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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Product complexity driving you crazy? learn where to cut.

All other things being equal, the more complex your product is, the harder it will be to use. And the harder your product is to use, the more your customers will rely on your technical support department, which tends to increase your costs and decrease your customers’ overall satisfaction with the product. The good news is that one of the most simple and effective ways to reduce complexity is to cut unnecessary features from your product. But how do you know which features to cut?

Well, it’s not easy. Marketing wants a feature that one of your competitors has so they can cook up one of those bulleted feature comparison charts. The engineers have an idea for a feature that they think is really interesting, and one of them spent the entire weekend coding it. And then there’s the "squeaky wheel" customer in Arizona that wants a particular esoteric feature that no one else seems to care about…

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Managing the risk in digital customer touch-points

Are your customers getting a helping hand or the cold shoulder?

The great thing about big American businesses is that they give us many of the stories that become the fabric of our lives. Frankly, we’d rather not endure the circumstances that result in the stories, but like train wrecks and tornados, they are entirely unforgettable and we talk about them for years. I’m talking about customer service horror stories, of course.

We all have many of them. The stories get particularly interesting when they relate to monopolies or near monopolies, otherwise known as oligopolies. Why? Because any interactions we have with such firms are biased from the get-go by the distrust we have for important players in our lives over whom we have little influence and control. We feel victimized before we even pick up the phone to attempt to do business with them. From their business perspectives, this should present them with an interesting challenge: how do we make our customers trust and love us, so that they won’t find ways to live without us? Unfortunately, such firms rarely seem to rise to the challenge.

A good example would be a very unpleasant run-in I had recently with my oligopolist ISP (Internet Service Provider). The setup for the story is that I moved about six months ago. I called my ISP during the move to have them disconnect DSL at my old address and transfer it to my new address-simple enough. Six months later, still no DSL; however, my credit card bill continues to be charged. I decided to give them a call, but having already called them three times previously in recent months, it’s fair to say I was already not in the best of moods and pessimistic about the quality of service I would receive. Suffice it to say that they lived down to my expectations. The customer service interactions went like this:

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Bridging the gap with requirements definition

Developing a new product or service is tricky. When everything goes well, the product can redefine a market or even create an entirely new one, to the benefit of its manufacturer and its consumers. When the product doesn’t click with its audience, though, the costs—development, employee, manufacturing—can be staggering. How do you ensure that your new product doesn’t flop? One effective method is to conduct a requirements definition phase before developing a new product.

Requirements definition simply means "figuring out what to make before you make it." This process is not unique to software products. Architects, for instance, go through a requirements definition phase before they start construction on a home. They talk to the future home owner and determine how many floors and rooms will be in the house, where the bedroom should be, if there’s a deck, and so on. Similarly, in the product development world, requirements definition enables you to make appropriate decisions about the functionality and design of a product before you invest time and money developing it. By bridging the gap between the needs of the market and those of your organization, requirements definition significantly reduces guesswork in technology product planning, and helps ensure that business and engineering are working on the same product.

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Learning from the mistakes of internet banks

Retail banks are realizing that Internet banking is not living up to the hype that surrounded it a few years ago. At that time, analysts predicted that demand would follow the trends in general Internet usage and grow to hundreds of millions of users by the middle of this decade. Some brave entrepreneurs were even betting that the age of the branch-based deposit institution was over, and that upstart "Internet-only" banks would be able to capitalize on hot new technology to steal all the customers. Yet adoption rates are low, and customer interest is flagging. Why? Online banking is a good example of how bricks-and-mortar institutions can stumble when they try to solve new economy problems with old world approaches.

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In telematics, no technology is a panacea

The buzz in the telematics industry lately is centered around why it’s not living up to expectations. Ford and Qualcomm recently ended their multi-million dollar telematics joint venture called Wingcast, which was one of the major players in the industry. Two years ago, projections for the telematics market in 2010 were in the $40 billion range; newer studies now put that amount closer to $20 billion. Telematics suppliers are cutting staff, and automotive manufacturers are scaling back telematics initiatives. So what’s the problem?

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