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Beyond Faster Horses

I once believed that I wanted more Star Wars films to be made (note: I am, of course, a huge nerd1). I was not happy with the Star Wars film that I eventually received in the summer of 1999 — known in my circle as “The Menace That Shall Not Be Named.” Most of my demographic segment have an attachment to the original Star Wars films that borders on unhealthy, as we saw those films during a part of our pre-adolescence during which the style, tone, and content are maximally impactful. What I wanted was to be five years old again, awed by cinematic spectacle and inspired by uncomplicated heroism. To ask a film to take me to this place again as an adult was admittedly a tall order (it does not help that the prequel films are awful, a note that I cannot resist adding here).

New Coke, Heinz’s EZ Squirt green ketchup, and the McDonald’s Arch Deluxe burger are well-known examples of consumer product failures that arose from research into consumer preferences and interviews with target consumers. Software suffers from a similar problem, as end users crave familiarity in their expressed preferences but find the delivery of that content or experience uninspiring. In the design world, many practitioners go so far as to assert that listening to users directly is a practice that all but guarantees failure. The reason being that it is difficult for users to accurately express insight into their own experiences and to divorce their actual preferences from the preferences that they wish to express in front of others. Few of us would admits publicly to watching “Amish Mafia”, but the show has had four seasons (note: I do not watch “Amish Mafia”2).

This is not a call for all of us to stop listening to our customers, far from it. However, there can be a broad gap between the stated end-user preferences, such as “just make it work exactly like it did before” and the actual end-user performance and experience. Measuring end-user engagement and task completion with software interfaces is critical for arriving at objective assessments of usability and capability, not just using interviews and ad hoc feedback to drive design. The counterexample that illustrates this principle is the extermination of physical keyboards on mobile phones driven by the iPhone’s introduction in 2007. Although many end users expressed strong preferences for a physical keyboard, the industrial design and performance of full-screen touch interfaces is clearly superior for apps (and arguably for messaging). Or as I sometimes like to daydream of Henry Ford lamenting: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Innovators hear the desire for the faster horse and think about how to fulfill this wish in a better way.

1 I have, as an adult, watched the entire Star Wars Holiday Special (look it up if you dare).

2 I do not watch it, but I would Executive Produce the show out of my own pocket if the Star Wars prequels could vanish from existence.

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