Essentially if all we as software engineers and product designers did was consult users on product design it would all be regurgitated shit. The brilliance comes in giving people what they don’t know they want. This is where the problem lies and opportunity lurks, great design is hard, innovation is even harder.

Alex Limi wrote in Checkboxes that kill your product:

Design by committee often looks like a row of checkboxes.

It’s a discussion of adding features, appeasing users, and product design.

Jony Ive, Apple design chief about consulting users:[1]

“We don’t do market research… It will guarantee mediocrity and will only work out whether you are going to offend anyone.”

Steve Jobs has famously said “Skate to where the puck is going to be.” Of course, why would you skate to where it was - it’s obvious. Applying this logic to existing apps, industries, or research is not so easy. If it was you’d just hire the local consumer research firm, ask people what they want, and then go build it.[2]

Scratching an Itch Product Design

I built Jottpad to solve a problem my wife and I were having. I was the user. I knew exactly what I needed. The hope was in solving a problem for myself other people would want the same solution.

Problems and in particular small focused problems have built huge businesses. The key is identifying and solving in a thoughtful, easy to use and understand way.

Michael Jurewitz writes Focus on the User:

Focus on the user. Focus on their life, their problems, and how you are helping them.

Dropbox, also famously called “A Feature” by Mr. Jobs, took the cloud storage conundrum and essentially solved it. It wasn’t because they had the best technology although that was essential. The idea of a single folder that syncs everywhere was immediately understood by anybody. Other solutions might have had more options, better engineering, etc…. but Dropbox built what people could use and understand and it just worked. The co-founder of Syncplicity had this to say about losing to Dropbox.

In the end, it really came down to one incredibly genius idea: Dropbox limited its feature set on purpose. It had one folder and that folder always synced without any issues – it was magic. Syncplicity could sync every folder on your computer until you hit our quota. (Unfortunately, that feature was used to synchronize C:\Windows\ for dozens of users – doh!) Our company had too many features and this created confusion amongst our customer base. This in turn led to enough customer support issues that we couldn’t innovate on the product, we were too busy fixing things.

Instapaper solves a problem a lot of people have, but I don’t think at the time Marco created it a poll of people on the subway would have uncovered the problem he was solving. Marco even says his original idea was to save for later and then print out the articles for reading offline.

Clear redefined the interaction with a todo app. It doesn’t have the most features, in fact it has almost none. What they did was make user interaction fun and that hook keeps people coming back for more.

Solving your own problems or observed problems of others in a simple, elegant way is not cheating, not many of us will ever come up with a product that creates a market.

Creating a Market

Another class of product comes out of nowhere, there is no market, nobody “wanted” this, in fact nobody even knows what they’ll do with it - but it worms a way into our lives.

Twitter - “What are you doing.” Narcissism breeds a huge social network.

iPhone - “Why do I need this $500 phone.” Well you don’t, until you do. I don’t think the majority of us could justify that we actually need an iPhone but prying it out of your hands after you’ve grown accustomed to the way it makes your life better… I’d put quitting the iPhone on par with quitting smoking.

Solve a Problem, Focus on the User

Solving an existing problem is not cheating. Creating something out of nothing is incredibly hard. In either case it’s always about creating a compelling, user-focused solution to known or unknown problems.

  1. Quote from this article - Jonathan Ive: Apple’s goal isn’t to make money  ↩

  2. This sort of research is useful for product alphas and testing. Developing in a complete vacuum is usually an arduous task.  ↩

AuthorRichard Hochstetler