Beware of blind elitism

The normals, lusers, fly-over country, red states, joe six-pack: all those terms are often used in a derogatory fashion by many in the technology industry. I look at them in another way: they are potential customers and one should not dismiss them because they are not as bleeding edge as we are.

You are not Steve Jobs

One of the biggest danger to a company can be in taking an elitist attitude towards users. Many people in our industry feel that they know better than most users because they are using the latest technology. And way too many people believe that they are following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs who, according to legend, dismissed consumers wants and needs to supersede them and offer superior products.

Well, first a news flash: Steve Jobs had his ear to the ground like few others: he listened carefully, looked at how the competition entered markets and failed, analyzed what had not resonated with the customer and focused to fill that need. Take any of the products he produced in the last 15 years of his life (roughly, the years after his return to Apple) and you will notice a simple pattern: Apple entered a market after many had failed in that market already.

That was the case with portable music players (the iPod was only introduced after many MP3 players failed to capture the imagination of consumers), online music stores (there were at least half a dozen digital track sellers in existence before iTunes got into the space), smartphones (Nokia, Palm, Microsoft, and RIM had tried to crack that market for over a decade by the time the iPhone was introduced), tablets (Microsoft had failed at getting support for its vision of a tablet computer for over 5 years by the time the iPad was introduced). The real genius of Steve Jobs was in analyzing those areas and seeing what resonated and what didn’t with the consumer. To create tools that are intuitive to use and do not require a manual (when was the last time you actually read a manual for an Apple product?)

However, many people have confused Steve Jobs not using focus groups or the limited data set of what competitors had done with a wholesale rejection of what consumer wanted. The net result was the same people started feeling that they might know better than the consumer and build tools without looking at how markets evolved. When luck favored them, the tools would get support but more often than not, the companies and products built around that mindset would die a relatively quiet death.

Two warning tales

Unfortunately, as the reputation bubble started to inflate, some creators started feeling they understood what they were doing better than their customers. Witness this week’s purchase of Digg as a cautionary tale of where such belief can lead: Digg was once the leader in social news. A pioneer in the field, the site managed to get large audience to share links in a fashion not dissimilar to what one sees on today’s Facebook stream. The company raised large amounts of money but as other social sites arrived, it had difficulties growing. So the management decided to redesign the whole site, front and back. After building a couple of internal versions, they released it to their customers… and the customers hated it. But instead of listening to customers, the company decided to stick with what it had, and saw its loss of customers increase over the years. This week, the company was sold for somewhere about half of what it raised in its last round.

This week, the founder of Blurity put together an outstanding post on how failing to use Internet Explorer almost cost him his business. It’s a heart-breaking tale because it shows how a simple step can hurt a whole lot (I know many would fault me for doing the same on but the design decision of not supporting older internet explorer browsers was based on analytics data that showed me that only 5% of my overall audience was using those).

The machine approach

A few years ago, Douglas Bowman announced that he was stepping down from his job as head designer at Google. One might think that such a gig would be the height of achievements but Doug pointed out that his job was basically to compete with the wisdom of computer driven models:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

Google’s engineering reliance has worked well for it in terms of maximizing the revenue generated from clicking on a link and I’m sure it’s made a lot of their products more usable but it has not done much in terms of helping users form attachment to their offerings. While Apple products have a sense of completeness and polish, the same cannot be said of Google products: its offerings do feel functional but there’s something cold and distant about the interaction on their tools and devices.

Don’t be what you measure

One may look at the Google approach as radically different as they listened to their customers by just looking at the data. After all, how could millions or billions of clicks could be wrong.

The truth is that one has to take in inputs at both a micro and a macro level in order to design breakthrough products. In almost 20 years in the internet industry, I’ve learned to take a long view and base it on trends that may take years to emerge (this is why many look to me as one of the most on-key contrarian as I tend to take views that are unpopular in the short run (1-3 years) and accepted as common knowledge in the long run). Learn to study history as well as look at the current trends and talk to individuals, no matter who they are.

During my years on Wall Street, I learned a lot from watching Sir John Bond, one of the best manager I ever encountered: While he was running one of the top corporations in the world, his view was that he should meet with a customer on a daily basis and he would follow up by meeting customers from all ranges in order to get information about what was working and what wasn’t working with different aspects of the 2nd largest financial firm in the world. This would find him talking to retail customers as well as heads of Fortune 100s on a daily basis and allowed him to get a better grasp of how things ought to run.

An analog approach to this in the tech world is to walk in the shoes of a regular consumer for a few hours. Keep an open mind and try navigating your offering (or your competitors’) on any device out there instead of just focusing on an iPhone or an Ipad. How does it feel to use a Kindle Fire? How about a Windows Phone? or an old, not updated Droid (I’ve been amazed by the number of regular people who don’t update or have auto-update turned on). The experience will be humbling (it’s amazing how frustrating it can be to use certain devices when they are not up to date) and may inform you in the way in informed Jeff Keacher at Blurity.

Not using iOS or Android doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Using Internet Explorer instead of Chrome or Safari doesn’t mean you don’t want to spend money with the coolest service. Preferring email and Facebook to Twitter and Instagram has no impact on how much you can spend on something new. By looking down on users in any of those categories, you may be chasing potentially lucrative customers away.

At the end of the day, every user that tries to connect with your product should be grouped in one of two categories: people who purchase stuff from you today, and people who may purchase stuff from you in the future. Any other classification is useless to business growth.

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