Tuesday, February 21, 2006

When adding a new portable to my home network I again realized how wide the gap is between technically unchallenged people and the rest of the world. As a technical person, I sometimes have this snug feeling of superiority because I can get things to work that the rest of the world can only look at in bewilderment. I gladly accept the compliments of our partner when we fixed the PC or connected the new stereo, as if I deserve it. When I look around, I see that many colleagues are similar.

However, sometimes I wonder if our skills are not blinding us from the complexity we put on the rest of the world. And this is not because we are so clever and our users are not, it is actually often the other way around. Users are often too clever to learn unnecessary details and complexities, they just refuse to bring up the patience.

Why is it that the whole consumer industry has been incapable of creating a viable alternative to the iPod, over a period of three years? Why do I still notice, at the worst possible moments, that my address book in my phone is not synchronized? Why does connecting a new PC to the network in a secure way feels like rocket science?

I think a reason is that technical people are not bothered with complexity, we usually do not even notice it, and often thrive on it. A friend of mine is getting started with Java and I am helping him out. Teaching him Java confronts me with the complexity that I no longer notice. It is frightening to see how complicated Java has become over the past 10 years.

I think this complexity in software development is inevitable. However, by being used to a highly abstract and complex world we sometimes do not realize how simplistic the services are that people really like and pay for. For example, a service like “Push to Talk” looks like nothing special but made a huge difference for customers and the Nextel’s bottom line. Another example is how Ericsson has made billions selling business phone systems where the primary function was to provide 3 digit short numbers instead of the normal numbers.

However, we do not have to take the full blame, in most companies the feature set of products is defined by marketing. They are in charge of the product definitions. Marketing people always love simplicity because it makes the feature list longer! However, too many features do not only make a product harder to use, they also make the product harder to develop.

This also points some of the blame to the end users themselves. Cost is the single most important aspect that people use to compare products. I can understand this, because most products are so complex that a reasonable comparison is only possible after a detailed study. And who has time for that? Except when a product is really easy to use, the market recognizes this and rewards the manufacturer with a high profit margin, see the iPod as a prime example.

So how can we build simpler products? Not every company has a Steve Jobs that uniquely combines a deep understanding (and control) of management, marketing, technology, and most important, the requirement for simplicity.

Therefore, management has to become aware that quality costs but that this cost can also result in higher profits. Marketing must realize a short feature list where all features work as advertises is better than a long feature list with a lot of cruft. We technicians can help by never underestimating the patience of our end-users to figure out our products.

Peter Kriens
OSGi Evangelist

1 comment:

  1. your links on bloglines dont work. its a pain to have insert /blog/ in the middle every time...