you do this, the fear of cannibalization or disruption of one’s self just melts away. In fact, when your mission is based around creating customer value, around creating great products, cannibalization and disruption aren’t “bad things” to be avoided. They’re things you actually strive for “” because they let you improve the outcome for your customer.

Kyle Baxter adds the following perspective on an approach that places product before profit:

[N]ot only does focusing on the product make for better products, but it completely changes the corporate, business and organizational decisions you make, too. If you are focused on maximizing profit (in the short or long-term), you end up making choices that inhibit great products and great success at best, and destroy your ability to succeed at worst.

The Courier project should serve as a cautionary tale about what happens when the fear of losing profit gets in the way of developing a potentially great product. A product that could have resulted in a very different tablet landscape than the one we have today.

Design as opportunity to make meaningful connections

I love pretty much everything Frank Chimero writes, and his essay on the meaning of design from a few weeks back still rings in my ears:

We should care more about our craft because w’re granted an opportunity to contribute to the world. We should care more about what we say because each time we speak, ther’s someone there to listen. We should care more about our audiences because they are the ones who give our work value. We might think that design work is about you or about me or anyone else who makes it, or maybe about the things that we make and the artifacts we produce, but don’t let this way of thinking fool you. The things we make are all just excuses to speak with one another and to help one another. We are all linked, and the things that we make for each other strengthen the invisible threads that tie us all together.

Many people won’t agree with this sentiment. Many will think it’s silly to think about something as trivial as web design in this grandiose way. They’ll remind us that we’re just making web sites, not saving the world. And that’s fine – not everyone is going to care as much about design, or even understand why some of us do.

But I do care. I care because I think we have the opportunity to shape a technology that is at once exhilarating and dangerous. A technology that has the massive opportunity to bring people closer together, if we can just keep it together long enough not to destroy each other in YouTube comments and flaming blog posts.

So, yes, I care a lot about this, probably more than I should. But I’m with Frank on this: everything we do is just an excuse “to speak with one another and to help one another.”

Being honest about technology

I’m still slowly making my way through Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, and this quote really jumped out at me this morning:

We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us. These amended narratives are a kind of realtechnik. The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self. Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own. The two are often closely linked.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Here’s another great example of how differently designers and users see the world. When we hear the word “clutter”, we think of visual noise. But Jared Spool explains what users mean when they say that word:

Over the years, w’ve learned that users have a different meaning of “clutter” than the designers do. It’s not the visual design the users are reacting to. It’s the actual content. Clutter is what happens when we fill a page with things the user doesn’t care about. Replace the useless stuff with links, copy, and content the users really want, and the page suddenly becomes uncluttered.

Here’s the kicker – their redesign was actually more cluttered, but users didn’t care:

We put the old and new pages side-by-side. The new page definitely had more text, less whitespace, and more dense information design. Yet, when we asked the users to tell us which one was more cluttered, they were unamimous: the old design was the cluttered design.

It’s another reminder (sorry, yawn) about the importance of Content First. I keep coming back to Jeffrey Zeldman’s classic essay Style vs. Design:

Most of all, I worry about web users. Because, after ten-plus years of commercial web development, they still have a tough time finding what they’re looking for, and they still wonder why it’s so damned unpleasant to read text on the web “” which is what most of them do when they’re online.

Mobile applications that trick kids into buying stuff

I completely agree with Gabe Weatherhead’s views on apps made for kids in The Value Of App Reviews:

My number one reason to give a bad rating and review is when an app made for kids has both up-sell and review requests plastered all over the screen. They are trying to prey on small children tapping anything that pops on the screen. If you make a kids app, do not put links to your other apps in the game. Put them in the preferences. Put them in the app description. Hell, put them in some kind of app documentation. But when they are in the game, you are telling me that you’re shady and unscrupulous and I can’t trust your app.

This is a dark pattern, and I simply delete the app if I come across this kind of design. For some better patterns to follow when designing apps for kids, see Luke Wroblewski’s Touch-based App Design for Toddlers.

Why most South African tech startups don’t hire designers

It seems like everyone was looking for developers at this year’s Tech4Africa conference. We heard some fantastic startup ideas, and each pitch was usually punctuated with something like, “And if you know any good developers, please let me know.” Cennydd Bowles made the following observation after the first day of the conference:

Cennydd Tech4Africa

I understand and support the rush to find good developers because I love all the local ideas entering the market (much of my own talk at Tech4Africa was dedicated to improving developer environments). But I’m concerned about tech startups[1] going on the hunt for developers without also looking for quality User Experience Design skills at the same time[2]. In Tart Up Your Startup! Erika Hall explains the dangers of ignoring UX in startups:

You are making UX design decisions as soon as you specify anything you expect another human to interact with, as soon as you specify anything that has implications for how a human might interact with it. Of course, you are are also making system design decisions, but we assume you are comfortable with that sort of thing. So don’t pretend like you aren’t making design decisions already. And don’t make them by omission. You cannot NOT design something. The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with the crumbling husks of great ideas””useful products and services that died in the shell before they hatched out of their impenetrable engineering-specified interfaces.

So if this is so important, why are most South African tech startups (and large companies, for that matter) not looking for UX designers? In this article I’d like to explore what I believe the three main, interconnected explanations are, and how this is actually an opportunity for the design community to prove the value we can add to product development. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic as well. If you think I’m missing the boat, please let me know. (more…)

Experience design as craft

Peter Merholz describes Instapaper creator Marco Arment‘s approach to design in Craft in Interaction and Service Design:

Instapaper shows the power of approaching experience design as a craft, as opposed to some kind of massive organizational process. Too often companies launch something and then move on to whatever’s next. Instapaper shows what happens when you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. Unlike Microsoft or Adobe, who simply tack on features with every new release, Marco, instead, refines the design, honing it, polishing it, like his app is some jewel. I’d love to see companies approach service design the way Marco has. It would require a fundamental shift in how they work, but the results could be quite beautiful.

How often do you hear the words “We’ll get to that in Phase 2”? And how often do you actually get to do “Phase 2”? It’s a running joke in the software industry that calling something a “Phase 2 feature” is another way of saying it will never happen. There are just too many squirrel projects, too many Shiny Things that need to get done.

It doesn’t have to work like that, though. Small, dedicated teams who have autonomy and a clear decision maker can focus on one area of an experience for an extended period of time. This can work even in large organizations, but it requires trust and a long-term vision, both of which can be hard to find in big companies. It is the only way to bring craft and care to a design cycle that’s often treated too much like a conveyor belt.


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