The tech industry produces thousands of new products every year. How many products do you notice? How many wow you? Not many. The first iPhone wowed me. Google Search was awesome. Prezi was so cool. After these few examples, I really have to think hard on memorable products. The tech industry employs millions of very smart people worldwide. Most tech companies have a lot of cash. So, how is it that very smart people with a lot of money produce so many unmemorable and even bad products?
To understand, we have to examine how product development works in big tech environments . I have lead product development for many goods in the tech world. Let me take you behind the scenes.
In any big organization, division of labor is in full force. Marketing and engineering are the two main groups involved in product development. To get started, someone in the marketing group writes a document called an MRD - Marketing Requirements Document. This document is supposed to show what the market needs are and what customers want. Someone on the engineering team converts the MRD into a PRD – Product Requirements Document. This document is supposed to have the product features, timelines, cost, etc. to show how engineering will create the product to meet the market needs. To make it all work a project manager or program manager (PM) is assigned to launch the product. The program manager measures three things:
1. Product Features
2. Deadlines (time)
3. Budget (money)
Are you confused yet – MRD, PRD, PM?
A lot gets lost in translation between the marketing and the engineering teams. Feature specifications, time, and money are all estimates in both documents. Marketing teams often put in as many features as they can think of, without any reason to include them other than to avoid being blamed for missing out on customer needs. I know people people who have never met a customer and who have written market requirements. The engineering team certainly doesn’t meet the customer and they interpret marketing’s ideas through a technical lens. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding has already begun.
|Amazon Kindle Fire Smartphone- Do you know anyone who has one?|
There is quite a wide variation in terminology depending on whether the tech company is making hardware, software, or both. The basic process is the same, though. Someone captures what the market needs and someone else figures out what the company can deliver. How that happens varies widely as well. In all cases, what is measured by the PM is Product features, time, and money. I have never seen everything run according to the plan. What happens when the plan isn’t met? Most people are reasonable so they make compromises to meet money, time, and product feature targets. Incentive plans in big organizations are based on meeting targets so people work toward that. You can meet all the product features, time, and money targets and still produce a bad product. Which happens often. Look at Samsung Gear, a Smart watch. It has all the features, it came out on time and still nobody is buying it because it is aesthetically unpleasant and difficult to use. Or, the Amazon Kindle Fire phone. All the features in the world. Came out when the company wanted it to. And, even with an almost unlimited marketing budget, a huge built-in customer-base and Amazon virtually giving it way, it has very few adopters. Why? It’s a product that fulfills Amazon’s needs, but not their customers’.
|Samsung Gear - Searching for a market|
To resolve the product mediocrity disconnect, the new thing in big organizations is innovation teams. These team members are supposed to be creative thinkers, have empathy for consumers, have the freedom to dream up new products and are not bound by quarterly revenue targets. Sounds like a good idea? Sadly, it never works. People on these teams do not understand the company’s products and the company’s core-competencies. They are hired from the outside and kind of remain outside the company. They think the answer to everything is post-it notes and design thinking. The product teams never listen to them because of they perceive the innovation team as lacking depth and understanding of their company’s products and customers. The innovation teams remain in their bubble and make fancy presentations for the executives, but have little to no impact on the ultimate product development.
|What if any of this worked?|
Unless you have someone like Steve Jobs who is obsessed with design and the User Experience, the product you get is a sum of compromises. It is a measurement problem. People measure the number of features, deadlines, and budget. Nobody measures the User Experience (UX). How do you measure UX? It is really hard to do. It is similar to the “what is good art” debate. The best way to measure UX is to do a lot of usability testing with the users. Observe their reactions, their emotions, their body language. Ask the right questions. Find harmony amongst aesthetics, intuitiveness, and function. You can’t squeeze UX into a feature-set. Test, Observe, and Iterate has to be the approach.
Excellent products are almost always a result of the vision of one person and not a compromise of many people. Tesla, which is a car company, but considered a tech company in the Silicon Valley, has an autocratic CEO, Elon Musk, who, like Steve Jobs, dictates the UX. Both the iPhone and the Tesla are category defining products. People stand in lines, or wait for months to get these beautiful, useful, ground-breaking, delight-inducing products.
Whoever is responsible for product development has to dictate the UX and try different iterations of the product internally before the product is launched in the market. The fashion industry is dependent on producing many, many new products every year. All the clothing and accessories you see are ultimately the vision of a single designer. Designers try a lot of designs and only some of them become appealing to the users. I realize that it is hard to do this in the tech world given the enormous costs of developing hardware and software. However, this philosophy of the product being the vision of one person and trying different iterations can and should be applied to tech to create superior products that the market and customers so desperately crave.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com on November 12th, 2014.