What we can learn from the fender stratocaster

I must admit I’m not terribly impressed by the quality of today’s software—my benchmark for good product design isn’t defined by the output of Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or other respected software companies. Those companies produce some good work, of course, but the software industry, though no longer in its infancy, still seems to be working through its gawky adolescent stage. So, when I think about high quality products, I think of BMW automobiles, Eames furniture, and the Fender Stratocaster guitar.

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Perfecting your personas

A persona is a user archetype you can use to help guide decisions about product features, navigation, interactions, and even visual design. By designing for the archetype—whose goals and behavior patterns are well understood—you can satisfy the broader group of people represented by that archetype. In most cases, personas are synthesized from a series of ethnographic interviews with real people, then captured in 1-2 page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life. For each product, or sometimes for each set of tools within a product, there is a small set of personas, one of whom is the primary focus for the design.

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Putting people together to create new products

When companies plan out a new product (or service, or business process) they often think of the effort as the coordination of two teams solving different problems. Engineering addresses the question "what can you make?" Marketing addresses the question "what can you sell?"

You could engineer a combined toaster and cell phone, but you could never sell it. Marketing would tell you that you have a product no customer would buy. Likewise, you might successfully market a car that runs on tapwater, but the impossibility of building one makes it a meaningless product idea. Smart organizations know that they need to combine the insights from both marketing and engineering to find products that they can both make and sell.

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Making use of user research

Designing or redesigning a product often feels like a risky proposition, especially in today’s business climate. Those responsible for defining the product offering and marketing want reliable, measurable data to define success both incrementally and overall.

Hard data helps us make choices about where to spend resources, but placing a product under the microscope every step of the way can also introduce as many opportunities for error as it avoids. By focusing on how a product performs in the lab without broader knowledge of the user’s environment and goals, measurement alone may be misleading. To get the most value and meaning out of user feedback it is important to choose the appropriate method for conducting and analyzing user research.

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Navigating isn’t fun

The artless Websites created during the Web’s infancy were of necessity built only with simple HTML tags, and were forced to divide up their functionality and content into a maze (a web?) of separate pages. This made a navigation scheme an unavoidable component of any Website design, and of course, a clear, visually arresting navigation scheme was better than an obscure or hidden one. But many Web designers have incorrectly deduced from this that users want navigation schemes. Actually, they’d be happy if there were no navigation at all.

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Always have a backup plan

I’ve been thinking about how things can go wrong lately.

At Cooper, we have a design principle that suggests that designers should "hide the ejector seat levers," meaning: make sure users can’t inadvertently cause their software to fail. By the same token, we also encourage designers to "make errors impossible" by designing software that anticipates the actions of its users.

Nevertheless, things will go wrong. By anticipating failures, and designing backup plans like those described below, you can minimize the impact of unexpected problems on the user.

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Three traps

We talk to a lot of technology companies here at Cooper, and over the years we’ve seen some clear patterns emerge. On the positive side, more and more companies are realizing the importance of a good user experience and of the overall usability of their products. Unfortunately, we also continue to see companies falling into the same product development traps, to the detriment of their products, their customers, and their business.

These traps can be hard to spot, because they often appear to be standard business practices (especially when the company has never done it any other way), but when you take a step back you see that those practices really don’t make much sense. If you have the nagging feeling that there’s something not quite right with your product development initiative, it may be because you’re falling into one of these traps. To help you recognize bad practices and work to avoid them, here are three common development pitfalls.

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Content management systems: Don’t automate the misery

Organizations of every size are attempting to get a handle on their content generation, management, and publishing systems. This trend toward business process re-engineering (BPR) of content management is largely the result of an outsized proliferation of Web pages, intranet sites, and electronic communications strategies adopted by organizations, their partners, and customers.

Sadly, few organizations have seen much good come of content-management BPR initiatives so far. Of the many reasons for these failures, one stands out: these BPR initiatives—and the systems they spawn—are focused on realizing organizational objectives without sufficient regard for the context, habits, and goals of the people who will actually use the system. These new technology solutions are intended to create efficiencies, but they actually prevent people from achieving their objectives, which generally have to do with reducing hassle and ensuring their own personal effectiveness.

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The high risk of low-risk behavior

"Necessity is the mother of taking chances."
-Mark Twain

Occasionally I encounter a motorist on the highway who is driving very slowly, some 20 miles per hour slower than the flow of traffic. This driver undoubtedly believes himself to be driving in a reasonable manner, equating his slow speed with safety. Unfortunately, he fails to recognize the greater risk of a much faster car plowing into him from behind. His slow speed has made his car into a barrier rather than part of the traffic flow, and yet he cruises on, oblivious to the squealing tires and honking horns directly behind him.

Is this really a safe practice? Not on the highways in Silicon Valley.

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Bridging the gap between design and engineering cultures

A few years ago I conducted a workshop on ethnographic mapping methods with a Pueblo community in the Southwest. While I wasn’t familiar with Pueblo cultures, I had heard they were rigorously private. For example, I was asked not to discuss the specific details of the Pueblo’s history or personal stories—normally a key topic in the workshop.

Despite these precautions, I was surprised when the group seemed unimpressed by the exercises in the workshop. They were often hesitant to participate, especially in the exercises that focused on developing skills for mapping personal stories, historical accounts, and cultural data. I was told, instead, that they were not prepared to talk about these things in the presence of outsiders—meaning myself and some other attendees from a nearby Pueblo. Instead, they asked for handouts.

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