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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Innovate, one step at a time

I believe most things run in cycles: the economy, the stock market, fashion, moral codes, even one’s own personal status and influence (your personal "stock price," so to speak)—sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. The past couple of years have been particularly harsh in reinforcing a history lesson for us: when the pendulum swings very hard and far in one direction, it will most assuredly swing just as decisively in the other eventually.

During recessions, uncertainty prevails, and like a driver trying to weave his way along a mountain road in heavy fog, many businesspeople eventually tire and just pull their businesses over to what seems like a safe embankment, turn off their engines of innovation and progress, and wait for the fog to lift. But how long can one afford to sit on the roadside? At what point does it become riskier to do nothing than to proceed with caution? One has to wonder if there’s a better way, a way to keep moving forward in measured, confident increments, rather than eventually creating an additional element of uncertainty by deferring innovation altogether.

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Reconciling market segments and personas

Market segmentation and personas are two different techniques that are often perceived as conflicting methods, but they are actually complementary tools that organizations can use to design and sell successful products.

The value of market segmentation

The marketing profession has taken much of the guesswork out of determining what motivates people to buy. One of the most powerful tools for doing so is market segmentation, which groups people by their distinct needs to determine what types of consumers will be most receptive to a particular product or marketing message. These groups form a consumer model.

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A breath of fresh air

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have never seen a wrench or a screwdriver you will have a hard time seeing what you need, even once you discover that your hammer does not work very well on bolts or screws. This makes it hard to break away from tools that do not serve you. Under pressure, companies tend to fall back upon what they know, so they often end up trying to solve problems with the same tools that got them into trouble in the first place. When this tactic threatens to choke an organization, we call it "breathing your own exhaust."

Right now, many companies see an opportunity to approach product creation from a fresh perspective. With the frenzied dot-com "business model" no longer a distraction, and the recession apparently easing, these companies are looking for ways to benefit from their painful experiences and create a better crop of products and services. They want to nurture customer loyalty by building products that please their customers, rather than following fads or stacking up long lists of features that no one really wants. Everyone knows pleasing customers is the right thing to do, but how do you really do it?

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5 insights for improving product development cycle success

In my article last month, Innovate, one step at a time, I discussed how the process of innovation easily derails during difficult economic times, such as today’s. When creating software and digital products, innovation typically spans many months, and it can become disrupted by unobservable or frequently changing business conditions that make it extremely difficult to form and evaluate viable options. When people can’t see where they’re going, they typically just stop. This is tragic with respect to innovation, since it is innovation that propels business and society forward.

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Goal-directed content management

A year ago, most software industry analysts were predicting that Content Management (CM) was going to be the hot sector this year. Unfortunately, sales for most CM software providers are not meeting expectations, and even CM insiders are suggesting that the cause could be a growing disappointment with CM implementation results. Anecdotal evidence from within the CM industry indicates that CM implementations fail to meet corporate expectations about half of the time.

Part of the reason for missed expectations could be poor usability. Forrester Research recently released a research paper on the subject: "Packaged Apps Fail The Usability Test." In it, they don’t name the vendors, but they rate the usability of two popular CM systems. Both rated very poorly. Forrester’s conclusion is that much better design is needed to win user adoption and higher rates of corporate satisfaction.

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Don’t get burned by bad mapping

Have you ever tried to use a kitchen stove and ended up turning the wrong burner on by mistake? Yeah, us too. Just about everyone who cooks has run into this minor annoyance at some point in their life, if not repeatedly. So what do naughty stoves have to do with software? You may be surprised to learn that your digital products may suffer from the same fundamental problem that makes these stoves annoying and counterintuitive.

The problem with these stoves is poor or unnatural mapping. The term mapping describes the relationship between a control, the thing it affects, and the intended result. Poor mapping is evident when a control does not relate visually or symbolically with the object it affects, requiring the user to stop and think, "what’s going to happen when I turn this knob?"

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